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Tough lessons lead to significant changes

Date: Wednesday, July 30, 2014

NienstedtBl_crop__2To say that this has been a difficult year is quite an understatement.

Here in the archdiocese, Catholics have witnessed many troubling media reports, and many of us have had difficult conversations with friends and family about what it means to be Catholic and why we still profess the faith. I, myself, have been the subject of two investigations, which have brought with them more public scrutiny. I have received messages calling me a hypocrite, a domineering boss and a liar. Others have written that I am a courageous moral leader and a true shepherd. I have read them all. I am grateful for everyone who has taken the time to write, regardless of how they feel, as most believe they are acting in the best interests of the Church.

In the end, it comes down to this: 18 years ago, Pope John Paul II chose me to serve the Church as a bishop, an authentic successor of the apostles. A bishop’s role is more like that of a father of a family than that of a CEO. I am bound to continue in my office as long as the Holy Father has appointed me here. I have acknowledged my responsibility in the current crisis we face, and I also take responsibility for leading our archdiocese to a new and better day.

In Second Chronicles 20:15, the spirit of the Lord tells King Jehoshaphat and the troops, as his enemies are approaching across the Palestinian wilderness in battle, “This is what the Lord says to you: ‘stop being afraid, and stop being discouraged because of this vast invasion force, because the battle doesn’t belong to you, but to God.’ ”

I have heard calls for my resignation since I arrived in this wonderful archdiocese seven years ago. I will continue to listen to those who express concerns about my leadership, but I will also continue serving as I have been called to do. I am devoted to serving this local Church, and I will continue to do so and to apply these hard lessons that I have learned over the past months. While it may be difficult to believe, the suffering we have endured is bearing much fruit in reform of practices and correction of decisions that were made in the past, either by me or my predecessors.

I have read all the media articles, and heard advice from lawyers and communicators who have offered their thoughts. I have consulted with priests who, day in and day out, continue to do the work of the Church by offering the sacraments, pastoral care and spiritual guidance to the faithful. I have met with parish, Catholic school and archdiocesan leaders and staff to make sure that the good work of educating our youth, helping the poor and oppressed, and sharing the Good News continues. I have heard about the pain of being ignored by the Church from victims of sexual abuse and their families. I heard from the parishioners and families of priests I have removed from ministry. And I have prayed. Oh, how I have prayed.

I can only speak for myself and my actions, not the words or actions of others. Over the last year, I have re-examined the words I have spoken and the actions I have, or have not taken, and I want to share this with you:

1. I have created a new leadership team that operates under the philosophy of “Victims First.” I have empowered a new team of bishops, parish and religious order priests, archdiocesan employees, lay Catholics and non-Catholics to assist me and provide consultation. They continually operate from the perspective of how we can best help victims of sexual abuse and their families. To make sure we retain this focus, I am hiring a new victim’s liaison, a lay professional who will serve as a continuous voice for victims on my consultation team. We have reached out to survivors of sexual abuse and have asked them to share their advice and insight as we continue addressing the recommendations made by the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force. Several victims have graciously agreed to share their thoughts. “Victims First” has become more than a philosophy; it has become standard operating procedure.

2. I have never knowingly covered up clergy sexual abuse. I have, however, been too trusting of our internal process and not as hands-on as I could have been in matters of priest misconduct. Since the completion of the independent internal review of all our clergy files, I have removed several clergy from active ministry and publicly named them while we await review of their files by the police and the archdiocese’s Clergy Review Board. While it is very clear that we did not handle all complaints the way we should have in the past, we are now doing all we can to make sure that we are living up to our commitment to be accountable, transparent, and are, in fact, providing safe environments for our children. I receive regular updates on any misconduct cases and the work of the Clergy Review Board.

3. I have always been honest with the Catholics of this local Church. I have addressed the accusations against me head on, following all the protocols we have in place for all of our priests. I have asked for the recent investigation because I had nothing to hide and wanted to be vindicated from false allegations, as anyone would. I have been a priest for more than 40 years. I have served as a pastor, a teacher, and a seminary rector. I have no doubt that my administrative and personal style, with its strong point of view, may have offended some. I apologize to those I have hurt. The last year has helped me realize I need to change my administrative style, soften my words, and get out from behind the desk to spend more time with the faithful.

I am sorry for the distractions I have inadvertently caused that have taken the focus away from the challenging and rewarding work we do as the Catholic Church in our local community. We must continue to address head-on the terrible scandal of clerical sexual abuse. It is apparent that this is the work of the Church we are called to address at this time.

The learning curve of the past 10 months has prepared my staff and me to lead this local Church through the present crisis to a much better place. The challenges are there, to be sure, but we are more ready to tackle them now than at any time in our past history. I know that we are making progress and there is a momentum to that. Still, there is more to be done. I regret that some have lost their confidence in me. I hope ultimately to win back that trust. As your shepherd, I promise to make changes in what we do so that we can see more clearly the work of God in our lives and grow closer to His Beloved Son and Our Savior, Jesus Christ.

As author Matthew Kelly reminds us, we as Catholics have a great story to tell, but we have let others tell the story for us. We need to get back to telling the story ourselves.

God bless you!

 

This column is featured in the July 31, 2014 issue of The Catholic Spirit.