Bishop W. Shawn McKnight is taking concrete steps to heal the wounds of sexual abuse in the Church, hold himself to higher standards of accountability, and help restore trust and sacred communion among God’s people.
In an Aug. 24 press conference at the Alphonse J. Schwartze Memorial Catholic Center in Jefferson City, he also pledged full cooperation with an investigation by the office of Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley into any instances of criminal sexual abuse and possible cover-up by agents of the Church in these 38 counties.
He said all of God’s people share responsibility for addressing a scandal that has shaken some corners of the Church to its foundations.
“As brothers and sisters in the Lord, we are family, and when one suffers, we all suffer,” he said. “We are all in this together, and every bishop, including the Bishop of Rome, must face this moral catastrophe with their people and not separate from them.”
Shortly after arriving from Wichita, Kansas, to lead this diocese in February of this year, Bishop McKnight contracted a firm of retired FBI and law-enforcement officials to review the files of all living priests, deacons and seminarians of the diocese.
“I felt it very important that we have an independent review of the files for the sake of transparency and to give confidence to our people,” he said.
He noted that the review found there to be no clergy in active ministry in this diocese with violations of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
The Charter, adopted by the U.S. bishops and approved by the Vatican in 2002, provides consistent, verifiable norms for ensuring that all of the Church’s environments are safe for children and others who are vulnerable.
Bishop McKnight was also in the process of reviewing the files of deceased clergy going back to the diocese’s founding in 1956, intending to release a report to the public next week.
On Aug. 23, Attorney General Hawley received a request from the St. Louis archdiocese to review its priest files, in light of a recently released Pennsylvania grand jury report containing revelations of shocking abuse by priests in that state.
Right away, Bishop McKnight submitted a request for the Jefferson City diocese to be included in the Missouri attorney general’s investigation.
Bishop McKnight believes having yet another independent, third-party review of the priests’ files will offer even more transparency and help to restore the public’s trust.
“I see this as an opportunity to have a very credible report that the people and the wider community can accept,” he said. “And for all the good clergy that are serving in our diocese, it goes to support them, as well.”
“Transparency serves all of us: survivors of abuse, the faithful, our good priests and deacons,” he said.
Commitment to transparency
In an Aug. 23 letter, Attorney General Hawley thanked Bishop McKnight for pledging full cooperation with the investigation.
“We appreciate your leadership and your commitment to public transparency and accountability,” the attorney general wrote.
He said his staff would assemble a team of experienced attorneys and career prosecutors to ensure “a vigorous, searching and comprehensive inquiry,” including a review of documents, along with interviews with potential victims and witnesses to acts of alleged abuse.
Bishop McKnight noted that the Pennsylvania grand jury report implicated the late Father John “Jack” Pender, who was a priest of the Diocese of Scranton and spent time in the Jefferson City diocese from 1974-89, in Gasconade and Pulaski counties.
Bishop McKnight said there have not been any reports of sexual abuse by Fr. Pender in this diocese. But the bishop asked anyone with information about him to contact the diocese’s Victim Assistance Coordinator at (573) 694-3199.
To mend what’s broken
Bishop McKnight noted that while Jesus did promise to be with His people until the end of the age, He did not guarantee that popes and bishops would be free from errors in their prudential, administrative judgements.
“The Church’s gaping wound of clergy sexual abuse is so painful for us Catholics because some of those responsible for preserving the communion of the Church in what we believe, in how we pray, and how we live as Christians have instead severely damaged our communion with the Lord and one another,” Bishop McKnight stated.
Furthermore, “their active cover-up or passive silence when clergy abusers were continued in the ministry or promoted in office gravely compromised the credibility of the hierarchy, and by extension, the whole Church,” he said.
He issued a renewed plea for survivors of clergy sexual abuse who have not already done so to come forward and make a complaint.
“If you have been harmed, we need to apologize to you and seek your forgiveness,” he said. “Even if you don’t find it necessary to do this for your well-being, I ask you to consider coming forward anyway to help others heal and move forward.”
He noted that Nancy Hoey, the diocese’s Victim Assistance Coordinator, is a licensed professional counselor and a certified clinical trauma professional and can help people through the process of filing a complaint.
She can be reached at re email@example.com or at (573) 694-3199.
Bishop McKnight believes the scandal is leading not to a crisis of faith but a crisis of trust in the Church’s hierarchy.
He assured the faithful that he will not try to solve this crisis by himself or with only a small group of clergy advisors.
“I want to work together with you, all the people of the diocese,” he stated.
He’s eager to listen to and work with survivors of all kinds of abuse, whether by clergy or others, in order to discern and best respond to their needs.
He noted that recently substantiated allegations of past abuse by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, retired cardinal archbishop of Washington, D.C., have made evident that there is no clear, uniform procedure for handling allegations of abuse by a sitting bishop.
With input from ordained and lay Catholics, Bishop McKnight is implementing a new process for handling any such allegations in this diocese.
He’s confident that the nation’s bishops will address this issue decisively during their fall assembly in November. But he didn’t want to wait that long to make some policy changes within his own jurisdiction.
“What I’m hearing from the people of my diocese and even from my clergy is that now is the time for action,” he said. “We cannot wait. So I’m doing what I can as the bishop of this diocese to move forward.”
He noted that the diocese has had its own diocesan review board since 2003. Made up mostly of laypeople, it advises the bishop on policy for preventing abuse of children and vulnerable people by clergy and other agents of the Church, and on assessing the credibility of each accusation of such abuse.
He is seeking additional lay people with backgrounds in law, law-enforcement, psychology, psychiatry, human resources, child development, and information technology to serve on the review board.
He has also convened a reconfigured Diocesan Presbyteral Council, made up of his cabinet, elected priest representatives, and the deans of all eight deaneries in the diocese.
He will soon form a Diocesan Pastoral Council (DPC) constituted by representatives of the laity from each deanery, a representative of the religious sisters serving in this diocese, and a representative each of the priests and deacons.
“I pledge to use the DPC as the main structure for reviewing existing policies and proposing new ones,” he said.
Bishop McKnight said seeing the faith of the people of this diocese and that of the good priests, deacons and religious men and women fills him with hope for the Church in the United States to overcome this time of darkness.
He said he does not fear the destruction of the Church — “because the Lord has promised to always be with us.”
But he does have fear for the salvation of individual souls.
“That is what’s motivating me to take firm, quick and decisive action as much as I can in the position I have in the Church as a bishop of the Diocese of Jefferson City,” he said.
He plans to schedule, probably sometime this fall, a Mass of healing “to express our sorrow for the sins of sexual abuse and the abuse of power by clergy, as well as for the healing of all those affected by this scandal.”
He asked everyone to continue praying for the healing of the wounds in the Church, “especially for the healing of survivors of sexual abuse, and to regain our sense of communion with one another and the Lord Jesus.”