My pockets were bulging when I was in the eastern United States following Pope Francis for Our Sunday Visitor. I carried all my credentials and identification papers so that if I were stopped anywhere amid the intense security surrounding the Holy Father, I could prove my right to be there.
Among these papers was a letter from my own bishop stating that I never have been accused of any sexual impropriety with anyone, or of breaking my pledge of celibacy, or convicted of crime.
My bishop provided this letter at my request. I was instructed that before I could concelebrate with the pope, or act in any priestly capacity associated with his visit, I needed this endorsement.
Last spring, I went to Rome for Holy Week, and I neglected to obtain such a letter from my bishop. (Every letter has to be timely, unlike passports and driver’s licenses.) I arrived at St. Peter’s Basilica for the pope’s chrism Mass, in all the grandeur of my monsignor’s regalia, and with my valid U.S. passport, and I summarily was denied entry. Forget concelebrating the papal Mass. Forget attending Mass!
While some cases may have fallen through the net, the policy of the Church is clear. Priests, brothers, nuns and lay Church personnel accused of sexual abuse cannot function. Why? Three popes in a row, and every bishop whom I know, and I know many, are determined to stop any exploitation of others by Church figures.
Pope Francis took this country by storm, but some criticized his comment in Washington to the American bishops that they have handled the abuse situation with “courage.”
It is not surprising that victims of child sex abuse by priests or nuns say that more needs to be done to address this problem. Victims must cope with horrendous damage to their lives.
Past Church practices by and large were fearfully insensitive in handling sexual abuse. It is a big country, and a big world, and things in some places may not be all that they should be still, but if a priest in every diocese familiar to me is accused of sexually abusing anybody, he is forbidden to act as a priest in the time required to punch in his telephone number. He has the opportunity to defend himself, but if anything, Church policy errs on the side of caution.
In Philadelphia, the Holy Father in effect warned U.S. bishops that no exceptions will be tolerated in maintaining this strict policy. Two prominent diocesan bishops resigned this year for mishandling cases, and lest we forget, about a dozen American bishops earlier resigned either for actual perpetrations on their part or for their bad administration in these matters.
Part of my job at Our Sunday Visitor is to edit The Priest, OSV’s monthly magazine for priests, and to keep in mind whatever may concern priests, such as developments in American seminaries.
Talk about a revolution! Seminaries approach sexual abuse bluntly, directly and very seriously. Professional assistance is the rule. Expectations are exact. Nothing is left to chance.
When I was a seminarian, priestly celibacy was a given. That day is long gone. Today’s seminarians are guided into considering every aspect of celibacy. None is approved for ordination until he deeply and freely chooses to be celibate, not because it is required but because he wants to be celibate to follow Jesus as perfectly as he can, just as the Gospel admonishes.
No observant person can downgrade the injury done victims by sex abuse or understate the destruction of trust in the Church caused by the sex abuse crisis, but give the Church a break. It is quite determined and proactive in this regard.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.