Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

How Can We Love God if we Barely Know Him?

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Many of us are familiar with the popular online dating services, if only because they advertise so often. You fill our a detailed questionnaire about your interests, characteristics, etc. The service then matches you with potential dating prospects based on their prediction of your compatibility. You review their profiles and then, if you wish, reach out and try to set up a date and see how things go from there.

This makes sense. After all, nobody would ever say that they love somebody that they don’t even know. And nobody would say that they love somebody just because they’ve seen the results of a compatibility survey. To know them is necessary, but it’s not enough. It’s obvious that to truly love someone, you have to know them as they really are, which means that you have to encounter them in person, talk to them, and try to understand what’s in their heart, mind and soul.

This is the train of thought that I had when I read the very depressing results of a new study by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life. The purpose of the study was to assess how much Americans know about religions — their own and others. They asked over 11,000 Americans a set of 32 questions. Some of the questions are quite easy, while others are more difficult. I took a sample survey and got 15 out of 15, but that makes sense because I’m kind of a professional Catholic and I’ve always been interested in world religions. Most people did far worse — the average American adult was able to answer fewer than half of the questions correctly.

The general lack of knowledge among Americans is troubling enough, but what the survey revealed about Catholics is truly shocking and dismaying. Catholics on average correctly answered fewer questions than Americans overall, and than Mainline and Evangelical Protestants, Jews, Atheists and Agnostics. We did marginally better than Mormons. The specifics are pretty bad:

  • 56% knew that Jesus grew up in Nazareth.
  • 55% knew that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
  • 61% knew that the Golden Rule is not actually one of the Ten Commandments.

Ouch. I have to say, in fairness, that there were some bright spots. 79% of Catholics knew that Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ. 85% knew that the Trinity means that there is one God in three persons. 71% knew that Purgatory was the place where souls are purified before entering heaven. And the longer a person attends religious education, or if they attended Catholic school, they got more correct answers. 100% would have been better, but it’s still pretty good.

But the really depressing findings have to do with what Catholics know and believe about the Eucharist. Only 50% of Catholics knew that the Church teaches that at Mass, the bread and wine become the actual Body and Blood of Christ. That’s horrifying enough, but when I looked at the data underlying the poll, I found something even worse. They asked only Catholics the following question:

Regardless of the official teaching of the Catholic Church, what do you personally believe about the bread and wine used for Communion?

Here is what Catholics answered:

During Catholic Mass, the bread and wine…
  • 31% said “Actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”
  • 69% said “Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

Fewer than one out of three Catholics actually personally believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. And only half of Catholics are even aware of the Church’s actual teaching on the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Catechism 1324). Heaven help us.

In his recent letter about the sex abuse crisis, Pope-Emeritus Benedict made some very important observations that apply not only to that scandal, but to the broader crisis that the Church finds herself in. His words are worth quoting at length (emphasis added by me):

What predominates is not a new reverence for the presence of Christ’s death and resurrection, but a way of dealing with Him that destroys the greatness of the Mystery. The declining participation in the Sunday Eucharistic celebration shows how little we Christians of today still know about appreciating the greatness of the gift that consists in His Real Presence. The Eucharist is devalued into a mere ceremonial gesture when it is taken for granted that courtesy requires Him to be offered at family celebrations or on occasions such as weddings and funerals to all those invited for family reasons.

The way people often simply receive the Holy Sacrament in communion as a matter of course shows that many see communion as a purely ceremonial gesture. Therefore, when thinking about what action is required first and foremost, it is rather obvious that we do not need another Church of our own design. Rather, what is required first and foremost is the renewal of the Faith in the Reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

True faith, the kind that can bring us to salvation, is not just being able to answer questions in Catholic Trivial Pursuit. It’s a personal encounter with the real and living God, the Father who created us, the Son who took on human nature and died for us, and the Spirit who lives within us still. If we don’t even know or believe that Christ Himself comes to us in the Eucharist — the real Christ, not just some symbol — then we can never have the fullness of the  personal encounter we need in order to love God, to accept His love for us, and ultimately to be happy with Him forever in heaven. As the Lord Himself said,

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh…. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:51-56)

This is the challenge to all of us — if people are to love God, we have to make sure that they know Him.

Catholics and the Border

Wednesday, July 10th, 2019

There can be no real doubt that the situation on America’s southern border, particularly in Texas, has reached crisis levels.

Record numbers of families have come to the border without legal authorization to enter the United States. The detention centers that house these people are overwhelmed, and a government watchdog has found that the conditions in some facilities have become dangerous to both the residents and the staffs. The separation of children from their families has caused wide-spread outrage.

The causes of this crisis are like a Gordian Knot. There are so many interrelated moving parts — social disorder and violence in their home countries, liberal U.S. laws governing asylum applications, deliberate policies by government agencies to detain people punitively to deter further migration, the insufficiency of current visa programs, inadequate funding, court staffing shortages, and much more.

Any policy responses will have to be incredibly complex. Of course, the laws that are already on the books have to be enforced, and we cannot accept all who come to our shores. Other nations have an obligation to correct the social conditions that are causing people to flee. Everyone agrees that our immigration and asylum laws are in desperate need of reform, yet our government has a lamentable history of failure in getting the job done. Surely the rancid partisanship that has infected our body politic is largely to blame for our inability to even talk about these issues in a constructive way.

That is where we as Catholic Americans can make a unique and important contribution to this crisis. Because of the rich heritage of Catholic social teaching, we can transcend the partisan divisiveness and look at the problem from an entirely new perspective. By doing this, we can focus on the human dimension of the issue, which will help us to unlock some parts of the policy problem.

The foundational step for us to take is to make sure that we always focus on the humanity of those we are speaking about. It’s all too easy to dismiss those at the border as “aliens”, “illegals” or “invaders”, or even worse. It has become a reflex for people to reject reports that challenge their settled views as “fake news”. Tribalism is becoming more influential than facts. Emotionally-loaded terms like “concentration camps” only inflame things. Insensitivity and even cruelty are becoming mainstream. I see all this every time I post a piece about immigration on our Office Facebook page.

