Posts Tagged ‘Protecting Children and the Vulnerable’

GONE FISHIN!

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

It is that wonderful time of the year again when I can find some time to get away, rest and relax. This year, for the first time in my episcopal ministry, I will be taking the whole month of July. There is nothing to be done, places to visit, just pure rest and relaxation. The pastor of the parish where I am visiting is alone so I will be helping in his parish on Sundays starting a week from today and since he takes two weeks himself each year in the middle of July but has had the custom of returning for the three week-end Masses, thereby interrupting his time away, I will cover for him the week-end of July 16/17 giving him for the first time two weeks away. While I like to keep the location in the US where I am vacationing a secret, I can tell you that under cloudless blue skies yesterday the high reached a whopping 77 degrees and the low last night, my first here, was 57, necessitating a blanket (my hosts had to explain to me what a”blanket” is!). The diocese is never out of my thoughts and you are never out of my prayers.

A month ago I wrote a letter which was distributed in the parishes about the diocese’s history since 1991 in dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct against minors, our process and its procedures. The letter has been very well received and the feedback overwhelmingly positive. However, two people very respectfully asked for a clarification of the statement that we have not used Annual Pastoral Appeal monies to pay the costs of dealing with these sad issues. I reaffirm that the statement is correct but it does raise the question as to whence do the monies come if not from the people. At no time did I ever mean to imply that monies used for this purpose comes from anywhere other than the parishes and, therefore, the people. Every parish and institution in the diocese is “taxed” or “assessed” for certain things which are not directly related to pastoral programs which the APA funds. For example, parishes and schools pay a significant amount each year for the health and welfare costs of their employees, likewise for unemployment compensation insurance and pension fund contributions. All of that is deducted mainly from offertory contributions. A fourth and final category of parish and parishioner support is for “Property and Liability Insurance.” We maintain a reserve here to cover some deductibles and catastrophic losses due to hurricanes and storm damage, legal claims and settlements for things like “slip and falls”, fires, etc. We have dipped occasionally and as needed into this reserve to pay what we identified as the costs associated with the diocese’s history of settling with victims in the hope of giving them some sense of pastoral care and solicitude for the immense harm done to them. Anticipating the next question which likely is, “well, has the diocese raised its tax against the parishes to build up this reserve” and the answer is in the negative. From time to time our Property and Liability Insurer, Catholic Mutual, has raised premiums against the parishes and institutions because either the property is seen to have increased in value or risk but this has nothing to do with sexual misconduct claims and payments. So, yes, parishes and parishioners as well as high schools and other diocesan institutions have been the ultimate source of these funds but that fact has not impacted the assessment parishes have been paying because we have had the funds in reserve. I hope this is helpful.

So, the fish are calling and I will sign off, not to be heard from again until sometime in early August. May the Lord spare us storms this hurricane season and may each reader also have an opportunity at some rest and relaxation from the normal. God Bless.

+RNL

 

DEVOTEDLY YOURS TOO – 40,000 FEET

Friday, June 17th, 2011

Hearkening back to my blog entry on the way to Seattle I find myself once again on United, flying over one of those big square states that all look alike between Colorado and the Mississippi River. Our bishops meeting in Seattle ended one hour later than scheduled last night in Bellevue, Washington with a very long Executive Session. The public agenda was very light as I have previously indicated and pretty much devoid of disagreement as I have noted already.

There is a short, succinct statement of the bishops on the matter of Physician Assisted Suicide which can be read on the USCCB website by clicking here. I found it interesting that the site of the acceptance of the document happened in a state (and along with its neighbor Oregon) which allows for it legally and that it follows closely the death of Dr. Jack Kevorkian a few days ago – probably the most famous and fatal administrator of assisted suicide in the history of this nation.

Attention was given to fixing some things in the Dallas Charter for another two years before it will once again be revisited and reexamined. I know that some people, particularly victims and groups representing them believe that there are large lacuna in the charter and things which the bishops do not wish to change. Personally, as I have written earlier this week in the ST. PETERSBURG TIMES, I recognize that the Charter is not a perfect roadmap to complete and total child safety but its efficacy can be seen in the radical drop in new reports of sexual misconduct against minors by priests and other Church employees. In our area of the country, our diocese, you have not had a reported instance after 1995 and contrast that with the instances in the five county public school districts and other organizations dealing with kids.

Our Diocese will be audited under some new rules as well as under some previous rules in October of this year. There is a new auditing firm. They do what are called compliance audits to make sure you are doing precisely what you promised to do. My staff and I welcome this visit and are prepared to tell them that there have been no complaints against priests, religious, volunteers, staff, faculty or volunteers during the period of the audit.

The bishops did agree to start implementing the music attached to the new Mass translations which will be used throughout the Liturgy on the First Sunday of Advent this year, so we will begin to sing the Gloria and the Agnus Dei in English using the new translation in our parishes beginning in September. I need to consult with the staff of my Worship Office to find out how best to accomplish this, so stay tuned here for more information as it becomes available.

