INTRODUCTORY REMARKS BY
THE VERY REVEREND DAVID M. O’CONNELL, C.M.,
PRESIDENT OF THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA
February 18, 2003
This past year has been a nightmare for all of us in the Catholic Church. And, as is the case with any nightmare, we hoped to wake up from the terror only to realize that it was just a bad dream. We awoke but, unfortunately, the nightmare remained.
Day after day, week after week, month after month a seemingly unrelenting series of revelations appeared daily “on page one, above the fold” and on every news broadcast throughout our country repeating stories of sexual abuse of minors by our brothers in the clergy. And if that was not bad enough, the admitted mishandling of cases of such misconduct by bishops and other diocesan officials for the past several decades lent tragic support to the claim that the Church was rapidly losing its moral authority and credibility. While we could never accept such a claim, the wake of the resulting scandal left us shaken, demoralized and unable to respond adequately.
How could this have happened? What are the circumstances that turned our world upside down in the Church and left us bruised and bleeding? Will the Church recover?
Rightly, in the year that has passed, the Church has placed primary emphasis upon the victims of sexual abuse: young women and men and their families who felt that their most sacred trust had been betrayed. Precious little could be done to restore lost innocence or to repair the psychological, emotional and spiritual scars that have marked hundreds of young people as they struggled to assume a healthy adulthood.
Without diminishing in any way the suffering experienced by the young and their families which always must be our first concern and restoring trust by protecting them in the present moment and the future, we must also realize that the Church as a whole has been the victim of the sinful, criminal behavior of a few who have assumed the role of wolves not in sheep’s but in shepherds’ clothing.
In his extraordinary meeting with the Cardinal Archbishops of the United States on April 23, 2002, our Holy Father Pope John Paul II remarked that
“I too have been deeply grieved by the fact that priests and religious, whose vocation it is to help people live holy lives in the sight of God, have themselves caused such suffering and scandal to the young. Because of the great harm done by some priests and religious, the Church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the Church's leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter. The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God. To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern.”
Our Holy Father continued
“It must be absolutely clear to the Catholic faithful, and to the wider community, that Bishops and superiors are concerned, above all else, with the spiritual good of souls. People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young. They must know that Bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life.”
In his remarks at the conclusion of the Bishops’ meeting in Dallas, Conference President Bishop Wilton Gregory stated that:
“These are times that cry out for a genuine reconciliation within the Church in our country; not a reconciliation that merely binds a wound so that we can move forward together in some hobbled kind of fashion. What we need is a reconciliation that heals: one that brings us together to address this issue in a way that ensures that it will not happen again; one that begins with a love of the Truth that is Jesus Christ; one that embraces fully and honestly the authentic elements of the Sacrament of Penance as we celebrate it in the Catholic tradition. Only by truthful confession, heartfelt contrition, and firm purpose of amendment can we hope to receive the generous mercy of God and the forgiveness of our brothers and sisters (June 13, 2002). “
That is our purpose for gathering in these few days that are ahead. We need to reconcile not only wounded people within the Church, the most important focus of our efforts. We need to reconcile structures within the Church so that, as Bishop Gregory stated, this “will not happen again;” so that the rights of all can be studied, understood, addressed and adjudicated within the Church’s own laws and procedures.
Like myself, many of you were educated in canon law at The Catholic University of America. Within the past year, as its president, I have preferred not to permit the national university of the Catholic Church in our country to be drawn into this crisis as an isolated quotation in the morning newspapers or a “sound bite” on the evening news. In the midst of a media frenzy, I did not create seminars and forums to discuss accusations and allegations, finger-pointing and blame, hierarchical mistakes and projections for alterations in Church teaching and doctrine. I believed then and I still believe that The Catholic University of America had something more significant to contribute to the permanent healing for which our Church so desperately longs.
In conversations with bishops on our board of trustees and others prior to and after Dallas, it became clear to me that proposed approaches to applications of canon law and its comprehensive implementation would be the best and most enduring response that The Catholic University of America, with its distinguished faculty of canon law, could make to the national conversation on a topic that has deeply wounded the Church.
The generosity of the Knights of Columbus, called upon so often to support the Church’s efforts to do good, and the leadership and work of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have made these seminars possible. I am grateful that The Catholic University of America, as co-sponsor, could play an active role in the work that is ahead of us here at The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center. To the canon law alumni of CUA and to all of the canonists who have come to Washington to prepare for the difficult ministry that awaits us, I bid you welcome and I assure you of our prayerful support. May The Catholic University of America continue to be a resource in the process of reconciliation and healing and the restoration of trust that is yet to unfold within our Church at your hands as canonists.