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The InterVIEW

Bishop: Church has made progress

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of Austin, Texas, has served as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People since November 2005. Since then, he has become the face of the U.S. bishops in dealing with the clerical sexual abuse crisis. Bishop Aymond discussed the progress the church has made and what it still must do with assistant editor Michelle Martin when he was in Mundelein for a conference of victims’ assistance coordinators from around the country.

Catholic New World: What has the church in the United States accomplished since the Dallas charter?

Bishop Gregory Aymond: The bishops promised a lot with the charter. We promised to offer an apology—a sincere apology, not just once, but to each victim. We promised that we would work with victims and that we would be part of the healing with victims, and that we would do that with sensitivity and compassion and justice. We promised that we would educate and protect children and that we would educate parents and teachers and volunteers and all people in ministry to understand what the sin of sexual abuse is and to understand safe boundaries. We also promised that those who were abusers in the clergy would no longer serve.

There is no way in the world we could accomplish this by ourselves. It really has been the work of a tremendous number of people, including the victims’ assistance coordinators, who have been on the front lines, dealing directly with victims, men and women whose lives have been shattered, who are in pain, who certainly have been abused and misused. They (victims’ assistance coordinators) have been for our church a sign of Christ, the compassionate Christ.

I would say we have fulfilled the promise in many ways through both the bishops and the victims’ assistance coordinator sincerely apologizing, moving towards healing of victims, and doing that in a way of integrity and justice. In some cases, that certainly means—and it should mean—paying for counseling and being there for them.

CNW: What about in the area of safe environment?

BGA: I would like to think anybody who works with children has a safe environment. I think we need to have “faith environments,” where children feel that they come to us and not only feel safe, but also have their faith encouraged. Parents should be able to feel that they should be able to send their kids to us and not only have safe environment, but have an environment that will foster their faith. Fostering their faith can mean a lot of things. For me the image is the real Jesus who says let the children come to me. We as church should be able to be saying that to them.

The other thing we have accomplished is the audits. We can look back and say to the world and to the Catholic Church in the United States that we have fulfilled our promises.

That’s not to say we don’t have a lot left to do. The very things we promised are ongoing. As we know, the credibility of the church was sorely, sorely damaged, and I think we have begun to restore that. We’re not there yet. We have more to do.

CNW: I have seen people look askance at priests, especially around kids. Will people ever get beyond that reaction?

BGA: I think so. It’s going to take time. When the crisis was among us in 2002, I remember a certain awkwardness in wearing the collar. I always travel in it, my ministry is in the collar, and I felt like, “What are they saying? What are they thinking?” But there would be other times when I would be sitting on a plane or sitting in an airport, and people would come up and say, “I’m not Catholic, but I want to offer you my support. I hope that what you all are going through will help us.” There are a lot of people out there who understand.

We, as a church, are embarrassed. This shouldn’t have happened. It is our sin as a family. The two saving graces that I think have come from this and will come from this—through the pain that we have been through: God is purifying the church, and in the next generation, and even sooner that, we will have a more purified church than we have had in the past, and a more accountable Catholic Church in terms of the lives of our clergy and sexuality and sexual misconduct.

The second thing is I don’t think sexual abuse was talked about five years ago in the media the way it is now. I saw a ticker across the bottom of the TV screen last week saying “sexual abuse happens—and it’s not just in churches.” I thought that was significant. We are talking about it in terms of youth groups, in terms of other denominations. John Jay College (which did the study of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church) is working with other denominations now, they’re working with school districts now. One of the graces that comes from this is not only will our church have a safer environment for children—I certainly wish as we all wish that we could have done it with less pain, and less embarrassment and less work maybe, but we didn’t. That’s where we are, and our sin is our sin, and this is part of our repentance. This is part of our restoration of trust.

I hear priests saying all the time, “I’m not going to get too close to kids,” and I say, “Don’t be crazy.” We are there, and if we stop caring for and literally embracing our young children—the answer is not to stop doing it, and not to stop taking kids on outings, but to do it with boundaries, and to do it with other adults there. But if we stop doing those things, we have stopped our ministry as a church, and we can’t do that.