Bishops’ meetings are opportunities to spend time with old friends, from the staff of the Conference as well as with brother bishops. This meeting marked the 51st General Meeting I have attended, either as staff (22) or as a bishop (29). My good friend Bishop Paul Etienne of Cheyenne, Wyoming, boarded the flight with me in Denver last Sunday and we spent Monday on Puget Sound and celebrated his birthday on the 15th.

What is always hard for me is that the membership of the episcopal conference is about eighty per cent new since I left the Conference’s employ and became a bishop myself. Faces that I could recognize in a nano-second are no longer present and the new faces one does not see often enough to etch them in memory. The outgoing General Secretary paid a nice but unnecessary compliment to me in his farewell speech and now I shall miss him unless and until he returns as a member.

Finally, they almost all want to come back to St. Petersburg for a meeting and soon. They loved the Vinoy, the waterfront, the gelateria on Beach Drive, the walks to Albert Whitted Airport and the Rays baseball games. I told them, you had better hurry, and the clock is ticking quickly on my time. I was happy they loved our area so much. Also the Bethany Center gets brought up often as a destination of choice for retreats and meetings. So we may not have Mt. Rainer (saw it for the first time this morning in all its glory) or Puget Sound or a seafood store where the employees toss salmon at you but we do have things which give birth to good memories. I will be glad when in one hour I step forth at TIA once again and am back with those I love.

+RNL

DEVOTEDLY YOURS

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Archbishop Edward A. McCarthy, then the second Archbishop of Miami, ordained me a priest. He was an incredibly fine man, almost a kindly uncle to me and to most of the other priests in the Archdiocese. His primary way of communicating with the people of the Archdiocese was through an occasional column in THE VOICE  (the weekly Archdiocesan newspaper)and later the FLORIDA CATHOLIC which he entitled “Devotedly Yours”. Every time it would show up, we knew the Archbishop was writing at “altitude” or above 30,000 feet on an airplane going to someplace or coming home. Laptops were not available in those days so the Archbishop would take out a brown pen and write on the back of the air-sickness bag, a piece of hotel stationary – anything he could get his hands on and his wonderful secretary would transcribe it on a typewriter prior to submission for publication. Priests can sometimes be quite “catty” and occasionally when someone would read one of his “Devotedly Yours” columns, some crack would be made about a lack of oxygen at altitude. But those columns were very personal and one never had to struggle to discern what the great man meant.

Well, I am tonight at altitude, on board a small United Airline plane bound first for Denver and then I must switch to their fiancée in the airline business, Continental for the remainder of the trip to Seattle. Having left Tampa on Pentecost night at 710pm EDT, I will arrive Seattle at 235am EDT (1135pm PDT) and probably climb into my Hyatt hotel bed about 4 am by my body time. The Catholic bishops of the United States are holding their spring meeting this month in Seattle. You may recall that last June they held a longer assembly in St. Petersburg which they loved enough to talk about coming back again. How I wish I could once again drive down the street for twenty minutes to attend the meeting.

The actual meeting begins on Wednesday morning and ends on Friday evening but I must leave Seattle at 545am on Friday to return for the celebration of a “Blue Mass” for policemen and firemen on Saturday morning and the second and last wedding of my summer later Saturday. On Tuesday, however, the Search Committee on which I serve for a new CEO/President for Catholic Relief Services will present two candidates to the CRS Board of Directors for their ultimate decision. I am no longer able to fly coast to coast and start a meeting the next morning without some kind of rest day in between. How I hate being 70 (except that on Saturday I was called for Jury Duty in Pinellas County and discovered that if you are over seventy you do not have to serve – the first “bene” from being ancient!)

On these two very long westbound flights I have been able to read the documentation, which precedes each meeting. The most important thing I find on the public agenda is a discussion of the Dallas Charter, which was passed in 2002, and deals with how the Church will handle accusations of sexual misconduct with a minor or vulnerable adult. I have written an “Op-Ed” piece at the invitation of the editorial board of the St. Petersburg Times for today’s paper in which I outline the experience in our diocese in the last ten years. It is possible that this agenda item will receive more than its share of media attention this week, but reading the changes, which are being recommended to the bishops to me indicates that there will not be a wholesale re-working of the Charter but some tightening up and tweaking. There will be a first discussion of a new document of the Conference on physician-assisted suicide entitled “To Live Each Day With Dignity, another seeking permission to develop a document on preaching, and some liturgical matters all dealing with the liturgy in Spanish. Once again it is not a particularly heavy or burdensome agenda.

So as I chase the sun west tonight on a never ending evening, I recall celebrating Pentecost this morning at St. Jude’s Cathedral and a lovely confirmation of about seventy-five young people. What a great day to confirm! Pentecost, the birthday of the Church which is the body of Christ. Have a great week and stay tuned – I intend to interrupt any boredom which may occur with blog posts.

+RNL

 

 

LETTER TO THE PEOPLE OF THE DIOCESE OF ST. PETERSBURG

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

Dear Sisters and Brothers in the Risen Lord:

In May 2006, I issued a letter to the people of the Diocese of St. Petersburg regarding what we were going to do to protect children and vulnerable adults.  (That letter is available on the diocesan webpage under the Safe Environment Program Office).  Given the stories that have come out internationally and nationally regarding sexual misconduct by priests and others, I wanted to issue an updated report at this time.  The original letter issued in May 2006 reflected a commitment of our Church to protect children and vulnerable adults.  In this report, I will outline what has happened since my arrival in 1996 and hopefully, in the spirit of transparency, give you specific information regarding our Diocese and the issues we have faced in the past.

