The Truth and Reconciliation Commission model recently proposed for the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle offers a path of healing in the aftermath of the sexual-abuse scandal perpetrated by clergy and officials of the church. We are part of a much broader group of concerned Catholics, abuse survivors and current and former clergy who have been meeting the last year and a half in various parishes seeking accountability and healing.
This is a difficult time for the Catholic Church. There is a serious crisis of trust in its leadership. Many dioceses and religious orders have gone through bankruptcy or faced court-ordered release of information relating to so-called “secret files.” As many as 22 state attorneys general have initiated civil or criminal investigations. We have lost a generation of young people, many educated in our Catholic schools, who are not participating in the faith. In addition to the severe shortage of priests, many other Catholics have left the church they loved and have withdrawn financial support.
Out of this crisis comes our call for a lay-led Truth and Reconciliation Commission to fully investigate the abuse crisis, determine its causes, evaluate corrective actions and propose any that need to be taken to further protect our children. Borrowing from similar commissions undertaken in other parts of the world, the commission would bring together Catholics in assemblies throughout our region to discuss the report and to hear the voices of those most impacted by clerical abuse and coverup.
We acknowledge that the Seattle Archdiocese has taken positive steps through its Safe Environment Program, including its review board. The release of the names of 77 clergy and religious, later amended to 202 (by adding additional diocesan and many order priests) in 2018, is important. Further, work done by a consultant, hired by the archdiocese several years ago to review claims, was not a full investigation. Most important, no public determination has been made of the how and why of the coverup undertaken by church officials. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by lay Catholics rather than clerics, offers a much more credible approach — one that may rebuild the trust that has been lost.
Other Catholic dioceses like Oklahoma City and Bridgeport, Connecticut, have allowed full access to records, utilizing experts and lay people who were not connected to church officials. This is why we take issue with recent comments by Seattle Archbishop Paul Etienne indicating that this Archdiocese has done enough. We are pleased he will meet with us, and we will ask that he fully engage in our call for complete disclosure, dialogue and healing in the hopes of restoring trust and confidence in the church’s leadership.
Like many Catholics in the Seattle Archdiocese, we do not believe past efforts have been complete or transparent. We and others continue to ask the question of whether the scandal has been fully disclosed and the proper steps taken to assure the safety of children. Although heartened by the continued service of the men and women of the clergy, who also labor under this uncertainty, we believe now is the time to take bold steps toward full disclosure and dialogue leading to healing for all of the people of the church.
This will not be easy. It requires acknowledgment that the process be led by members of the Catholic laity with the full cooperation of the Archbishop. And, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission openly conducted likely will air again the pain and anger roiling below the surface in the Catholic community. Without a doubt, urgent requests for change and renewal will bring more controversy. Some will argue that all of this is unnecessary; that full disclosure and open discussion only makes our suffering worse. We disagree and suggest that sunlight and honesty paves the way to healing, renewal of trust and preservation of Catholic traditions found in its outstanding schools, hospitals and other charitable works that are deeply a part of our faith.
Our plan calls for a two-step process: First, that complete access to all files and records of the sexual-abuse scandal be made available to a known and trusted group of lay persons leading to a comprehensive report on the causes of clerical abuse in this Archdiocese. And second, assemblies of the faithful to prayerfully discuss it and to listen to the voices of those who have suffered and those who are responsible.
As part of this review, the commission would examine and report on the ways in which church structure and church governance failed. The privacy of all victims and whistle-blowers will be carefully protected. Most important, the purpose of this investigation would be to determine all of the causes of clergy abuse and how it was allowed to continue.
A series of assemblies are likely to include survivors of clerical abuse and those who feel the church no longer speaks to them, especially women. Some have told us they want to tell their stories. They deserve that opportunity to speak, and the rest of us need to listen. Absent that, there can be no healing and no renewal of spirits, only festering sadness and hurt unabated.
We are grateful to those who have joined us through our newly launched website. We invite all who identify as Catholic across Western Washington to join us as supporters at HealOurChurch.org.
Click here to see this piece as it appeared in The Seattle Times.