That’s not the Catholic way. This is the Good Samaritan moment — recognizing that we are speaking about human beings, made in the image and likeness of God and loved by him, people whom we are commanded repeatedly to love, and people who are in desperate need of help.

If we can shift the rhetoric of this debate even the smallest step in this direction, we will have succeeded greatly in creating an environment for policy solutions to be developed in a rational, human-centered way. Here’s an example from Pope Francis this last weekend:

In the spirit of the Beatitudes we are called to comfort them in their affliction and offer them mercy; to sate their hunger and thirst for justice; to let them experience God’s caring fatherliness; to show them the way to the Kingdom of Heaven. They are persons; these are not mere social or migrant issues! “This is not just about migrants”, in the twofold sense that migrants are first of all human persons, and that they are the symbol of all those rejected by today’s globalized society. (Homily at the Holy Mass for Migrants, July 8, 2019)

Is there anyone in American politics who speaks like this? That’s why we must step into the breach. Unless we start speaking about the people involved in this crisis in that way, no decent policy solutions will ever be adopted.

We Catholics should also remember that this loving solicitude for migrants is not something revolutionary and unprecedented. It is strongly based in Sacred Scripture and has been repeatedly proclaimed by the Church. For example, in the aftermath of World War II and the dislocation after the foundation of the State of Israel, Venerable Pope Pius XII made a powerful statement about the duty to care for and accept people who are fleeing to another country because of the conditions in their home:

You know indeed how preoccupied we have been and with what anxiety we have followed those who have been forced by revolutions in their own countries, or by unemployment or hunger to leave their homes and live in foreign lands. The natural law itself, no less than devotion to humanity, urges that ways of migration be opened to these people. For the Creator of the universe made all good things primarily for the good of all. Since land everywhere offers the possibility of supporting a large number of people, the sovereignty of the State, although it must be respected, cannot be exaggerated to the point that access to this land is, for inadequate or unjustified reasons, denied to needy and decent people from other nations, provided of course, that the public wealth, considered very carefully, does not forbid this. (Exsul Familia Nazarethana, 1952)

I have no illusions about the charged political environment in the United States right now. I get that the increasing abortion radicalism of certain factions in the Democratic Party, as well as their growing hostility to religious freedom, is a grave threat to life, dignity and freedom. I understand that we need to keep our main focus on the direct threats to human life like abortion and assisted suicide, and that any other activism might dilute our effectiveness.

But I also think that Catholics and pro-lifers can walk and chew gum at the same time, and that this moment is an opportunity for some real Christian public witness. Religious leaders from across the nation have been decrying the inhumane conditions at some of the border detention centers. Staunch pro-life groups like New Wave Feminists have been going to the border to help the over-stretched Catholic Charities workers in providing material support to those in detention. Scholars like Fordham Prof. Charles Camosy are providing the intellectual framework for a genuine Consistent Life Ethic that protects human life and dignity at all stages and conditions. More needs to be done.

There’s no question that the policy responses to this crisis are difficult. But that’s no excuse for us as Catholics to shirk our duty to humanize and evangelize our public square and to focus on the real-life people who are stuck in the middle of this crisis. Yes, laws need to be reformed and enforced, but there are a lot of people on the border who could use a little kindness in the midst of their misery.

After all, we have it on good authority that showing mercy is not optional, but is mandatory.

The Crisis — Causes, Effects, and an Answer

Wednesday, May 1st, 2019

Two recent events have once again brought the issue of clerical sexual abuse to the forefront here in the Archdiocese. The first is a source of great sadness and anguish. The second is the source of indispensable wisdom about the causes and effects of sexual abuse in our Church.

The List

The first event is release of the list of 120 Archdiocesan clergy who were either (a) credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor or possessing child pornography, or (b) the subject of a claim that our Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) considered eligible for compensation.

The distinction between the two categories is important. Some of the clergymen on the list whose cases where our independent lay Review Board found that an allegation was credible and substantiated. It’s essential to note that neither the Review Board nor the IRCP is a court of law, they’re not bound by the evidence rules under civil or criminal law, and – most important – in the case of many of the IRCP cases the clergymen were either dead or already out of ministry and thus did not have the opportunity to defend themselves.

This list has gotten a lot of attention. And it will not be the last bit of bad news that we hear – far from it. But some very important facts haven’t gotten enough attention. No clergyman is currently in service who has had a credible allegation of child sexual abuse. The vast majority of the cases are old – most occurred between the 1960’s and the early 1990’s. There have been no credible claims against a clergyman who was ordained since the Bishops’ Charter was adopted in 2002. And we have only had two credible cases since 2002, although there are two others that are still pending in the criminal justice system. We have clearly been successful in mitigating the damage and risk.

Still, even one case is too many, and we have devoted enormous resources to preventing any further offenses and responding appropriately to any new allegations. Failure is simply unacceptable.

There is one thing that is particularly significant about this list, something that is missing from it – the victims. Behind the name of each one of the clergymen on that list there are victims, in some cases only one, but in other cases many. Over 350 victims received compensation from the IRCP, and there are more who never applied. Each one of those victims was betrayed, desecrated, violated and assaulted by one of the men on the list. The effect on them, their pain and suffering, and in many cases the destruction of their lives, cannot be adequately reflected in any list. Someone said to me recently that they feel sorry for the clergymen whose names are on the list. I understand that sentiment, but my primary sympathy is for the men and women whose names will never be revealed, who have suffered and continue to suffer in silence and anonymity.

Pope Emeritus Benedict 

The other recent event is something that should get much more attention, because it gets directly at the heart of the causes and effects of the scandal – an article written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse”.  This provides the key to understanding the deeper significance of the list and of the entire contagion of sexual abuse. It also shows us the way to hope out of this darkness.

Benedict identifies a number of key causes that led to the scandal. First and foremost, he finds its roots in the 1960’s in the sexual revolution:

… in the 1960s an egregious event occurred, on a scale unprecedented in history. It could be said that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely, and a new normalcy arose…. Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.