It should be understood first and foremost that, whenever an allegation is made against a priest and it is determined to be credible, he is removed from priestly ministry. Church law has the equivalent of a civil Statute of Limitations, which can prevent me from seeking laicization for a priest.  However, I take every reasonable step to be sure he is out of priestly ministry, and I will continue to do so whenever an allegation is deemed credible.

To date, we have had 59 credible instances of sexual misconduct with a minor involving 8 priests of the Diocese (49 instances against two priests alone) and 10 credible instances involving 4 priests, not of this Diocese, but who were in ministry within our Diocese at the time.  Since its beginning in 1968, our Diocese has had over 5,000 priests serve the people of God.  We have had 7 instances of sexual misconduct with a minor involving 3 lay persons serving in ministry.  The names of our diocesan clergy who have had credible allegations of sexual misconduct with a minor raised against them are published on the diocesan webpage under the Safe Environment Program Office.  This information will continue to be available on our diocesan webpage.  I continue to pray for the victims of priests and others who abused their trust and violated children.

The most important thing I can do as your Bishop is to take steps to ensure that we, as the Church here in the Diocese of St. Petersburg, do everything reasonably possible to protect our children and vulnerable adults.  The following actions have been and are being taken to achieve that result:

  • The Safe Environment Program office is established in our Diocese and conducts programs throughout the Diocese on a continual basis.  This office ensures that we meet our commitment that we have made to you in the past.
  • We have established a Victim Assistance Ministry.  We continue to have victims come forward who were harmed in the past, and we continue to follow our policy for the protection of children and vulnerable adults.  I am sure that there still remain those who have been harmed, and I encourage them to come forward to law enforcement and/or our Lay Victim Assistance Minister by calling 1.866.407.4505.  We remain committed to listening to them and to assisting them in their healing process.  When we do receive a allegation, our Lay Victim Assistance Minister offers immediate pastoral care while a preliminary investigation is conducted.
  • We have established a comprehensive Screening Process.  All employees, priests and deacons, and any individual who serves in a ministry and comes into contact with youth and vulnerable adults must be screened.  This screening process is redone every five years.  I and many of our priests who were screened when we began this program have just completed rescreening and recertification in our Safe Environment Program, including a combined FBI/Florida Department of Law Enforcement background check.  The screening process is outlined on the diocesan webpage.  We have screened over 18,000 people in the last five years.  This includes over 300 priests who serve in active ministry in our Diocese, all of whom have been screened and recertified.  Our Diocese, including our parishes and schools, has spent nearly $1,000,000 in the last five years to make sure this screening is comprehensive and our children and vulnerable adults are protected.
  • The Diocesan Review Board reviews all accusations of sexual misconduct with a minor.  (Complete description of this Board is under Safe Environment on the diocesan webpage). The first thing we do is report any accusation to the appropriate law enforcement/State Attorney’s Office.  To date, I have accepted the recommendation of the Diocesan Review Board in every instance.  For all instances in which the allegations are deemed to be credible, the individual is permanently removed from ministry.  No diocesan priest is serving in ministry within our Diocese against whom an allegation has been deemed credible.
  • A consistent Investigation Process is established and followed.  The Diocese uses an outside investigator, who is a former FBI agent, and the results of the investigation are then presented to our Diocesan Review Board.  When an allegation is deemed credible, our response is to offer pastoral care and assistance and to assist in the healing process.  We have been able to achieve reasonable settlements, not for legal reasons, but because the Church should offer care and assistance for those who have been harmed by someone serving in the ministry.

There is a cost above and beyond the significant physical and emotional impact on the victims and their families.  Over the past five years, the Diocese has expended $1,760,000 for settlements, and an additional $273,000 for counseling assistance to those who have been harmed as minors, as well as $123,000 in legal fees and costs.  Since 1990, the total expended for settlements has been $4,715,000.  Approximately 20% of this has been covered by insurance.  The remainder has been withdrawn from insurance reserves of the Diocese.  We have never appealed for special funds or conducted our Annual Pastoral Appeal to cover these financial commitments.

I think you know that, as your Bishop, this is a very difficult report for me to issue because it reopens wounds caused by those who have hurt our children.  However, I feel that being open and honest with you is necessary.  There are no real positives in this situation, but I do take some comfort in a number of things.  First, the number of accusations we have received alleging sexual misconduct for the abuse of minors has diminished.  Nearly all the claims we have received are more than 20 years old.  Our policies for protecting children and vulnerable adults began in 1996 and are updated to reflect best practice.  The lack of any recent incident is a clear indication that some of the actions we are taking are working to provide a safe environment for our children.  Second, we have never received a complaint regarding a vulnerable adult being abused.  Finally, I want you to know that I have the full support of all our priests in making sure our Diocese is safe for children and vulnerable adults.  I know even just one instance of abuse is one too many.  At some point, fallible Bishops and fallible Review Boards must sit in judgment of an allegation brought against a member of our family.  I can assure you that we follow the requirements of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.  The Diocese of St. Petersburg has been found to be in compliance after each of the five USCCB mandated audits conducted by their outside auditors.

