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Bishop Wuerl Apologizes, Calls For Healing

Jun 21, 2002 | Pittsburgh Post Gazette Comparing the scandal-torn Catholic Church to a stained-glass window with some panes shattered by vandals, Bishop Donald Wuerl of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has written a pastoral letter apologizing for the sexual abuse of minors, explaining what is being done to correct it and calling on all Catholics to work for healing.

"In the name of this diocesan church I reaffirm our profound regret that such acts of abuse have taken place and again apologize that this has happened within the church where one should find care and Christ's love, not spiritual harm and abuse," he wrote in a letter released in this week's Pittsburgh Catholic, "To Heal, Restore and Renew."

The lay persons, clergy and sisters who make up the church are like "all the pieces of the glass coming together to form one magnificent window through which the light of Christ shines," Wuerl wrote.

"But we have recognized in recent days that some of the glass is broken. Some who were called to serve as an icon of Christ and who were ordained to be his presence in the midst of the community have failed their ordination promises. Through the damaged glass shines a harsh light which has caused not only the church but also the wider community to focus on what is broken."

Although there has been extensive media coverage of the bishops' new rules for responding to allegations that a priest has molested a minor, Wuerl felt it was important to address his flock directly, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the diocese.

"The bishop has always said that you can never communicate enough, and not everyone has had full and accurate information about this. It's important that people hear from him personally," Lengwin said.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh has been relatively unscathed by the recent scandal, largely because Wuerl has had a policy of removing known abusers from ministry since he became bishop here in 1988. In 1993, when the Vatican's highest court ordered him to reinstate an accused priest who had never been convicted of a crime but who Wuerl believed to have sexually abused minors, Wuerl refused to obey. He eventually won an almost unheard-of reversal from the Vatican court.

Since the scandal broke this year in Boston, Wuerl has tightened diocesan policies. His staff now gives all allegations, no matter how old or how flimsy, to the appropriate district attorney for investigation.

Also, in a change from past policy, Wuerl announced in March that in cases that boil down to the word of one person against another with no substantiating evidence, he will opt to err on the side of parishioners by removing the priest. As a result, Wuerl removed "several" priests against whom there had been credible but unsubstantiated allegations in the past. He said he would not name the priests because there is no way to know if they are guilty or innocent.

In his letter he said he believed that the policies of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh are in line with those in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that the U.S. bishops adopted last week in Dallas. Lengwin said the staff has just begun to review the details of both policies to make sure that is true.

The first priority of the diocese must be to show concern for victims and their families, Wuerl wrote. He said the diocese offers them pastoral and spiritual support and professional counseling.

"This we shall continue to do in the heartfelt hope that we can bring some healing and peace, wholeness and reconciliation to anyone who has suffered such abuse. I again renew my invitation to anyone who has been abused by a priest to meet with me so that I might express the depth of my sorrow that this has happened and the sincerity of my desire for reconciliation," Wuerl wrote.

"We pray, first of all, for those who have suffered, for any victim in this terrible scandal. We need to pray for that person's continuing place in the life of the Church. We also need to pray for that person's family. Families have felt deep pain and need our prayer and support."

Tim Bendig, 33, who in 1988 filed the lawsuit against the priest who Wuerl eventually fought the Vatican over, said he believes the diocese can do more to provide psychological care for victims. Most cases are past the statute of limitations so that victims cannot sue to recoup the money they spend on their recovery. He wants to make sure the diocese does not limit the psychological treatment.

"The bishop needs to bring some comfort to them that way, instead of offering to pray with them," said Bendig, who said he believes Wuerl is sincere in his desire to help victims.

Bendig said that the national charter had excellent recommendations on care for victims. In response to it he would like to see the diocese appoint someone whose sole concern is caring for the needs of people who come forward with allegations -- whether or not they turn out to be true -- so that the person who offers sympathy is not the same person asking tough questions about exactly what happened.

Lengwin said that since the diocese began turning all allegations over to the authorities for investigation, the diocesan staff members who meet with accusers no longer have to act so much like investigators. He said the diocese has always tried to find out if there is a good priest who the victim already trusts, and then assign that priest to provide pastoral care.

In the letter Wuerl once again tried to explain that, in Catholic theology, a priest technically always remains a priest, not only if he has been laicized but even if he has been excommunicated. The point is that the priest is out of ministry and, according to the charter, can no longer dress as a priest, identify himself to anyone else as a priest or celebrate Mass publicly.

He asked for prayers and understanding for the offending priests who had been removed, but said the priests must live with the consequences of their actions.

"Some actions carry with them consequences that perdure even after we are forgiven and have attained a certain level of wholeness. One consequence today of the sexual abuse of a minor by a priest is a prohibition from ministry."

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