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What Archbishop Lucas learned from listening sessions on the sexual abuse crisis

In October, Archbishop George J. Lucas conducted listening sessions on the sexual abuse scandals with parishioners across the archdiocese. In this week’s interview, communication manager David Hazen speaks with the archbishop about what he learned at those meetings and his commitment to even higher standards of ministerial and personal conduct on the part of bishops and priests.

Q: You recently held several listening sessions about the abuse scandals and issues related to national and local cases of sexual misconduct. How did those sessions come about?

What has been coming to me in my prayer and in other conversations is that it is really important for me to listen to the people of God, and that I will be a better pastor of the archdiocese if I have a clearer understanding of what our priests and people are experiencing.

I had the opportunity at the end of summer to have rich conversations with the Priest Council, and then with all of the priests of the archdiocese at the Clergy Conference in October. However, I thought it was important to listen to the people who form the majority of the archdiocese, the laity. 

I did not make the first two listening sessions – one in Omaha, another in Norfolk – widely public ahead of time so that the size of the group would be more conducive to conversation, but I did invite all of our pastors to encourage a couple people from their parishes to come to either session. 

I was really gratified that people took time on each of these occasions on a Saturday morning to participate in the process. We structured the time so that there was an opportunity for everybody who came to do some reflecting on their own, to share in smaller groups, and then to share with me. I have a written record of all the comments that were shared so that I can reflect on them.

One of the things that I promised at the listening sessions was to share what I heard more widely in the archdiocese. I want the local church to know that I am listening. 

Q: As the facilitator of the listening sessions, what questions did you ask?

We had several open-ended questions to try to encourage thought and discussion. I first asked people to describe their feelings and experiences in the recent weeks and months as we learned about the misconduct of Archbishop McCarrick, as we received the results of the grand jury investigations of the Pennsylvania dioceses, and as the attorney general in Nebraska asked us to produce records from past decades.

There has been quite a bit of news about clergy misconduct and about the lack of effective follow-through on the part of bishops. So, I was anxious for the people who participated to just share their reactions to all that, which they did very generously and with a great deal of energy. People love our church and they understand the demands of the Gospel, and the fact that there were such serious offenses in the church and a lack of oversight was really shocking and embarrassing to many. 

They used words like being hurt or dismayed, disappointed, disillusioned, even a sense of shame and guilt.  Even though the people present hadn’t committed these serious sins themselves, there is a sense of shame that seems to cover us in the church as we hear about it and know that it may have been ignored or covered up over time. 

We bear the weight of that, of that guilt, and a real sense that injustice has been done, people have been hurt. It is not our hope for our life together in the church that those who are looking for Jesus would come to the church and find hurt and disrespect or be ignored in their cries for help. 

Q: Speaking of hope, what sort of resolutions or hopes for the future did you hear the laity express?

A number of people expressed that they see this as an important moment in the life of the church, a kind of turning point, and really hope that we would see it as an opportunity. Particularly, they want those of us in leadership to see it as an opportunity to become more transparent and to use both the tools of civil authority and our own canon law to make sure that things are in good order in the church, that people are living, working and acting in a way that is responsible.

Many people also expressed their own sense that it was a moment for them, too, to examine themselves and their own participation in the church to see how they could make a contribution to making things better.

So in the midst of the sadness and anger and disillusionment, these faithful Catholics also are holding onto hope that we’re moving to a better place, and we need to, but this is an opportunity that we can take advantage of. 

I heard over and over again very clearly that the people love the church and they have decided they’re not going anywhere. Even though they might be ashamed or angry or disillusioned, they love our Lord Jesus Christ; they meet him in the church; they value their own life and participation in the church. So they’re ready – if I’m ready and if the leaders of the church are ready – to take a step in a good direction, as difficult or as challenging as that might be.

Q: You have said that you plan to work with other bishops to address the problem of accountability. Was that addressed in the listening sessions?

Yes, one of the reasons for holding the listening sessions was to help prepare me for the November meeting of the U.S. bishops. I want to make sure that I have a clear sense of the faithful whom I’ve been sent to pastor. Listening to the very generous sharing gives me a firm resolve to work with my brother bishops to put in place greater accountability for bishops. 

I also want to work for an increase in transparency at all levels in the church. A number of people mentioned there needs to be a sense that from the pope on down to every person in the pew, that there can be restored confidence, based on the expectation that we’re hearing the truth, and that when we ask a question or have a concern about misconduct or any other important matter, that there is a reasonable explanation and reasonable understanding together of what’s going on.

Q: Do you have a sense of how the conversation is going to go when the bishops meet? 

I think there is a resolve among all of us that we don’t want to come home from this meeting with everything just the same as it was when we left. Cardinal DiNardo, who is the president of our bishops’ conference, has drawn up some proposals for us to consider, and they include how to ensure that there will be accountability for bishops.

I think it’s going to take the Holy Father to ratify anything that we suggest, but we are hopeful that we can work through this. Again, Pope Francis has expressed fairly clearly his own desire that the incidents of abuse and the causes of abuse be addressed and that victims be assisted and that they be listened to first and then pastoral care be provided for them.