My heart continues to go out to the victims of priests and others who have abused their trust.  No amount of money, counseling or emotional and spiritual support can right this terrible wrong.  In my talks with victims, the one promise which seems to bring the most and sometimes the only comfort is that the Church listens and continues to act in such a manner to do our best to prevent it from happening again.  While there have been so many good priests serving our Diocese throughout the years I, as Bishop, and my brother priests, regret that twelve of our number have had credible instances of sexual misconduct with a minor.  I want to close my report by emphasizing that we should continue to focus on what steps we need to take to continue preventing any future harm.  As a Church, we are deeply committed to this goal.

Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Robert N. Lynch
Bishop of St. Petersburg

CALLED TO ACCOUNTABILITY

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

Beginning with today’s Vigil Masses,  every worshipping Catholic in our five county diocese will be receiving a letter from me outlining the work which we have done and the cost of dealing with past instances of sexual misconduct with minors by both priests and lay employees. My letter coincides with a number of other events within the Church in the United States on this sad topic: recent guidelines issued  by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the bishops of the world for dealing with cases of sexual misconduct with a minor, the final report commissioned by the bishops of the United States by the John Jay College on The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, and the tenth anniversary of the passage of what is called The Dallas Charter” which outlines what the Catholic Church in the US must do to protect children in effect since 2002. The “Dallas Charter” is scheduled for review and reexamination at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting next month in Seattle.

All of this is by way of rather lengthy preamble to several questions: can the Diocese of St. Petersburg be trusted to handle accusations of sexual misconduct with a minor or vulnerable adult in accordance with the promises contained in the “Dallas Charter” and have I as bishop done all that I can to protect children in the diocese? Each Catholic will have to make  up their own mind on these questions, hopefully after thoughtfully reading and reflecting on my letter and other resources. If you wish to read the John Jay study, you may do so by clicking here.

Too many young people have been crushed and hurt beyond belief in what was done to them as children by a figure as trusted as a priest. One case is one too many. To all victims, the Church today must join me as your bishop in restating once again our most sincere apology for what was done to you, for the psychological, emotional and faith harm which it caused you, and the deep pain and distrust which lingers. To my fellow Catholics, I beg you to accept that these feelings in victims of clergy sexual misconduct against minors are real. I fear that too many people think that the victims should “just get over it and move on.” It is never that easy and the profound harm done to them lingers in many throughout their entire life even if they wish to move on. All I can promise is to do all in my power to try and prevent it from happening in the future. Human nature is fallen and sinful and it is impossible to know what evil lurks in the hearts of every man and woman, but we are much wiser than twenty years ago, more careful and observant, attentive to warning signs and far, far more knowledgeable about the subject. Sometimes the only consolation we can give to a victim is that we are doing all we can to see that it does not happen again.

I believe that for at least the next decade and maybe longer, some victims will continue to come forward who were abused by a person of the Church (clergy, religious or lay) in this diocese but mostly from times long past. I encourage anyone harmed by a person of the Church to be in contact with our Victim Assistance Minister, contact local law enforcement, and begin some process of healing. I don’t want you just to go away unless and until the Church has had an opportunity to say it’s/we (are) sorry and help you deal with harm done to you.

My letter has been shared in advance with the Presbyteral Council of the diocese consisting of twenty-six representative priests and by the Diocesan Pastoral Council which is made up largely of lay women and men. Both consultative bodies overwhelmingly have encouraged me to publish the letter. We take no comfort in the statistics it will reveal and we claim no virtue in recapping the last fifteen years. They and I just feel that you have a right to know what we have done and are doing  and the victims need once again to hear our voice in profound apology for the harm done by a few. The harm done is disproportionately high compared to the small number of priests and lay employees credibly accused, some of whom are now deceased.

The John Jay study, last Thursday, was a thorough examination of both the causes of sexual misconduct (focused solely on priests) and is both scholarly and timely. From where I sit, I can assure you that the researchers were totally free to go where necessary to find out what we did wrong in the past and what we might have learned from the past which might help avoid a similar situation in the future. It already has its critics and I understand that but I am confident that it will withstand the intense scrutiny which it will be given by the psychological, social science, medical, and research communities for its extensive research into perhaps the darkest moment of Church history in the last sixty years. Please read my report to the people also with an open mind and if you have questions after reading it, then please send them to me and I will promise I will answer you as best I am able.

Soon, I pray, the Church will have the liberty to begin to return to the task of inviting back those who have left us and proclaiming the truly liberating and captivating Gospel of Jesus Christ. However, I do agree with my brother bishop, Blase Cupich, chairman of the USCCB Committee for the Protection of Children that we bishops will carry the shame of the past with us to our graves, even if we tried to do it right.

My letter will be posted here at four o’clock p.m. today (Saturday, May 28th) and will also be on the diocesan website should you not be in Church in this diocese this week-end. All parishioners attend Mass will receive the letter in their Sunday bulletins. Should it not be there, please use the comment section of this blog to inform me of the name of the parish. Again, please read it carefully and if you have additional questions, please write to me at Bishop Robert Lynch, PO Box 40200, St. Petersburg, Florida, 33743. I promise an appropriate response.

