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Clergy Sexual Abuse: The Diocesan Response

May 10, 2002 | Catholic Star Herald An interview with Bishop DiMarzio

Catholic Star Herald: How much of a crisis is the issue of clergy sex abuse for the Church?

Bishop DiMarzio: In my opinion, if only one child were sexually abused by a priest, that constitutes a crisis. Whenever a child is abused my concern is for the child's physical, emotional and spiritual well-being and I know that in so many cases it is only after years of prayer, counseling and therapy that the child is ever able to trust again. That is the real "crisis" that we must address - one of faith and one of trust, one of providing solace to the victims of abuse and one of protecting the children entrusted to our care.

The policies of this diocese serve to address these issues. We provide the financial resources to enable anyone who claims that they have been abused to obtain therapy and professional counseling - and we continue to do so even when they sue the diocese and take us to court. We have instituted a toll-free number to report even past allegations of sex abuse which are then referred to the local county prosecutors. We have, finally, established a panel to review all of the policies of the diocese that deal with children to see whether they can be strengthened and reinforced. We are facing this issue as we should, as a prayerful people with courage and with hope.

CSH: What do you think of the media coverage on this topic?

Bishop DiMarzio: I have not criticized the media for their coverage on this topic. I have also said that they are not the cause of the problem. The Church itself must take responsibility for our past actions. I have been disappointed, however, that some of the media coverage has not been totally accurate. I envision society as built on various pillars, and these include a free press and an independent judiciary. This means that there is a grave responsibility on the part of the media to deal forthrightly and honestly with all issues. The Church has come under scrutiny for its handling of abuse cases. The media must be as accurate in its coverage as the judiciary is fair in its judgments. If any one of these pillars of society is weakened, we weaken our whole society. It is the truth that will guide us. And yet truth, as we know, is difficult to find. Religion is another pillar of society that helps us to find truth and moral values. The age-old question posed by Pilate, "what is truth," still haunts us today. We can only find the truth together when we correctly analyze reality as it is.

CSH: Many people have called on Cardinal Law to resign. Can you comment on that?

Bishop DiMarzio: This is, obviously, a very personal matter. Cardinal Law does not serve at his own volition, but rather by appointment of the Holy Father who has placed upon him the responsibility of that local church. If I were in his position, I would carefully evaluate my effectiveness as a pastoral leader and then come to some decision. Obviously, the decision must be his own in consultation with the Holy Father.

CSH: It has been said that those who want to change the Church in some way are using this issue to further their own agenda. What is your feeling?

Bishop DiMarzio: There are some who have used this situation to advance their own agenda, especially those who are seeking a change in the discipline of clerical celibacy and those who favor the ordination of women. These issues really do not effect the present situation, and to use this situation to push one's own agenda is certainly disingenuous. What is at stake is not any particular agenda, but the future of the Church's ability to be a witness to the truth.

CSH: What happens when an accusation of sexually abusing a minor is brought against a priest in this diocese?

Bishop DiMarzio: When any accusation is made against any priest in this diocese that he is sexually abusing a child, that accusation is immediately referred to the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services or the local county prosecutor. This has been the duty of all citizens of New Jersey since 1971 and the diocese has complied with that requirement.

CSH: Where does the diocese get the money to pay for therapy for abuse victims, legal fees and settlements?

Bishop DiMarzio: The diocese has certain savings which are set aside to deal with extraordinary expenses. I have said before, and I want to specifically reassure the people of the diocese, that no money derived from parish assessments, school tuitions, or from the House of Charity-Bishop's Annual Appeal goes to pay for any of these extraordinary expenses.

CSH: If a priest is struggling with his promise of celibacy, what should he do?

Bishop DiMarzio: Celibacy is a promise made at ordination. It is a promise that some might find at times difficult to keep. There is no substitute for personal holiness. The sacrament of reconciliation, a good spiritual director and good personal relationships can help a priest find the true meaning of celibacy. Celibacy involves the gift of self. The more that we give of ourselves, the more celibacy becomes not a burden but rather a joy in freeing us for true priestly ministry. Celibacy, however, is not the cause of the present crisis but some have tried to make that connection. Celibacy is, in fact, the best protection that we can afford our Catholic population, since it respects human sexuality and directs it for the service of others.

CSH: Should a priest who has committed one offense be prevented from ever pursuing public ministry?

Bishop DiMarzio: Ever since I came to the Diocese of Camden in 1999, and at the first convocation of priests three months after I was installed as bishop, I announced to the priests that - from that moment on - the "one strike and you're out" policy regarding sexual abuse was in effect. I have followed that policy since that time. In his recent meeting with the American cardinals the Holy Father said that there is no place in priestly ministry for a priest who abuses children. Simply stated, the policy of this diocese is one of zero tolerance for any priest who would sexually abuse a child.

CSH: Has the moral authority of the American hierarchy been damaged?

Bishop DiMarzio: Moral authority in the Church comes not only from a blameless life but also from the honest and complete proclamation of the Gospel in all its truth. And even if some or all bishops were found to have weakened their own personal moral authority by not doing what is right, it would not take away their ability, and indeed their obligation, to enunciate the truth. The Gospel Message transcends the individual moral rectitude of those who preach it.

CSH: What advice do you have for parents?

Bishop DiMarzio: Parents should be proactive with their children in teaching them about human sexuality. Putting all priests under a cloud is certainly unnecessary because, of course, the overwhelming majority of priests have never abused children and never will. Unfortunately, child abuse takes place most often in families and with extended relatives. Teaching a child about human sexuality at the earliest stage possible according to their ability to understand is the best defense any parent can have for their children. Indeed, in our own school and parish education programs, children are taught -from the earliest grades - in the "good touch/bad touch" component of the human sexuality curriculum to recognize unwelcome behavior by adults.

CSH: What do you see as the long-range effects of this problem For example, how do you think it will affect vocations, charitable giving and church attendance in years to come?

Bishop DiMarzio: I do not know what the long-range effect of all that we are now going through might be. In the short term, however, we have not seen any dramatic effect on charitable giving or church attendance, and the interest in vocations seem to be following the normal patterns. Throughout its long history the Church has learned from its mistakes and ultimately its spirituality has been strengthened and its mission has been re-invigorated.

Our task is to take these lessons to heart and, bearing in mind the promise of Christ to be with the Church through the end of time, to pray that we will have the courage to address our problems forthrightly, courageously and honestly. Let me say that we can never lose sight of the fact that tens of thousands of priests have served the people of this country, and continue to so, day in and day out, faithfully and tirelessly. The faithful priests of this diocese have been a source of spiritual encouragement to me, and I know that they will continue to be a source of encouragement to all our people as well.

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