This is undeniably true, as anyone who lived in the 1960’s and 1970’s could attest. The traditional morality that insisted on the link between sex and marriage, and sex and procreation, was swept away and replaced with a new mindset in which sex was merely a form of entertainment for which the only ethical rule was consent. And, as Benedict points out repeatedly, once the traditional moral standards were eliminated, there was nothing to stop some people from justifying sex with minors.

The second key cause was the internal collapse of Catholic moral theology, which had traditionally been rooted in Scripture and natural law, and which held firmly to the doctrine that there are some acts that are never morally acceptable. This was also swept away by academic theologians, bishops, and poorly formed priests who instead held to a morality that in effect served as a permission slip to sin. This was further facilitated by a rejection of the authority of the Church to pronounce definitive doctrines on matters of morality. Benedict says,

In the end, it was chiefly the hypothesis that morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action that prevailed. While the old phrase “the end justifies the means” was not confirmed in this crude form, its way of thinking had become definitive. Consequently, there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; (there could be) only relative value judgments. There no longer was the (absolute) good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.

In other words, anything could be considered morally acceptable under the “right” circumstances and with the “right” motives. It is easy to see where this leads – to a regime of no rules, of “anything goes”, where everyone is the ultimate judge of what is good and evil, and where “the Church should stay out of the bedroom”. Of course, once authentic morality is pushed “out of the bedroom”, any kind of sexual act becomes justifiable, including sex with minors.

According to Benedict, this corrosive anti-morality was conveyed to priests in flawed seminary formation and reinforced by bishops who “rejected the Catholic tradition as a whole and sought to bring about a kind of new, modern ‘Catholicity’ in their dioceses”. Does anyone seriously doubt that this happened? One of the major initiatives of the papacies of Popes John Paul and Benedict was to push back against the “dictatorship of relativism” and to restore authentic Catholic moral doctrine – that was the purpose of the great encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

Benedict then shines a light on the heart of the matter. While speaking of the effort to make changes in the Canon Law to permit better enforcement of its criminal law in cases of abuse of minors, he says this:

In fact, it is important to see that such misconduct by clerics ultimately damages the Faith. Only where faith no longer determines the actions of man are such offenses possible…. A society without God – a society that does not know Him and treats Him as non-existent – is a society that loses its measure. In our day, the catchphrase of God’s death was coined. When God does die in a society, it becomes free, we were assured. In reality, the death of God in a society also means the end of freedom, because what dies is the purpose that provides orientation. And because the compass disappears that points us in the right direction by teaching us to distinguish good from evil…. Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.

Of course this is true. Nobody can legitimately and truly believe in God, and know and love him in their heart, and commit such heinous acts.

The loss of God can be seen vividly, Benedict argues, in the lack of reverence for the Eucharist and a lack of understanding of the true nature of the Church. For many, the Eucharist is treated as a mere ceremony to mark family events, without any sense of the Real Presence of Christ – body, blood, soul and divinity – in the Blessed Sacrament. The lack of reverence for the Body of Christ cannot help but lead to a lack of respect for the image of God that is in the body of every human being.

Likewise, the Church is seen only as a political apparatus that can be re-made by us into whatever we wish. Benedict sees the falsehood in that view: “The crisis, caused by the many cases of clerical abuse, urges us to regard the Church as something almost unacceptable, which we must now take into our own hands and redesign. But a self-made Church cannot constitute hope.” This, he argues, is the agenda of the Evil One, who wants to lead us away from God – by considering the Church as purely a human entity created for human ends that is thoroughly corrupted by the evil acts of some of her members. This message of despair causes people to look at the list of offenders, reject the Church and turn away from God. That road leads to destruction.

The Answer

Benedict offers a solution to the problem. It isn’t a pragmatic program, agenda for legal reform, or bureaucratic structure. As such, it won’t satisfy anyone who sees the problem of clerical sexual abuse as purely a human phenomenon. All those things are vitally important but they aren’t sufficient. Benedict offers instead a response that gets to the real root causes:

It is very important to oppose the lies and half-truths of the devil with the whole truth: Yes, there is sin in the Church and evil. But even today there is the Holy Church, which is indestructible. Today there are many people who humbly believe, suffer and love, in whom the real God, the loving God, shows Himself to us. Today God also has His witnesses (martyres) in the world. We just have to be vigilant in order to see and hear them….

Today’s Church is more than ever a “Church of the Martyrs” and thus a witness to the living God. If we look around and listen with an attentive heart, we can find witnesses everywhere today, especially among ordinary people, but also in the high ranks of the Church, who stand up for God with their life and suffering.

There are many who will look at the list of offenders and despair. But the true response to the list and to the crisis in general is instead one of hope. God offers us, through his Church, all we need to deal with both the causes and effects of this terrible scandal of sin. Prayer for and with those who suffer, the intercessory help of our Blessed Mother and the saints, acts of reparation, devotion to Divine Mercy, and above all the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist – all these will help us to be witnesses to the great goodness of God, to reject all the lies of the Evil One, and to purify the Bride of Christ so that nobody will ever suffer from abuse again.

Legalizing Baby Selling

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

The recent abortion expansion bill isn’t the final word on how our state government views babies to be commodities that can be bought, sold, or discarded. The Governor, when he submitted his annual budget last month, snuck in a bill that would legalize commercial surrogate parenting. That is to say, it would legalize baby-selling.

Way back in the 1990’s, when our present Governor’s father was in that office, New York State was a leader in banning commercial surrogacy. That move stemmed from the controversy over “Baby M”, a child conceived through surrogacy in New Jersey. Governor Mario Cuomo and the Legislature followed the unanimous recommendation of the Task Force on Life and the Law and banned the practice here in New York. It was clearly seen as an exploitation of women and degrading to human life.

But now the current Governor has broken with his father and has managed to get the Task Force on Life and the Law to reverse their earlier recommendation. Nothing has really changed. The dangers of surrogacy are still just as real as they were in the 1990’s, as a powerful minority report from Task Force members pointed out. But the majority of the Task Force was moved, it seems, by the desire to open up parenthood to same-sex couples. This is a terrible example of how a special interest group can influence public officials who are more concerned with counting votes and rewarding supporters, regardless of the dangers to the common good.