+RNL

Update: The letter is now available in the post “Letter to the People of the Diocese of St. Petersburg“.

FAMILY AFFAIRS

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

Several things have happened in the last few days which cause me to pause and reflect on my role as bishop. I really think that the definition of what a bishop is expected to be is evolving in the Church though not theologically or canonically. We know that when we were ordained to this ministry of service, we were told that our three principal tasks were to teach, govern and sanctify. Those three words are right there in the episcopal ordination rite itself. However, the office has evolved to include a lot of things which are not directly related to those three munera. The bishop also has to pastor people, albeit in a sometimes slightly different way than say your pastors and priests “pastor” you in your parishes.

I have a special obligation to my brother priests which transcends governance and acquires the characteristics of a familial relationship. Some say the bishop is to be a “father” to his priests and some would say, wrong person in the family food chain, the bishop should be a “brother” to his priests. In the last decade as a result of the sexual misconduct scandals, the bishop’s relationship with his clergy has become in some instances strained. There is hardly room in the typical family definition of either father or brother for a prosecutorial role, yet that is how some priests view their bishop. One phone call can change their lives, whether they are innocent or guilty. I don’t think bishops in the past were ever truly “fathers” to their priests unless what I would call (forgive me, men) the Irish notion of father was operative in the Church. They were administrators, often remote, sometimes threatening in their very character, neither frightfully loving or expressive of their gratitude. Often isolated and insulated by the “trappings” of the office, one did not approach the bishop except for the most serious of reasons. Better to ask forgiveness than permission was often the norm for dealing with one’s bishop. The Second Vatican Council attempted to “humanize the office”, taking away a lot of the trappings and suggesting a more servant oriented definition of bishop.

Today’s bishop, even with the newer paradigm, probably needs to ignore the comparisons of father/brother and just be present to his priests, in moments of happiness and sadness. I had some time to think about all of this yesterday as I was traveling to and from the funeral Mass for John Schneider, the 92 year old father of our Father Bob Schneider, pastor of Espiritu Santo. It was not easy for me to get to Salina, Kansas and Father Bob and his family would probably easily have forgiven me for not being there (I had missed his mother’s funeral several years ago at Christmas time). But I try whenever possible to be with my priests when they lose a parent. I am successful honestly about half of the time and the parental deaths of our Polish, African and Indian priests are very hard to attend, primarily because of the custom of immediate burials (so quick that if the priest son is not present at the time of death, he too misses the funeral) and, of course, the distance, time and expense. I hate to miss them nonetheless and often feel a sense of guilt for a while when I know it was impossible. There is no time when a priest needs the support of his bishop more than the death of someone dear to him. Yesterday, it was particularly heart warming to see the priests of the Salina diocese gather in great number to support Father Bob who prior to coming to the diocese of St. Petersburg had been ordained for and served in his home diocese. The current and retired local bishops were present and about twenty priests and several hundred friends of the family. I felt good coming back last night, feeling that being there was as important for me as for Father Schneider.

In fourteen years, I have had the privilege of saying the funeral Mass for almost all of our deceased priests, if they lived in the area. I shall not soon forget that during even the height of my incapacity last year I was unable to attend the Mass for our beloved Father Stephen Dambrauskas. I still think of that, long after everyone else probably has forgotten it. I feel a strong sense of going to the cemetery after the funeral Mass for our priests even though it is not always the custom for a local bishop to do that. I guess I would want my successor(s) to be with me to my grave and so many of our older men have no natural family, only myself and their brother priests. Whatever we are called, there is a strong element of family among us.

Driving back to the Wichita Airport, I called my office and learned that a Marine son of one of our long-time employees in Finance, Tracy Kelly of Christ the King parish in Tampa had been shot and very seriously wounded in Afghanistan late last week. Alex is going to live but rehabilitation will be long and begins today as he is flown to Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Most of Tracy’s children are serving in the armed forces of the United States and each time they are sent to Iraq and Afghanistan she has asked me for prayers for their safety. Learning that Alex was shot was like a blow in the stomach to me. How often his Mom had asked for my prayers when Richard (“Ricky”) left for an Army deployment or Katherine (“Katie”) left for the Navy. But I remember especially Tracy asking for prayers for Alex, the Marine, headed back, this time to Afghanistan. Yesterday when I talked to Tracy, she was a strong mom but one could tell she was struggling. I promised more prayers for Alex and she said a remarkable thing: “Alex asks for prayers for his buddies in his company he left behind. He is alive and grateful for it. He is most worried about his buddies.” Even bishops learn a lot from the lived experience of other people.

Maybe I had too much time on the two plane rides, but each year I learn more and more about what the role of the bishop is in the family of Christ’s church. Perhaps in six years, God willing, at the time of retirement, I will have finally learned what being a good bishop really involves.