I think in some ways we are already doing it in this country, but we see that there are some systemic things that need to be addressed. That is what comes clearly through the reports from the Pennsylvania dioceses and other places. 

In many ways, we are in a better place than we were a couple of decades ago. But there is now, as much as anything, a crisis of confidence in leadership from the pope down to me and to other bishops, and a question about whether or not we really understand the seriousness of the problem. In these listening sessions, in informal conversations, and recently from St. Wenceslaus parishioners, I have heard expressed very forcefully a call for a higher standard of ministerial and personal conduct across the board, as well as greater transparency in the assignment of clergy.  There is a hope on the part of our people that I hear very clearly that we need to deal with this effectively. It will take some steps over time, but we need to be diligent and have a sense of urgency about it.

Q: It seems that many faithful Catholics – through no fault of their own – are not entirely aware what processes and resources are already in place for addressing these problems.

That is one of the things that I realized in the listening sessions: We haven’t always been effective in communicating to our people what we have already put in place as a result of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that was implemented in the early 2000s. The listening sessions gave me the opportunity to talk a little about what we are doing.

I really encourage everybody to go to archomaha.org and look at the very detailed policies we have in place to ensure a safe environment for children and young people in the church. If people see or experience any behavior they are uncomfortable with or which is out of line, there is a way to report that. Those reports will be received very respectfully and we will follow through.

Part of our commitment to transparency has been to work with law enforcement officials and to encourage all of our people to call the police first if they see evidence of abuse, before they even report it to us. Our commitment is to keep that communication open and to share with local law enforcement any information we have about criminal or abusive conduct.

That kind of transparency and accountability has already been in place now for some years, and I think it has been shown to be largely effective. We have to be diligent about and maintain those structures and procedures for the ongoing good of the church and for the respect and safety of vulnerable people in our church.

Q: As you pray and reflect on what you have received from the laity, what other steps have you discerned might be taken next?

I asked the people, “What are you looking for in our archdiocese over the next year or two that would help with the restoration of confidence and help with healing?” There were some rather specific suggestions that came through at that time. 

One of the suggestions which I welcomed is to have more women in positions of leadership in the archdiocese and our programs. 

There was a suggestion to reinstitute the archdiocesan pastoral council, which was made up of laity and met regularly with the archbishop long before my time here. I have to say, it would have been helpful to have had that at this moment, because it is a ready-made opportunity to listen and to receive feedback from those who are members of the laity who are very invested in the life of the church in various places. We will see how some of these things might be possible going forward.

As I said earlier, I think we can work on our communication efforts. Of course, the work of announcing the Gospel is always a matter of communication. We realize that most of our people in the pews get their information from the secular media, and we have good opportunities to share and exchange information within the archdiocese, but they are not quite as loud or as present in the lives and the minds of people as what they are getting other places. 

This is a good challenge for us to take on. The more we are all familiar with what is happening (not only in moments of crisis) and the more we’re acquainted with one another, the more confidence we can have in each other. 

I was grateful at the listening sessions that the folks who attended were so generous in sharing their responses, because it helps me put confidence in how the Holy Spirit is working in them, and I hope that my communication with them helps in the same way. 

We have to create more opportunities for that to happen going forward. It is easy to be fragmented. We see it in our secular society. We are all affected by that, too, in the church. There is great division and a lack of trust in all kinds of ways. I think we should take note of that.

As I said before, the mission of Jesus is communion: to bring people together, to heal divisions and to heal hurts that are the effect of sin. I’m not sure we always see that as central to our mission – that kind of communicating and listening and offering, receiving from one another an exchange of gifts provided first by the Holy Spirit that help us flourish, each in our own vocations with our own responsibilities. We do need one another, and I feel I need to be more explicit in calling forth those gifts from the larger church, from people who want to contribute in many ways who perhaps feel that they are not being invited. 

Q: How can we avoid losing sight of that mission in the current climate? 

We certainly don’t just want to sweep the past wrongs or hurts under the rug or say, “Well, that’s all over now. We’re going to go do something else.”  I heard from people a real hopefulness that this is a decisive moment for us to do just what you’re saying, to ask ourselves, “What is our mission? What is Jesus offering us? What is he asking of us?” Let’s make sure that that is where our focus is.

Certainly, he is asking us to acknowledge our sinfulness so that he can apply his mercy where that is needed; certainly, he’s asking us to care for those who have been hurt or who are burdened by abuse or by the scandals resulting from the abuse. 

As people look to the future, I sense a great desire to be the church that the Lord founded and that he wants us to be. The world needs our witness. Now, this witness has been clouded and compromised in some very serious ways. How can we acknowledge that, restore justice as is needed, but then move ahead in an evangelistic way, close to the Lord and really presenting him to our neighbors?

On that note, I want to thank all the people who have communicated with me formally and informally in these recent weeks. I value that communication, and I will try to be worthy of the trust that you are putting in me to work with my brother bishops to help us effect the change where we need to and to live out our mission faithfully.

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