Those dangers are self-evident from the way that commercial surrogacy works. A contract is agreed upon between “intended parents” and the “gestational carrier”. The “carrier” is not related to the “parents”, and she will become pregnant with an embryo that has been created in a laboratory through in vitro fertilization (IVF). The egg and sperm aren’t necessarily from the intended parents — they can come from complete strangers.

The standard surrogacy contracts impose all sorts of obligations on the “carrier”, and there is a severe penalty if she doesn’t comply — if she violates any provision, she forfeits any payment under the agreement and has to reimburse the “parents” for any of their expenses. This could entail tens of thousands of dollars in penalties and lost income. Talk about coercion.

The contract specifies that the “carrier” will completely relinquish all parental rights upon the birth of the child. It also gives the “parents” the power to control virtually every aspect of the “carrier’s” life, subjecting her to medical oversight by a doctor chosen by the “parents” and restrictions on her activities, including, believe it or not, her sexual activities with her husband.

Even worse, the contract gives the “parents” complete discretion over whether the “carrier” will have an abortion, if the “parents” decide that the unborn child has a disability, or if it is a multiple pregnancy and they want to “reduce” the number. It is hard to believe, but it’s true — the “carrier” must submit to an abortion or pay a substantial financial penalty.

Funny how we’re not hearing the Governor shout about “her body, her choice”.  Instead it’s “have the abortion or pay up”.

The economic imbalance of these arrangements should cause outrage among supposed “progressives” and feminists. Low-income women are certainly going to be more attracted to enter into these contracts, and the costs of IVF and the surrogacy arrangement ensures that only high-income people could afford to be “intended parents”. The minority report of the Task Force did the math, and found that the average “carrier” would be earning below minimum wage for her efforts. So much for the “progressive” commitment to economic justice and ending inequality.

Our current laws still ban selling bodily organs, selling of babies, paying people to surrender parental rights, we set limits on payments to mothers giving children up for adoption. But this bill would shatter that consensus. I doubt it will stop here.

In other times, this would be seen as an appalling example of indentured servitude or even slavery, treating mothers and children as commodities to be bought and sold. Most countries, including all of Europe, have banned it as a violation of fundamental human rights. Developing countries have outlawed it because they don’t want their women being treated as mere incubators for rich Western “fertility tourists”. But here in the moral free-fire zone of America, it’s a supposedly enlightened practice celebrated by the media and vigorously promoted by gay rights groups.

By including this bill in his budget, the Governor has corrupted the democratic process through a raw exercise of power. In our dysfunctional governmental process, it is extraordinarily difficult for an item in the budget to be removed by the Legislature. And given the influence of “progressives” and gay rights groups in the Democratic party that controls the Legislature, there appears to be little interest in removing or even debating this dangerous proposal.

We can still try to hold back this measure, by contacting our legislators and urging them to oppose legalizing baby-selling. The New York State Catholic Conference has been leading this fight, and they have an alert in their Action Center that will allow us to send emails to our representatives. We also have more information on our website about the dangers of commercial surrogacy.

With this bill, as with the abortion expansion law, the Governor has also sent a signal to the world that in New York, morality is obsolete. There is no apparent concern for the exploitation of poor women. None for the babies thrown away through economically-coerced “fetal reduction”. None for the “excess embryos” trapped in frozen limbo through IVF. None for the children who will be separated from their birth mother and perpetually confused by the question of who their parents really are.

Powerful, influential and wealthy people want to buy babies, and our state government is going to open up the market place.

Anti-Catholic McCarthyism in the US Senate

Friday, January 4th, 2019

“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

That notorious question was the hallmark of the infamous McCarthy era of American history. It was a time when there was legitimate concern about communist influence and Espionage in the United States. But that fear morphed into a kind of paranoia that resulted in virtual witch hunts that stigmatized legitimate political opinions and blacklisted people who refused to cooperate or whose names were given to the inquisitors. Fortunately, America regained its sanity, that period was soon over and – supposedly – its lessons were learned.

But paranoia never really goes away, it tends to look for new targets. We’re now seeing a resurgence of the McCarthy mentality in the United States Congress. But this time it’s dipping into the deep well of anti-Catholicism that has been a stain on American history since the colonial era. This new wave is fixated on Church teaching on sexuality and human life, particularly our adamant rejection of abortion, contraception, and sex outside of marriage. Those positions are considered by some of our political rulers as being beyond the pale, extreme positions that must be rooted out wherever they are found. I should note too that this prejudice isn’t limited to Catholics. It’s also being expressed against any Christian community that holds to traditional teachings on sexuality.

The trend is clear, and well-documented. It can be seen in questions that are being asked of nominees to the federal courts. Here are some examples:

  • In June 2017, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) submitted written questions to a District Court nominee about his personal views on issues of same-sex marriage and abortion in light of his membership in a conservative Anglican church.
  • In September 2017, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), citing the Catholic faith of a nominee to the Seventh Circuit, said that “the dogma lives loudly with in you, and that’s a concern.” At the same hearing, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) asked the nominee “What’s an ‘orthodox Catholic’? … And do you consider yourself an ‘orthodox Catholic’?” Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI) said “I think [an article written by the nominee] is very plain in your perspective about the role of religion for judges, and particularly with regard to Catholic judges.”
  • In March 2018, Senator Feinstein submitted written questions for the record to a nominee to the Seventh Circuit that noting his membership in the St. John the Cross Parish and asking about his involvement with the parish’s efforts to establish a crisis pregnancy center.
  • In May 2018, Senator Whitehouse submitted written questions for the record to a District Court asking about his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus.
  • In October 2018, Senators Feinstein, Whitehouse, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Kemala Harris (D-CA) submitted written questions to a nominee to the Fourth Circuit asking about her involvement with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group.
  • In November 2018, Senator Feinstein submitted written questions to a nominee to the Third Circuit about his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus.
  • In December 2018, Senators Hirono and Harris asked a District Court nominee questions about his membership in the Knights of Columbus. Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) also asked questions centering on an interview the nominee gave to an advocacy group closely identified with Evangelical Christians.