+RNL

THERE’S A PONY DOWN HERE SOMEWHERE

Monday, May 31st, 2010

There is an old story which probably most of you know about the kid feverishly shoveling his way through a huge and high pile of compost. When asked what in the world he/she was doing, the child replied, “with all this, there has to be a pony down here somewhere.” Today in Rome, the Holy See announced the expected pontifical visitation to the Church in Ireland in light of the horrendous revelations of sexual abuse of minors by priests, religious brothers and religious sisters which has devastated the faith in that country. Some must ask why now? Is it not too late? Is the horse not already out of the barn? Of course, it is never to late to confess one’s sins, personal and institutional, amend one’s life, personal or institutional , and agree to commit the sin no more, as a person or an institution. The Catholic Church in Ireland has basically asked the Holy Father, send us “good confessors” to whom we can confess our sins and who will guide us on reclaiming moral high ground we seem to have lost. The Apostolic Visitators to the four archdioceses in Ireland and to the dioceses are all from outside of Ireland but all have born the heat of the day in their own dioceses and can be good confessors to a Church seeking healing and redemption. From the United States, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston has been appointed by the Pope to perhaps the toughest of situations in the Archdiocese of Dublin and its related suffragan sees (ecclesiastical talk for the dioceses outside of Dublin which come under the loose supervision of the Archbishop of the capital city). At the same time as the whole Church in Ireland will be visited, there will also be a visitation to Ireland’s remaining seminaries led  by our Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. Archbishop Dolan spoke last week at Ireland’s major remaining seminary, St. Patrick’s in Maynooth and I encourage all of you to take the time to read his lecture by clicking here. Quite frankly, I think he has found the pony! It is a great synthesis of how I think my priests have suffered but made it through the last decade here, in St. Petersburg. Archbishop Dolan’s talk is lengthy but illuminating.

The bishops of the United States, some 210 strong, will be assembling in St. Petersburg starting Monday, June 14, 2010 at the Vinoy Hotel. 212 bishops have registered for an “assembly” which we hold every four years. It is not a business meeting so the media and observers will not be attending. It is closed to all but bishops. It is relaxed and informal. It is something like five days of continuing education and this year the general theme is “the bishop and his priests.” Archbishop Dolan will give the keynote address on Monday night to start us off. It has been my special privilege to be a part of every committee planning the agenda and topics for these assemblies since I was made a bishop and I was chair of the committee which planned the Assembly held in Tucson, Arizona, in June of 1998. We always invite a cardinal from outside the United States to spend the days with us and deliver the homilies at morning and evening prayer throughout the days and at daily Mass, lead our Hly Hours, and our Reconciliation and Penance Service. This year, our “spiritual father” will be  Cardinal Peter Turkson who is from Ghana and was recently asked by Pope Benedict XVI to leave his archdiocese and come to Rome to head the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. I look forward to the Cardinal’s wisdom and insights into being a bishop in the Church and world today. He too will help us try and rediscover the “pony.” Our assemblies are  as I mentioned relaxed. Evenings can be spent in informal conversation with others, there are even new or relatively new movies which the Hollywood studios make available for bishops to see in the evening. If you happen to be in downtown St. Petersburg from Monday, June 14 through Saturday, June 19th and see a group of men in the evening walking through Straub or Vinoy Park, it will likely be some of us.

Relationships between bishops and priests is an important topic because it has changed for the worse since the sexual-abuse controversy of 2001 and following. In many places priests don’t trust their bishops any longer and are terrified that they will receive a call and be asked to come and see the bishop for fear it might be a complaint or something of that nature. Priests and bishops need to search together for the “pony” that remains down there somewhere, as it was before.

I ask your prayers for our Assembly which is being held in our diocese in two weeks. May it be five days of grace, wisdom and insight for those of us who have been asked to lead the Church at this moment in history.

+RNL

SHEPHERD

Friday, April 23rd, 2010

This week-end I will be presiding at two anniversary of ordinations Masses, one a golden thanking God for fifty years of priesthood and the second a silver thanking God for twenty-five years. In looking at the Gospel for this Sunday, I note that it is “Good Shepherd” Sunday with the famous Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter. I will write some thoughts about the two jubilarians and their Masses early next week but today my thoughts turn once again to something which a year ago I thought was largely behind us but even this morning looms larger than I ever imagined. I sometimes wonder how much more our good priests serving us today can take, and I might add the same applies to bishops, as day after day we pick up the newspaper and read of the abuse of minors by priests, and today a bishop, albeit not in our country. At the same time I wonder how much more those who have been abused can take as they are the primary objects of our concern and desire for healing and their wounds are often reopened  with each new report.

Sexual abuse is far too commonplace in our society and any priest who counsels or hears confessions can tell you that we encounter it regularly in our lives as shepherds. Usually, it occurs at the family level – a step-father, even sadly sometimes a grandfather, a parent, an older sibling. It is painful enough to try and help those find the strength, stamina and support to seek either relief or help. It also occurs in our institutions in which we regularly place trust: the public schools, the scouts, etc. I heard a statistic recently that in the last ten years, nineteen teachers in the Pinellas County School system have been accused and found guilty of sexual misconduct with minors. I might add, and this is not by way of bragging but by way of comparative statistics that in the same time period, the diocese has had only one  accusation against a priest. But priest shepherds do occupy positions of great trust and when that trust is violated it is a sin which practically cries out to heaven for vengeance. I repeat that I properly think that the safest place for a child today is on the campus of a Catholic parish and/or school. Still we bear a special burden as priests in this time which constantly reminds us of  the “sins of the fathers” and tends to paint all with the same brush of guilt. If historically in this country less than 2% of the priests of the last 50 years abused minors, that means 98% of priests have tried to be the good shepherds of this week-end’s Gospel, a fact which is often lost or overlooked by those reporting on our failures.