It’s like in any relationship, certainly in a marital relationship—when a trust is broken, a person has to regain the trust, and that takes time.

CNW: What do we as a church know now that we didn’t know five years ago, or even two or three years ago?

BGA: I think what we have learned is that most of the abuse in our church took place from the late ’60s to the early ‘80s, and that there has been a significant change since then—which is not to say there haven’t been some cases. There was something that was happening in our society and possibly in our church that allowed this. We’ve learned that treatment is not very sure, and when a person is a pedophile or has an inclination toward pedophilia, they do not have a place in ministry. We want to be charitable to them, and we want to be kind to the priest, but they don’t belong in ministry. We’ve learned that moving people around has been very hurtful. We’ve also learned a lot about the incredible pain that the victims are going through.

I’ve certainly talked to many, many, many victims both locally and in other places in the United States and we’ve all heard these stories—bishops have, priests have, lay people have. It’s a shattered life and a shattered faith very often. I think we have learned in a new way, with so many cases coming up in such a short period of time, the depth of pain.

The other thing that we’ve learned is that we need assistance to do this. We need people to help us and to give us insight and that’s why we have an Office for the Protection of Children and Young People, with Teresa Kettlecamp and Sheila Kelly, and their staff and the National Review Board.

We can point fingers forever, but more importantly, I think we’re at a point now of moving together to find solutions and to address the real issues.

And because of what has happened, we will never view our children the same way. We will always see them as more fragile, and more sacred.

CNW: What is the church’s role in terms of victim assistance? Do they want the church’s assistance?

BGA:That varies from story to story and from one life to the next life. I think all victims want assistance, and I think all victims seek healing and peace. I think all victims do seek help. Many of them will seek the church to be an instrument of that. Some of them, because they are angry at the church, will not seek the church to be an instrument of healing. Nonetheless, we have to be there. Even if people do not want our assistance or our offer of healing and reconciliation, we still have to be there to apologize, to take responsibility for the wrongdoing, in the name of the church.

I have great admiration and appreciation for the victims’ assistance coordinators because they are on the front lines. They get the first phone call or the first visit, which is usually full of tears and anger and pain. They’re there to help them emotionally to the extent they can, and psychologically and spiritually. They are not there to convince them to do something or other but to listen and try to bring peace and wholeness, and if they can, a level of forgiveness.

[Victim assistance coordinators] have to be people of insight and compassion, but also rooted in prayer, or a person could not continue this ministry.

CNW: What does the church need to keep doing or doing better?

BGA: I think as a church we certainly need to keep doing background checks on people who are volunteering. We need to keep doing educational programs, and maybe some of our educational programs in general could be better. There are many, many programs out there, and we need to scrutinize those to see which programs are more helpful than others.

Safe environment programs are not human sexuality (education programs). They are something different. However, I think as a church, I think we ought to be doing good, healthy human sexuality, and sometimes we’re not doing as well as we could or should, and that’s something we need to look at.

CARA (the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University) did a poll of Catholics, and it’s amazing to me. I think 30 percent of the people realize that we have a charter—I don’t know the exact statistic (34 percent according to a May 2007 poll conducted by CARA).

I think we’re timid at times about telling everybody what we’re doing. We have made progress, and we haven’t fully arrived, but we’ve done a lot.

The other thing is the John Jay study. We need funding for that. They have already done all the statistics of the past and now we’re moving into the important area of asking the question from the criminology point of view and the psychological point of view: Why did it happen when it happened—what caused this? And in what context? What was happening when this happened?

It would be nice to say sexual abuse is never going to happen again. That’s ridiculous. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen in families, it’s going to happen in schools, it’s going to happen in public schools—it’s going to happen. We want to have “faith environments” to prevent it from happening and we also want to make sure we never have that critical mass happening that we did.