The offensive and dangerous nature of this trend can be seen in the last example. Senator Hirono’s questionnaire stated that “The Knights of Columbus has taken a number of extreme positions” and then proceeded to ask numerous questions about the Knights’ positions on abortion and same-sex marriage, implying that the nominee’s membership in the Order was sufficient alone to show that he was unable to be neutral. She also had the audacity to ask baldly, “If confirmed, do you intend to end your membership with this organization to avoid any appearance of bias?”

This is anti-Catholic McCarthyism, plain and simple. It is particularly disturbing that 8 of the 10 Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have displayed such blatant prejudice. And it especially appalling that no prominent member of the Democratic Party has breathed so much as a word of disapproval. That silence is remarkable from the party that loves to display its horror at any hint of bigotry, and that prides itself on inclusiveness.

I don’t have to defend the bona fides of the Knights of Columbus. I am a proud member of the Order, but the Supreme Knight, Carl Anderson, said all that is necessary in his recent statement about this scandal.

Some hard questions need to be asked. Has it become dogma in the Democratic Party that membership in the Knights makes a person suspect?  Or has it become dogma in the Democratic Party that anyone who believes what the Catholic Church (and many other Christian communities) teaches and believes is no longer fit to hold public office?

The question being asked in the United States Senate – for now — is, ” Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Knights of Columbus?” Will it soon become, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Catholic Church?”

Can We Talk About War?

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

At today’s Mass, we heard Isaiah’s famous lines about the coming kingdom of God and the reign of the Messiah:

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Is 2:4)

So can we talk about war and peace in this age of ours, two thousand years after the coming of the actual Messiah?

We just survived a long and grueling national election campaign in what was called, with typical political hyperbole, “the most important election of our lives”. I follow politics pretty closely. I don’t recall much, if any, talk about war and peace during this allegedly monumental campaign. How strange, considering:

  • The United States is currently in our seventeenth year of war — by far, the longest period of war in our history — with no end in sight.
  • We are currently involved in armed conflict in seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lybia, Yemen, Somalia, and Niger. Our soldiers may also be involved in secret combat operations in several other African counties. We have combat troops and active military bases in many more nations as well.
  • The Defense Department estimates the cost of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria at $1.5 trillion. The monthly cost is about $3.4 billion. Other estimates, which include projected future costs for veteran health care, have been as high as $5.6 trillion.  By way of comparison, the annual defense budget is about $700 billion.
  • The human cost of the wars — according to one estimate from Brown University, approximately 500,000 people have died in these wars, including about 6,300 US military members and contractors. This doesn’t include people who died due to indirect results of the conflicts or the millions of people who have been displaced from their homes.

There are many policy arguments we can have about the legitimacy and conduct of these wars. But our nation hasn’t had that discussion, and virtually none of our public officials seems interested in having it — on all sides of the political spectrum. It is truly bizarre, in a democratic nation at war, that it isn’t even on the political radar. Are these wars worth the cost? What policy goals are they pursuing? Are we doing more harm than good? Can those goals be achieved by other, non-military means? Aside from ritual incantations about “support the troops”, the silence is perplexing and troubling.

Can we also talk about the legality of the wars? Since Congress hasn’t declared war on anyone, the only legal leg for these wars to stand on is the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Resolution, passed by Congress in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. That resolution provides that “the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons…” Three Presidential Administrations have interpreted this to permit military operations against forces that not only had nothing to do with 9/11, but didn’t even exist at that time. The last Administration proposed an amended AUMF, but efforts by some Senators and Congressional representatives to open a debate about it have been consistently stymied by the leadership of both houses. Can we at least talk about this?

There have also been credible charges that war crimes and crimes against humanity are being committed in the Yemen war by Saudi and allied forces. America supports their war effort with intelligence and material, raising the question of whether the US is complicit in those crimes. There have been attempts recently in Congress to end US support for that war, but there is little hope that they will succeed. Is anyone talking about this?

It is vitally important that we have a serious debate about this. For pro-lifers, this is a critical issue. God cherishes every human life, regardless of nationality. We cannot be consistent or coherent in our defense of life unless we defend life everywhere. For Catholics, the need for the debate, and for our unique faith-based contribution, is even more essential. The Church has long been an eloquent advocate for peace. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have been salient voices for an end to armed conflict. In his last Message for the World Day of Peace in 2013, Pope Benedict said,

[T]he Church is convinced of the urgency of a new proclamation of Jesus Christ, the first and fundamental factor of the integral development of peoples and also of peace. Jesus is indeed our peace, our justice and our reconciliation (cf. Eph 2:14; 2 Cor 5:18). The peacemaker, according to Jesus’ beatitude, is the one who seeks the good of the other, the fullness of good in body and soul, today and tomorrow. From this teaching one can infer that each person and every community, whether religious, civil, educational or cultural, is called to work for peace. Peace is principally the attainment of the common good in society at its different levels, primary and intermediary, national, international and global. Precisely for this reason it can be said that the paths which lead to the attainment of the common good are also the paths that must be followed in the pursuit of peace.

In this Advent season, we listen to the Prophet Isaiah and the other prophets in their longing for the coming of the Kingdom of God and the Prince of Peace. We have to remember that these are not just pious sentiments about “pie in the sky” someday in the distant future. Working for peace in our time is an essential part of the Gospel message of redemption, and is a specific obligation for every Christian to work tirelessly for it. We cannot stand by and do nothing while the world burns. We need to talk about war.

Where Do Things Stand on the Sex Abuse Crisis?

Wednesday, November 28th, 2018

The news from the recent US bishops’ meeting came as a shock and disappointment to many Catholics – the Holy See blocked a vote on any plan to address the latest developments in the sex abuse crisis until after a world-wide meeting of the heads of national bishops’ conferences in February. And many are deeply frustrated because there is a lack of information about why this was done and what’s going to happen.

I’ve been hearing lots of angry questions about the situation from friends and correspondents. There is a plethora of opinion and speculation online, much of it colored by various ideological positions. There is a lot of mis-information, and lack of information, being spread through the media and the blogosphere.