Establishing credibility in this regard is not easy when the former Cardinal head of an important office of the Holy See writes a letter to a diocesan bishop congratulating  him for not reporting the sexual misconduct of one of this priests to the police and then today defends the letter as an appropriate behavior of a bishop. I will have none of that here. He is simply wrong and does not speak for the Church. Other leaders past and present outside of the United States do the image of the Good Shepherd no help when they voice doubts and try to minimalize the situation presently being faced. How much longer can the 98% who love and serve their people take all of this. I have no idea but I can say that it makes a lot of us sick.

The Florida Legislature is likely to pass or has today passed legislation extending the statute of limitations for criminal and civil action to basically one’s lifetime. The Catholic Church of Florida has not opposed this legislation even though I and others are suspicious that it is largely aimed at us. The “sovereign immunity” enjoyed by the public school system and other agencies of the state prohibits actions against them regardless of whether or not they take appropriate action to create and enforce a safe environment for children and vulnerable adults, but if the action of the legislature will save one child, one child from being abused or help them heal or experience justice then it is good legislation.

To end this reflection, if you read this before attending week-end Mass this Good Shepherd Sunday, and you are grateful for the ministry of the priests of your parish, this would be a good week-end to tell them. The best of them are embarrassed beyond belief at what has befallen a call which they believed to have come from the Lord to serve as shepherds of a community of believers and to make the Lord present in the sacraments of the Church. It is my job as bishop and that of my brothers to provide the Church with every precaution to see that this horrible chapter of our history is not repeated, to be accountable and transparent, to civil authority and to God’s people, and to put into place those safeguards which allow trust to once again be placed in priests and bishops.

+RNL

GOOD FRIDAY 2010

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Processional Cross at the Seminary

Homily for the Good Friday Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion

Having just listened to the proclamation of the Passion of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ according to John, it seems that even the name we apply to this day in the Christian calendar is something of an oxymoron. To call this Friday “Good” is like speaking of “Irish gourmet cooking.” There is much that reeks of needless tragedy in today’s liturgy and we have to wait until tomorrow night before we can even begin to glean the coming triumph. This day seemingly belongs to the forces of evil, which on their face seem to overcome and conquer the forces of good.

Peter resorts to violence and then denial. Caiphas, the High Priest, simply provides the courtyard in this narrative for denial and cowardice. Pilate, a man of considerable power, acts against his conscience and instincts and gives into the unruly, violent and bloodthirsty crowd ultimately leaving history to judge his cowardice. This panoply, this mosaic of weakness and evil is briefly pierced by the courageous women standing at the foot of the cross: Mary and her sister, Jesus’ aunt Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. Also present was the lone survivor of the twelve with the guts to hang in there with Jesus, John. On its face it seems not to be a great day. Evil seems to have won. Darkness seems to have penetrated the earth. Three years of a ministry of love and service to others in nailed to a crossbar.

I have often asked myself this question on Good Friday: what character in the passion would I most closely imitate if I had been present in Jesus’ life and ministry at the time? As a successor of the apostles would I have saved my own neck like Peter, hidden away in fright and terror in some attic like the other ten of His disciples, or hung in there to the end like the women and John?

And what qualities of character would I have evinced had I been there? Disinterest like Caiphas? Denial like Peter? Crowd-pleaser like Pilate? Believer like John and Mary and the two other Marys? These today must not be simply rhetorical questions. We can take the template of the lives that we lead and place them on our human actions, on our sense of faith, on our belief that Jesus died for us so that we might live for Him and ultimately to be happy with Him in the life that is to come.

If one believes everything about the Church which we read, see or hear today, we too are in the midst of a Good Friday. Just like in the passion and death of Jesus, there are forces in our midst who would be quite happy were we gone. Sensing that our Holy Father, Pope Benedict, has something to hide, something to bring him down, relentlessly and loose with the facts they surround the Church today like sharks at feeding time. Mine is a small voice compared to those who are speaking out in the defense of the Church and the Pope these days, but I can assure you that, as a person who has had many, many meetings with Cardinal Ratzinger from 1989-1995, he was one of the few people in Rome who “got it”, understood what was happening to the Church and its moral implications. He took action while others hesitated and he was ahead of the learning curve at the Holy See.

Victims of abuse by clergy, employees, relatives and seeming friends, people of trust and total strangers know what the darkness of Good Friday is like. What was done to them is reprehensible and there is likely never to be a personal triumph following the darkness they have known. Words of apology which are appropriate are also insufficient. It is the actions which the Church in the United States has taken since 2001 that offer the first glimmer of dawn’s early light. We have been able to do what is necessary precisely because of Pope Benedict, not inspite of him.

