If it wasn’t perfectly clear before, it had better be now.
The sexual abuse of any minor or other vulnerable person is a crime against God and humanity, and any attempt to cover it up is as bad as the abuse itself.
That’s what resonates most with Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City, now that the long-anticipated global summit on the sexual abuse of minors in the Church has concluded.
The Feb. 21-24 summit in Vatican City brought the presidents of bishops’ conferences of the world together to address a scandal that knows no geographical boundaries.
“We have a clear mandate from all corners of the Church to do whatever is necessary to end this scourge once and for all and to work toward repairing the incalculable damage from these actions and the silence that allowed them to take place,” said Bishop McKnight.
The Pope closed the summit by calling for an “all-out battle,” joining people of good will everywhere to fight this “very grave scourge of violence.”
“We listened to the voice of victims, we prayed and asked for forgiveness from God and the people hurt, we took stock of our responsibility, and our duty to bring justice through truth and to radically reject every form” of sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience, said Pope Francis.
“We want every activity and every place in the Church to be completely safe for minors,” he said — which means taking every possible measure so that such crimes never happen again.
Ultimately, it is a spiritual battle against the “brazen, aggressive, destructive” power of Satan, he stated.
“I see the hand of evil that does not spare even the innocence of the little ones,” the Pope said. “And this leads me to think of the example of Herod who, driven by fear of losing his power, ordered the slaughter of all the children of Bethlehem.”
While the majority of abused minors are victims of a person they know, most often a family member, he said, it is “all the more grave and scandalous” when a member of the Church, particularly a priest, is the perpetrator “for it is utterly incompatible” with the Church’s moral authority and ethical credibility.
“Consecrated persons, chosen by God to guide souls to salvation, let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan,” he said.
There is no excuse for abusing children, who are an image of Jesus, he said, which is why it has become increasingly obvious “the gravest cases of abuse” must be disciplined and dealt with “civil and canonical processes.”
“Here again I would state clearly: if in the Church there should emerge even a single case of abuse — which already in itself represents an atrocity — that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness.”
In fact, he said, the Church should recognize that people’s anger over the mishandling of abuse is nothing other than a reflection of “the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons.”
“The echo of the silent cry of the little ones who, instead of finding in them fathers and spiritual guides, encountered tormentors will shake hearts dulled by hypocrisy and by power,” Pope Francis said. “It is our duty to pay close heed to this silent, choked cry.”
The Church must combat this evil, both inside and outside its walls, he said, and protect children “from ravenous wolves.”
More than words
Bishop McKnight is adamant the Pope’s strong words must be followed with consistent, decisive action.
In his first year leading a diocese, Bishop McKnight has joined other bishops for renewed urgency, transparency and compassion in addressing the past abuse of minors by clergy and to preventing it from happening again.
“Resolute action that manifests a true, firm purpose of amendment by the U.S. hierarchy is necessary,” he told the local Church in a Nov. 8, 2018, statement.
He has also spoken clearly about the need for all bishops to be kept accountable for protecting their people.
That became all the more urgent in light of revelations about former-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., who has been removed from the Priesthood after recently substantiated allegations that he had sexually abused young people.
It is clear that the former archbishop could not have become a leading prelate of the Church in this country without those allegations being ignored covered up by other high-ranking churchmen. Yet, “there has been not one resignation of a Catholic hierarchy because of his responsibility in allowing McCarrick to have done so much damage,” Bishop McKnight pointed out.
Bishop McKnight and many other U.S. bishops were disappointed last November when they went to their fall plenary meeting in Baltimore to vote on policy changes that would hold bishops to higher standards of conduct and accountability.
They had also planned to call for greater involvement by laypeople in their dioceses in order to make sure that those standards are consistently upheld.
But on the first day of their meeting, Church officials at the Vatican asked the U.S. bishops to hold off on enacting those new policies, which would have affected all U.S. dioceses, until after the worldwide summit in February.
Bishop McKnight noted after the November meeting that individual bishops could put any of the proposed policies into effect provisionally in their own dioceses, pending action by the bishops’ conference.
In fact, Bishop McKnight had already done so in this diocese in August.
Now, the Pope and bishops from around the world have agreed on clear parameters within which the episcopal conferences can shore up their standards for protecting young people.
They have given clear direction on how specifically to deal with indiscretions committed by sitting bishops, including the cover-up of abuse by priests and other agents of the Church.
Enacting stronger policies will likely be a priority for the U.S. bishops at their spring meeting in June.
In the meantime, Bishop McKnight assures the faithful that he and the people who work with him will remain vigilant and steadfast in reporting, handling and ultimately preventing all forms of abuse of children and young people by clergy and other agents of the Church in this diocese.
“This is not something that is temporary, a crisis for us to get through so we can go back to the way things were,” Bishop McKnight explained. “Instead, I believe this is a time for us to reform, to go back to our roots and understand the important, and distinct, leadership roles of the clergy and the laity. Only by each of us exercising our own responsibilities — laity, clergy, religious, bishops — in unity, will we be able to demonstrate accountability and transparency and bring our church forward.”
Carol Glatz is a Vatican City-based reporter for Catholic News Service.