When I was 19 years old, I was offered the position of youth minister at the parish where I grew up. Catholicism, thus, has defined both my personal and professional life.
During my time working with young people in the church, the concept of “safe environment” was ingrained in everything I did. In the Catholic Church, that term refers to policies pertaining to the prevention of and response to sexual harassment or abuse of children.
Last week’s news that all of Texas’ Catholic dioceses will release the names of clergy who have been accused of sexually abusing minors struck a chord deep within me.
For perhaps obvious reasons, Catholic dioceses and youth leaders in the past 20 years have prioritized safe environment training and practices. In 2005, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops produced the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which outlines safe environment goals and procedures for the church. Every diocese and parish has its own policies that build upon that document.
As a young man working in the church, I believed for some time that we had advanced past many of the attitudes and policies that had allowed dangerous people to thrive in our midst. But when a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing a series of coverups in the state over the course of 40 years was released in August, I couldn’t believe how little had changed.
In the days that followed, Pope Francis himself was accused of covering up allegations of sexual abuse by a U.S. cardinal. Like many Catholics across the country and around the world, I looked to my leaders and wondered how both the abuse and the coverups could still be happening. Like many Catholics in San Antonio, I looked to Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller and wondered why he remained largely silent on the issue.
While the report focused on Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, one priest accused in there later served as a pastor and teacher in the Archdiocese of San Antonio – long before García-Siller became archbishop. Still, I waited for the archbishop to respond to what had happened and announce measures to prevent it from happening in the future.
Throughout my professional career, I have worked with many people on many levels of power and influence in the Church, including Archbishop Gustavo, as he’s known to local Catholics.
I have been quietly critical of the archdiocese and García-Siller since August: critical because the silence made me nervous, but quiet because I know the archbishop and assumed he remained silent in an effort to be discerning. As the weeks went by, I grew impatient and angry, but I maintained hope that García-Siller was working on a response. Not a public relations response – a response that entailed action.
One week ago, the archbishop held a press conference to announce his response.
First, he announced the formation of the Lay Commission on Clergy Sexual Abuse of Minors in the Archdiocese of San Antonio, led by Catherine M. Stone, former chief justice of the Texas Fourth District Court of Appeals. The commission’s role will be to inform and audit the Archdiocese as it adopts new safe environment policies.
Second, the Archdiocese has committed to releasing by Jan. 31 a report on sexual abuse allegations in San Antonio dating back to 1940, which will include the names of clergy who have been “credibly accused.”
Third, the Archdiocese will review current procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors. These efforts all will be informed and reviewed by the new lay commission.
While answering questions after the press conference, García-Siller encouraged victims of clerical abuse to speak up so they may be heard. The archbishop said through tears the church “… will deal justly with this painful past as it looks to a hope-filled future.”
The concept of justice in the Catholic Church goes beyond crime and punishment, promising people their due. This promise means both bringing criminals to light and continuing to build a safer and more transparent environment in the church. That is what we – the faithful – are due.
The recent focus on clerical abuse in the U.S. has been painful for the laity. The Archdiocese’s willingness to deal with this painful reality is a progressive step in a world where the lay people perhaps are used to dioceses dismissing clerical abuse.
I exercised little patience in waiting for García-Siller’s response after the grand jury report was announced. Luckily, the archbishop was patient and diligent in forming his response, and I’m proud to be a Catholic in San Antonio today.
It is my hope that the actions of this archdiocese will serve as a template for bishops across the U.S., who will meet to discuss these issues at the conference’s fall assembly in November.