In every life there are more than one Good Friday. There are those moments when we fail to get our way, when we suffer, economically, psychologically, and emotionally. Do we become so disheartened that we doubt God’s continuing presence in our lives? Do we wash our hands of everything that is not perfect as we define perfection? Can we say with Saint Paul that it is at times when we are weakest that God makes us strong?

In a few moments we will reverence the wood of the cross on which hung the savior of the world. Can we see in these pieces of wood as we approach them the instrument of our eternal salvation? Will the events we today recall renew in us our faith in Christ and our love for the Father? Are we open to the Spirit to get us through what we must endure today to enjoy tomorrow?

Today is dark, foreboding, and tragic. It is necessary, however, for tomorrow’s celebration of triumph. Leave this Church today embracing the cross of Christ in whatever format it takes in your lives with the sure and certain belief that sometime soon, maybe even tomorrow, the strength of faith will give way to the bright promise of immortality. Can one appreciate a sunrise without experiencing the darkness of night? Good Friday is the darkest day in the life of Jesus but His total trust and His incredible unselfishness promise a better moment.

The cross of Christ is the best insurance policy humankind has purchased because it guarantees a destiny, a future where every tear will be wiped away and we will see God as God really is. Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the savior of the world.

You may also download a PDF of this homily.

Update: You can listen to this homily on our podcast.

HERE WE SEEM TO GO AGAIN

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Today’s newspapers from the West Coast to the East Coast as well as along the Gulf Coast are carrying stories again of sexual misconduct by the Roman Catholic clergy against minors. Part of the present interest is the growing awareness in Europe and South America that their clergy were also deeply involved in this sinful activity after years of either denial or suggesting that it was mostly a North American problem or an English-speaking country problem. Also part of the present media interest is that they are trying to connect Pope Benedict XVI to the issue either when he was Archbishop of Munich or as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith which for a number of years has had “competency” in dealing with these matters on appeal of the decisions of local diocesan bishops. There is arising today a long known case from Milwaukee about a priest who abused multiple young boys at a school for the deaf in that archdiocese who was early-on discovered, transferred by his bishop to another diocese, and allowed to complete his ministry through natural death without sanction or penalty. It was a horrific situation which makes every good priest and many bishops blanch.

Most of the bishops of the United States have long ago affirmed that we did a very poor job, if any job was done, dealing with the sinful actions of a few clerics. While I would like to add that so did (and sometimes do) other entities which deal with children, we should have known better as a Church, we should have responded better at the time as a Church, and we should have followed our natural instincts of revulsion and protection for the vulnerable as a Church but we did not always do so. Sadly, it took the focus of an aggressive media to make us look inwardly and ask, “My God, how could all this have happened?” Tales of terror and a form of torture for the victims will continue to turn up from time to time, causing us once again to be embarrassed and ashamed but it will be a long time, longer than I have to live, before the acknowledgment that the Church’s response, at least in the United States, and I would say in all English speaking countries in the world, has brought a level of protection to children that is so far not present in the rest of their young lives.

In this diocese we spend about $300,000 each year on child protection alone. This includes criminal level background screening of all employees and volunteers who work with children. Our seminarians are much more carefully watched and evaluated for any warning signs of future potential problems in this regard. A code of professional conduct requires that we monitor one another and if there is a suspicion of inappropriate behavior, it is to be reported and evaluated. We teach the children themselves to know the warning signs of inappropriate behavior and tell their parents, their teachers, their supervisors of any thing which even approaches forbidden misconduct. In this diocese we have not had a serious accusation against a newly accused priest for an action which falls within the ambit of sexual misconduct in about five years while I am certain we still have not been able to help all those whose lives were changed and who were hurt in the ’60’s’, ’70’s’ and early ’80’s.’

The very integrity of Roman Catholic ministry has been on the line since the first reports of clergy sexual misconduct arose in the mid-eighties. The morale of our good priests is shaken every time we go through a period of reopening the wounds as is happening now. The trust of people in their bishops is shattered and the Church suffers. Perhaps during Holy Week there is no better time that we can again confess our sins, amend our ecclesial lives, and promise to do everything in our power as Church to sin again no more in this manner. Speaking for myself, I hate what happened, I think we have done our best to preclude it happening again (although no bishop or organization can claim to see inside the hearts and minds of those who work for it), and I hope that one thing which can be said about my episcopal ministry is that I worked hard to see that victims had the help they needed to recover from the unspeakable and my assurance that I would do whatever to see that it never happens again. I am not alone in this pledge. The priests of the diocese would say the same, the diocesan Review Board for Clergy Sexual Misconduct (made up mostly of lay women and men) would say the same and those employed in the diocese to protect children would say the same.

We will not have a “go again” at what happened years ago no matter how often we are reminded of our recent darkest past. We are today more accountable, more transparent and more effective in addressing this as the recent report of the evaluation of the various dioceses and religious communitiesr released earlier this week says we are. It is the Church’s commitment to the abused who understandably doubt our sincerity and to our members who want and expect better from their Church and its leadership.

+RNL

Update: For assistance or more information about the programs in place in the Diocese of St. Petersburg to protect children and the vulnerable, please contact our Safe Environment Program Office.