I’d like to offer some of my thoughts and explanations to try to clarify where I see things being. Note that these are my personal opinions. They’re not official positions of the Archdiocese and I have no special inside information. But I am involved in child protection, so I’m going to use that experience to try to make some sense of things.

Why did Rome stop the bishops from acting? 

Just to review, the US bishops were holding their semi-annual meeting in Baltimore. The main issue on the agenda was how to address the sex abuse crisis, particularly the question of how to hold bishops accountable. There were two inter-related proposals on the table – to establish a lay-led commission to review complaints against bishops and to define a code of conduct for bishops. At the last minute, a letter was sent from the Holy See asking (in reality, a nice way of ordering) the bishops to postpone any vote on any kind of proposal until after the meeting that the Holy Father called in February to discuss the matter with the presidents of all the regional bishops’ conferences around the world.

It’s impossible to say why the Holy See stopped the bishops from adopting an American policy, because nobody in Rome explained the reasoning behind the decision. All we were told was that decisions should be deferred until after the February meeting. For Americans, this is, perhaps, the most frustrating part of what happened, since we are used to much more open debate about policy options. Many feel deeply offended and angry, and see this as another example of condescending clericalism and a culture of secrecy. Some have also found it bewildering to stop our bishops from voting on a plan that was going to have to be approved in Rome anyway, and wonder whether there is some kind of hostility to America going on.

It’s clear to me that the Holy See needs to be much more open about what they’re doing and why — especially because one of the most damaging parts of the sex abuse crisis was the loss of trust because of all the secrecy.

Why can’t the US Bishops just adopt their own policies for the US?

American Catholics naturally want our American bishops to offer solutions to our American problem. We respect the principle of subsidiarity, according to which there’s a strong preference that local bodies resolve local problems if possible, and that larger bodies only get involved if local solutions don’t work. Our experience since 2002 with the Bishops’ Charter shows that our bishops are perfect capable of developing successful ways to deal with sex abuse on a national scale.

So for many people, Rome’s decision to postpone any action on the US bishops’ plan, before there was a chance to see if it would work, seems to violate subsidiarity. On the other hand, the Holy Father may be convinced that the sex abuse crisis (including the problem of misconduct and poor governance by bishops) can’t be answered on a nation-by-nation basis and requires a world-wide discussion, if not a world-wide response. It’s hard to tell because Rome’s reasoning hasn’t been made public.

Regardless of the reasons, once Rome made the request (i.e., order) to our bishops, they had no choice but to comply. Unity with the Holy Father is an essential part of the collegiality among bishops and the catholicity of our Church, and great deference has to be given to his wishes.

One pragmatic matter is crucial to understand: the Church is present in virtually every country in the world. We in America are used to dealing with a good government with fair courts and laws, a free press and wide-open discussions. But in most other countries, dioceses operate in a completely different environment, with open hostility and persecution from their governments, limited free press and fear of retaliation for speaking one’s mind. So what may make perfect sense in one country or diocese could be a disaster in another. The Holy See has the difficult job of trying to make world-wide policy that will work in all nations.

So does Rome have a plan?

Again, we don’t know, because nobody at the Holy See has publicly proposed anything yet. The Vatican has just announced the names of some of the people who will be involved in the planning of the February meeting (none of whom are laypeople), they haven’t had any formal meetings yet, and there haven’t been any real hints about the actual agenda. Public statements by some of the organizers have been very general and have suggested that the meeting will only be the beginning of a longer process of developing policies.

That kind of statement is just astounding to me – we are very far from the beginning of the crisis, and we need to move quickly towards ending it. The crisis is now, not in the future. We need to see a sense of urgency and a concrete plan that has much more involvement of the laity, especially experts in the field, and much more openness and accountability.

For all those reasons and more, I think it’s reasonable to be skeptical that the February meeting will result in any concrete proposals. In the past, high-level meetings run by the Holy See have usually been better at discussing general principles than for adopting practical policies. Just think of the most recent Synods of Bishops for examples.

There was also some discussion at the US bishops’ meeting of strengthening the role of archbishops in supervising the bishops in their province and in evaluating allegations of misconduct by them. There were even hints that this proposal might be favored in Rome. There is some merit to this idea, since it relies on existing structures, but it makes many Catholics nervous. Having bishops overseeing other bishops, unless they also have robust transparency and involvement by laity or independent investigators, will likely be perceived by many as perpetuating the kind of clericalism that has been a major part of the problem in the past. The Archbishop McCarrick case has been seen as a prime example of the failure of bishops to self-police.

In any event, it seems clear to me that to regain the trust of American Catholics, Rome will have to come up with more than just additional statements about how serious the problem is, how concerned they are, how committed they are to preventing abuse, and how serious they are about developing policies. There’s already been a lot of talk, and people are impatient for action.

What can our bishops do in the meantime? 

Seeing our bishops’ hands tied by the Vatican is very upsetting, because that means there are very few things they can do on the national scale while waiting for the February world-wide meeting. Cardinal Dolan and two other prelates have been appointed to a special task force to study the issue, and we can hope that there will be some positive results from that and an avenue for input from the laity in that process. And we can also hope that after the February world-wide meeting, the US Bishops will have the ability to adopt particular policies that would apply in the unique situation of the US.

Individual bishops, however, can use this time to increase their communication with the laity, particularly by being completely transparent about the cases that have arisen and how they have been handled, including apologizing for mistakes. The bishops can also be transparent by explaining the procedures they already have in their dioceses and how they can hold their brother bishops accountable. Greater attention can also be paid to the problem of unchastity among the clergy. More bishops are following Cardinal Dolan’s example and setting up compensation plans for victims of abuse, and more should also follow his example by calling on an independent monitor to evaluate what the diocese has been doing.

These steps help, but they don’t eliminate people’s impatience over the need for a strong national solution.

Is the Vatican dragging its feet on the Archbishop McCarrick case?

