I have been wrestling with the question of what to say about the latest set of abuse scandals to come out in recent weeks. One of the reasons for my struggle is that I am dealing with my feelings of betrayal and disillusionment that such things could happen in the Church I love. Another is that I know these ongoing revelations damage the trust you have placed in all leaders in the Church.
The issue of sexual abuse in the Church has been like a dark cloud hanging over the Church during most of the years I have been a priest. During my seminary years I remained unaware that sexual acting out of any kind could invade the holy sanctuary of our seminary. In years following my Ordination I would learn that a fellow seminarian, Rudy Kos, became one of the most notorious child abusers in his time as a priest.
In my Diocese of Dallas I learned how a disbelieving and defensive posture on the part of leaders could allow situations such as these to continue. I also had the opportunity to know some victims of abuse. In one case I had the honor of walking with her through many years and to seek with her a just response from diocesan authorities.
Since that time I have prayed daily and fasted weekly for victims of abuse. The pain of victims of abuse, especially abuse by someone who represents God in the Church, has moved me greatly. Many struggle for the rest of their lives with feelings of being unlovable, as though they are just an object to be used. Their pain never completely goes away and their difficulty in relating to God and trusting anyone in the Church is a lifetime struggle.
Arriving in El Paso five years ago I found that we were dealing with or had already resolved a number cases involving child predators. None of them were recent and many no longer were eligible for prosecution. As cases became known we sought to identify victims and offer them any assistance we could. We made sure that a zero tolerance policy was in place and that no one who had been credibly accused would ever have permission to be involved in ministry again.
In our diocese we have been greatly assisted by the expert work of our Victims’ Assistance Coordinator, Susan Martinez. She works alongside our Pastoral Review Board as a member of the Pastoral Response Committee, which is made up primarily of lay therapists who evaluate the claim and make recommendations regarding how the diocese can assist the victim, as well as what should be done with the perpetrator. She will encourage the victim to report to authorities. If the victim is a minor, she will report to the appropriate authorities. Susan has also arranged for me to meet with several victims when they requested. It has been a very heart-wrenching and moving experience for me.
Most of the cases of which we become aware happened long ago, but we always seek to identify other possible victims. Recently there was a credible case of abuse by a priest, Miguel Luna, which came to our attention. He had been removed from active ministry some years earlier due to concerns we had about his behavior although no victim had come forward. When two courageous women came forward we had announcements made in all our parishes and also announced what we had learned in the media. In this way we could warn any new potential victims and invite any others to come forward. As a result, a third victim came forward. The statute of limitations had not passed for the third victim’s case, so Miguel Luna is presently being prosecuted.
Another important step we have taken is our commitment to create a program of safe environment training to reach out to all children, diocesan and parish personnel, and volunteers active in the Church. VIRTUS, as it is known, conducts criminal background checks on all volunteers and personnel and teaches children and adults, in an age appropriate way, how to recognize the signs of a potential abuser. In just the last few years we have trained thousands. Our hope is that we will provide the tools not only to protect our parishes from the presence of child predators, but that we will also create safer homes and schools, which are the places where most abuse takes place.
I am confident that on a national level the Church will continue to seek better ways to assure that no person, no matter their rank, will be above the law. Meanwhile, here at home, we will continue to do all in our power to regain the trust that you have a right to expect from leaders in the Church.
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Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz