In this week’s interview, communications manager David Hazen speaks with Archbishop George J. Lucas about recent reports of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up by high church officials. The archbishop indicates what he believes is at the root of the problem and discusses what the archdiocese is already doing to protect children and young people. This interview has been excerpted from a longer 30-minute podcast discussion available on the web at https://archomaha.fireside.fm.
Q: Archbishop Lucas, you recently sent out a statement that was read at every parish (at Masses the weekend of Aug. 25 and 26). What was the impetus behind this for you? What else would you like to say?
It was important for me to acknowledge the reports that have come out recently. We realize that there were over a number of years many priests and bishops who were personally guilty of the sexual abuse of minors and that others in positions of power chose to look the other way, and to not take into account the hurt and the welfare of those who had been victimized.
I acknowledge this with sorrow, and I know from speaking with our priests and parishioners, that this is causing a great deal of hurt and anger. We have to acknowledge the ugly truth so that we can repent, but also so that we can be resolute in our work to ensure that no one is hurt going forward.
I think it’s fair to say that the institutional church has failed our people in this area. Not everything is a failure, but when we see these reports that go back many decades, we can see that there was a pattern of failure – both on the part of those who directly misused their office to abuse minors and other vulnerable people, and on the part of those who refused to deal with it in a compassionate, just and forthright way.
Q: You have indicated that the structure of accountability for bishops is broken in some ways. What do you propose?
The recent reports have highlighted the crucial role that bishops need to play both in dealing with misconduct among priests but also in terms of making sure that our own conduct is appropriate and above reproach. The recent reports about the conduct of Archbishop McCarrick led many to ask, “Well, who deals with bishops? And who holds them accountable to the same standard of good conduct and responsibility as everybody else?”
I think that is a great question, and one the bishops of this country will have to look at again together when we meet in November. The fact of the matter is that in our structure in the church, the immediate superior of a bishop is the Holy Father. Bishops of this country have committed ourselves to try to hold each other to high standards, but there really isn’t an effective way to offer that kind of accountability of one bishop to another. I know that that system is weak and that it doesn’t always work very well, so I’m going to work with my brother bishops to propose to the Holy Father that there be a serious manner for us to be held accountable that works and is transparent.
My motivation for this is twofold: First, it’s the right thing to do. We all need to play by the same rules. We all need to be accountable to the Lord for whatever our various responsibilities are, to act in a moral and upright way.
The second comes from a very painful experience I had in the previous diocese where I served. The retired bishop, my predecessor who was still living in the diocese, had been guilty of grave misconduct over a number of years. That continued after his retirement. It was causing great scandal and great upset within the diocese. I wasn’t able to discipline him for a couple reasons, because in some ways I didn’t have the authority in our structure, and then secondly, he didn’t want to be disciplined. So, it was a very difficult situation that caused great turmoil within that local church.
I documented his actions and reported them to the nuncio and really got no effective response. Eventually, I was able to communicate with the Congregation for Bishops, who sent him a disciplinary letter, and told him to refrain from any kind of public ministry and from the conduct that he had been involved in that was immoral and scandalous. But they also stipulated that the instruction should remain a secret.
So, I knew about it, but the people of God didn’t know about it. It appeared to everyone that nothing was happening and because the bishop himself didn’t change his behavior, the church really suffered there. People rightly asked, “Well, can’t somebody do something about this?”
That was a painful episode in the life of that local church and in my own life. So, I really do think it is very important for everybody in the church to know that bishops are accountable and that there be a structure to communicate to God’s people what is being done when a bishop needs to be disciplined.
Q: Can you share with us what structures our local church has in place, especially regarding the protection of young people?
We have thousands of people every year who undergo safe environment training. Anyone who has significant contact with minors – whether they are ordained clergy, teachers, school and parish staff, or volunteers – has to receive that training and to undergo a criminal background check.
Our desire is to make the church and our programs very inhospitable to anyone who would want to take advantage of a child or a vulnerable young person. We insist on that, and the training has to be renewed every several years. We have a way of keeping track of who’s being recertified for safe environment. If somebody refuses to take the training, or refuses to be recertified, they have to step away from whatever work they’re doing with minors.
If we ever receive an allegation that abuse has taken place, we contact appropriate law enforcement agencies. We cooperate with those in the community who are charged with public safety, and with the enforcement of justice. I am grateful that we have an active and competent review board that oversees the consistent application of our safe environment policies.
We also receive respectfully anyone who alleges abuse. We let them know that they are being heard, and that their courage in coming forward is a beautiful thing, and a powerful thing, and it is very, very important to us.
We have a victim assistance coordinator who receives those who would have a reason to bring forward information about abuse. Mary Beth Hanus is very well trained and has great experience. Anyone who would call her with a concern would find that they would be very well served, and would be heard.
It is important for me to say that there is no one serving in ministry – no priest, or deacon in the Archdiocese of Omaha – who has had one credible allegation of the abuse of a minor. We have a zero-tolerance policy. If we have any reason to believe that someone is inappropriate to serve children or young people, that person is removed from ministry completely.