We’ve come a long way on clergy abuse

By KEVIN CONNEELY  Star Tribune  Sunday, June 30, 2019

COUNTERPOINT: Jennifer Haselberg remains a critic, but much has changed since she left.

Jennifer Haselberger, the former chancellor for canonical affairs in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, recently wrote a commentary for the Washington Post in which she took a hard approach to “eradicating” clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. (The Star Tribune reprinted her article under the headline “The church can stop abuse; it just won’t” on June 14.)

Ms. Haselberger served our archdiocese in her chancellor role for six years. She describes what must for her have been an untenable position in 2013, so she made the courageous choice to resign as a self-described whistle-blower. Many Catholics I know could not appreciate her bravery at the time.

With the benefit of hindsight, few would dispute that she played an important but contentious role in shining a light into a dark corner. For that cleansing light, we cannot blame the person holding the flashlight. But her commentary’s either-or approach and negative view of the church’s prospects deserve a response in light of what has happened in the six years since she left her post.

Her working premise is that “the U.S. Church accepts the sexual abuse of minors as a cost of doing business the American way.” She compares the Catholic Church to a business organization that will always prioritize one thing (evangelization) over another (stopping child abuse by clergy).

Kevin Conneely, an attorney, is a member of Annunciation Parish in Minneapolis.

I have a more positive view of the church’s efforts and its prospects, but let me briefly address some of the steps Haselberger describes as necessary. She proposes that to stop abuse the church has to “get out of youth ministry.” Readers are left to guess which forms of “youth ministry” simply have to go — or for how long. Citing the five decades of no Catholic education in communist Slovenia, she leaves readers to wonder if her broad “youth ministry” prohibition includes the closing of all Catholic schools here, too. It would seem that any opportunity for abusers (and by this term she implies clergy) to interact with Catholic children, whether for education or faith formation or even holding or attending youth conferences, must come to a full stop. OK, then what?

She also criticizes those Catholic Church leaders who are resisting what she calls a “seemingly common-sense” legislative effort. Most recently, California legislators proposed to invade the sacramental seal of confession by making priests mandatory reporters of “suspected child abuse” confessed by other clerics or church-affiliated employees. Both Catholic leaders and laity should strongly oppose this intrusion into the healing Sacrament of Reconciliation under the guise of a state-mandating reporting of any crimes — or even suspected crimes — confessed to priests. Haselberger teases readers by suggesting that doing so “can be easily accommodated within Catholic theology.” How does that work, exactly, either under civil law or canon law? And, more important, has any evidence shown by what degree this idea of requiring priests to choose between violating the state’s law or violating the seal of the confessional (and face excommunication) is going to make our children safer in the first place?

I am more hopeful than Haselberger. In part that is because I do not frame the challenge of practicing and promoting our Catholic faith vs. protecting our children as an either-or proposition. It is also because of the earnest and positive steps being taken to do both in the six years since Haselberger’s departure from the local archdiocese. These efforts are, of course, in part the result of the law enforcement, civil claims and financial pressures. Admittedly, they are also being undertaken in the broader context of criminal complaints, civil claims and the cloud of bankruptcy proceedings. Yes, we have a new shepherd and new procedures, but here is what is equally important: We have more dedicated lay people working in the church toward the very same goal Haselberger thinks the Catholic Church refuses to pursue.

I have witnessed one aspect of this cooperation firsthand. From 2013 to 2018, I served as chair of the Ministerial Review Board and its predecessor the Ministerial Standards Board. Month after month, our 12-member Board independently reviewed more than a hundred priest files, conducted lengthy interviews and made detailed recommendations regarding a given priest’s ongoing fitness for ministry. Sometimes we recommended that a priest be removed (or stay removed) from ministry; sometimes we decided which restrictions should be imposed, where necessary, to protect all parishioners, not just young people. Sometimes we confirmed that serious allegations against innocent priests were simply unfounded.

This was painstaking and sometimes heartbreaking work, but it brought together the many gifts and varied backgrounds of legal and medical professionals, victims and victim advocates, all supported by the expanded investigative staff of the Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment. The board also was consulted from time to time for recommendations on archdiocesan policies being developed and implemented to promote a safe environment for children. The Ministerial Standards Board continues its difficult work (under better leadership), and it is just one of the ways in which I have seen laypeople step forward to repair the scandal that has rocked our church.

I can only summarize here many other steps involving dedicated lay Catholics working side-by-side with archdiocesan leadership to address the clergy abuse scandal: the 2012 Task Force whose recommendations lead the way to many reforms; the prominence and resources given to the Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment (under the direction of the state’s former commissioner of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Tim O’Malley), and the creation of an ombudsperson (filled currently by former Hennepin County Attorney Tom Johnson).

There are efforts going forward as well in our parishes, schools and in seminary formation to address the problems that can lead to child sexual abuse in the first place. All are focused on awareness, transparency and accountability. And all involve clergy and laypeople working together. None puts finances, evangelization or encouraging vocations above child safety. The church’s mission of evangelization and education are not “more important than” addressing the problem of sexual abuse of minors. It’s a both-and proposition.

As part of the nearly completed Ramsey County settlement, civil authorities and others observing the archdiocese’s efforts are commenting as well. In a hearing last year, Judge Teresa Warner described the archdiocese’s efforts in response to the settlement “impressive.” Ramsey County Attorney John Choi was quoted at that time as saying: “Certainly, the archdiocese has gone beyond the letter of the settlement agreement, but they really have embraced what we are trying to accomplish.” Working together, laypeople, ordained clergy and archdiocesan staff have shown by their many works that, since her departure, Haselberger’s dated either-or assumption is simply not true in this archdiocese.

In a June 16, 2018, Star Tribune article, victim’s attorney Jeff Anderson was quoted as saying: “They’ve now become the safest archdiocese in the country. But not as safe as it could be.” Perhaps that is the point that Ms. Haselberger and others cannot admit. Nothing designed or run by humankind is ever as safe or as great or as perfect as it could be. The idea that we can totally eliminate or eradicate a problem as serious as sexual misconduct with minors, by clergy or others, is a noble one. I strongly doubt Ms. Haselberger’s either-or proposals such as simply “get out of youth ministry” will do the trick. But there remain many other reasons to be hopeful that, step by step, our Archdiocese is on the right path, with many dedicated Catholics shining their light and showing the way.

There are efforts going forward as well in our parishes, schools and in seminary formation to address the problems that can lead to child sexual abuse in the first place. All are focused on awareness, transparency and accountability. None puts finances, evangelization or encouraging vocations above child safety.

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