Not at all. The first allegation against the Archbishop was evaluated last Spring by our review board and found to be substantiated. That case was then sent to Rome, the Holy Father removed the Archbishop’s faculties to function as a priest and bishop, he resigned from the College of Cardinals, and he has been assigned to live in prayer and penance. A second allegation was made public this summer in the newspapers. It was referred to Rome, and they then sent it back to us for investigation. According to our protocols, we referred the case to the local District Attorney to determine whether there is any possibility of a criminal prosecution. Once they have concluded their handling of the case, we will conduct our own investigation and all the evidence will be submitted to our review board. If any other allegations are made, they will be handled the same way.

Investigating these kinds of cases takes time, and we all wish things would move faster. But the Holy See has been following its law and procedure, the DA’s offices have followed theirs, and so have we. These things can’t be rushed. We also have to make sure that the Archbishop, like anyone else, receives due process. People often forget that even the American justice system moves very slowly. The Bill Cosby sexual assault case took three years from the filing of charges through two trials, and the Larry Nasser/US gymnastics sex abuse case took over a year and a half for the criminal cases to end in guilty pleas (but the civil cases are still going on). Unfortunately, real life is not like an episode of “Law and Order” where everything is neatly wrapped up in sixty minutes.

Evaluating the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick is only part of the issue, though. The larger question is about how he was able to advance in office despite widespread rumors and even legal settlements about his misconduct. That’s a serious question that Rome will have to eventually answer.

Aren’t the bishops and the pope worried about losing Catholics? 

Many Catholics are baffled by what they see as the tepid and confusing response by Church leaders and think that the bishops “just don’t get” the level of anger and alienation they feel. What happened at the bishops’ meeting was more fuel for that feeling, and there’s a grave concern that ordinary Catholics are going to leave the Church in frustration.

We Catholics have great reverence for our Church, and our faith is inevitably shaken when Church leaders let us down. Throughout her history, the Church has struggled with scandals and failings in ourselves and our leaders. A quick read of St. Paul’s letters shows that in vivid detail (1 Corinthians is a good example). The offenses and failures of the clergy undermine our trust in their sincerity about the faith itself – people rightly think, “if they act that way, why should I believe anything they say?” Of course, we know that the validity of the sacraments and the integrity of the faith don’t depend on the worthiness of the ministers. And Church history is also a good lesson in patience and perspective – we’ve survived many, many crises before, thanks to the protection of the Holy Spirit.

But still, there is a critical element of trust that our bishops need to regain, before too many people are disillusioned and join the ranks of the “nones” – those who say they’re believers but who don’t belong to any church – or the legion of “ex-Catholics”.

What can lay people do about this?

Because complaints of clergy misconduct are handled according to internal Church processes (under the Bishops’ Charter and the Canon Law), it’s hard to see how regular lay people can get more involved. There is no clear avenue right now for raising complaints about bishops, and it’s hard to tell how Rome handles those complaints or even if anyone is listening to them.

One thing that is absolutely necessary is for people to respectfully let their bishop know how they feel about this situation and how much they want to see some positive action. The only way they’ll “get it” is if we give it to them – politely and reasonably. I know that some people are withholding donations to their bishops’ appeal to send a message, but I don’t think that gets the job done — that money goes primarily to the pastoral and charitable work of the dioceses, so the only people being deprived of money are the needy people who will lose services.

The most important thing that lay people can do is to pray for our bishops and priests, and especially for victims, and to lead blameless and holy lives ourselves. Good Christian lives are the best way to attract people to the Gospel, and to heal the wounds of sin.

How can the Church operate this way?

We Americans are very impatient and practical by nature. When there’s a crisis we want solutions right away. If there’s a natural disaster, we expect the President and the Governor to be on the next plane and for FEMA, the Red Cross and the military to be on the ground within hours — forget about red tape, just get the job done. We hold them all to a high standard and any slips are put under a microscope immediately.

Americans are also used to our government officials explaining in detail (both officially and through unofficial statements, leaks, etc.) why particular policies are being put forward, and we are comfortable with extensively debating about them. When our government isn’t open with us about what policies are being developed, we are immediately suspicious and often resort to conspiracy theories. Americans have an ingrained allergy to government secrecy, and we really believe in the expression that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

As a result, the deliberate pace and closed manner with which the Church operates can be bewildering and intensely frustrating to Americans. Most people, including many Catholics, don’t realize that the Church isn’t organized like a corporation with branch offices on every corner and policies that can be changed in a minute by the CEO. There are elements of both localism and universalism in the Church that work together and are sometimes in tension. Each diocese is governed by a bishop who has very broad authority, but the diocese is still part of the universal Church and the bishop is responsible for maintaining unity with the Holy Father. The Holy Father has ultimate governing authority over the Church, but he has to respect the autonomy of individual bishops. National bishops’ conferences like the USCCB are really coalitions like the Chamber of Commerce, and don’t have any actual governing power over individual dioceses.

The Church also operates under its own internal legal system. The Canon Law is a complex and ancient body of law that is very different in concept from our Anglo-American common law system. It reflects very rich and deep theological principles about the nature of the Church, and it has detailed standards and procedures that have developed over centuries. It is not designed for rapid-fire pragmatism like you would find on a TV court reality show or a legal thriller novel. The Holy Father has the authority to change Canon Law, but, as with any legal system, changes have to be done very carefully to avoid interfering with or undermining other important principles. For example, it would be easy to streamline a criminal trial to make it faster, but that can’t be done in a way that endangers due process rights or the presumption of innocence.

The Church operates in a way that is very strange to Americans. It’s hard to get used to, and sometimes even harder to explain.

What’s the take-away?

Ultimately, of course, our faith is not in man or in institutions but in Jesus Christ, and we believe that His saving power works even though imperfect people like our clergy and ourselves. As St. Paul said, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7).

For the last 15 years, the Church has been implementing the Bishops Charter and has made tremendous strides in protecting children from sexual abuse and addressing past misconduct. The current state of things is very frustrating and there’s no easy answer, but we can’t lose hope. We will just have to continue working the best we can through the imperfect system that we have, with faith that the Holy Spirit is always active and guiding us.

The Truth is on Trial

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

[On October 4, I was honored to receive the Great Defender of Life Award from the Human Life Foundation. The following is the text of my acceptance address.]

As we’ve all seen in recent weeks, one of the greatest challenges of our time is that the truth is on trial. We’ve heard that we live in a post-truth and post-moral society. But nothing could be more dangerous than to fall for the pernicious lie that there is no such thing as objective, eternal moral truth.

We see this all around us. Academia has long peddled the idea that “everything is relative”, and that we can define our own “truth”. In the public square we see the truth subordinated to political ends or distorted by “spin” and ideology. I don’t have to cite specific examples. Just pick up the newspaper.

We can see this in the sufferings of the Catholic Church that I love and serve. We see it especially when we listen to the victims of abuse, as I do. We see what happens when people betray the truth, ignore it, hide it or hide from it. For the longest time we didn’t realize — and in some places we still don’t realize — that the only way to address the problem is with the truth, by living according to it and accepting the consequences. If you want to see the case study of what happens when we fail to uphold the truth, look at the Church.

The denial of truth is certainly not a new phenomenon. But in the communication age, it is spreading like a virus and is having a corrosive effect on society on all levels — from our public institutions down to our own individual lives.

Truth is on trial, and the vulnerable are at risk. In reality, we are all at risk.

My particular focus is on the degradation of the law. Up in the Bronx, at the majestic County Courthouse, you can see inscribed above the north portico: “The administration of justice presents the noblest field for the exercise of human capacity.” That certainly presupposes that there is such a thing as justice, and that there is nobility in serving it.

Does anyone believe this anymore? I do, but I certainly wasn’t taught that in law school, and it’s hard to see it anywhere in our politics or government. It has been replaced by legal positivism — the idea that there is no objective morality, that the law is nothing but an expression of power, special interest, and domination, and that there is no law but man’s law.

You can see the danger. If there is no law but man-made law, then nothing is safe and, as my first-year Contracts professor told us — “It’s all up for grabs”. Pope Benedict warned us about this, “A purely positivistic culture… would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity, with very grave consequences.”

How far we have come from the day, when in the midst of the slavery debate, the great statesman William Seward said “there is a higher law than the Constitution, which regulates our authority over the domain, and devotes it to the same noble purposes.”

Instead we have a Supreme Court that echoes the infamous Dred Scott decision by holding that unborn human beings have no rights that born people are bound to respect. A Court that says that absolute personal autonomy is the highest value, and that everyone can somehow define the meaning of the universe for himself. A Supreme Court Justice who cynically instructed his law clerks that the most important thing to know about the Court is five — the bare majority needed for a decision.  A series of nominees who are forced by the confirmation process to talk about decisions that were wrong the day they were decided – Roe and Casey in particular – and call them “settled law” that have to be respected as “precedent”.  Not much has changed since Frederick Douglass said of the Dred Scott Supreme Court, “[they] can do many things, but [they] cannot change the essential nature of things — making evil good, and good, evil”. But they certainly are still trying, and will continue to try.

We see this in every issue we face in the pro-life movement, where the powerful first devalue, then dehumanize, and then dispose of the weak. For the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time on the issue of assisted suicide. People with disabilities and elderly people are being told their lives have no value because they lack some kind of quality or capability or because they are too costly to maintain. They are being told that they are better off dead. Insurance companies won’t pay for treatment but they will pay for suicide drugs. Doctors become killers, laws put people in danger rather than protecting them, the advocates hide behind phony terms like “medical aid in dying”, they claim that it’s not really “suicide” and they call it “compassionate”. This is what the denial of the truth brings us to.

Yes, the truth is on trial. We are on trial. The stakes are very high. But we have an answer because our movement is at its heart a truth-teller.

One of the fundamental truths we hold is that there is a law that governs us all — the natural law.

It is a universal objective moral order that God wrote in our hearts and in our very nature, but it is discernible by reason also. The truth of this law does not depend on power, identity, feelings, culture, or the whims of courts or legislatures. It is real, eternal, binding on us all and essential for our safety and happiness. All human laws must conform to it, or at least not contradict it, or they are not binding on us, and we must try to correct them. James Wilson, Founding Fathers and one of the first Supreme Court Justices, said “it should always be remembered, that this law, natural or revealed, made for men or for nations, flows from the same divine source: it is the law of God… Human law must rest its authority, ultimately, upon the authority of that law, which is divine”. All the Founders of our nation believed this. Abraham Lincoln believed it. Can you imagine any Supreme Court nominee saying this now?

This higher law stands against any abuse of power, whether by individuals or governments. Under this law, abortion and euthanasia would be unthinkable – nobody can take into their own hands the absolute, unaccountable power over life and death.

The natural law and its objective moral truth are the cure for the pessimism and nihilism of the legal positivists.  It gives us the foundation to uphold what is right and good and most human — polices that embody justice, charity, and the common good, and laws that protect the most vulnerable, and defend religious freedom and human rights.  How much better life would be, if these fundamental truths were embodied in our law. How much more happiness there would be in our world.

This is why our movement is so important. We are the advocates for the weak and vulnerable who are most at risk when the powerful act as if there is no truth, no eternal law, and “it’s all up for grabs”. In the end, we know that we will be judged — as individuals and as a nation — not according to man’s “settled law”, or the Supreme Court’s precedents, but by God’s eternal law.

And we prove these truths by how we love — from the mother vulnerable to abortion, to the single parent struggling to survive, to the disabled person living in loneliness. Including loving those who oppose us. Love is the most powerful argument for the truth.

Our society has lost sight of these truths. But we are here to remind them.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

  • Every human being has been endowed by God with dignity and rights that cannot be taken away by anyone.
  • The first and foremost of these rights is the right to live.
  • Every unique individual human being has inestimable value that is not dependent on productivity or ability or usefulness or convenience.
  • It is a fundamental injustice to hurt or kill an innocent person no matter their age or condition.
  • The government has a solemn duty to protect and defend everyone.
  • It is a disgraceful dereliction of duty for the government to stand by and do nothing while innocent lives are taken, or, even worse, to encourage it or pay for it.
  • We are all united in one human family — what hurts one hurts us all.
  • Because either everybody’s life matters or nobody’s life matters.

Our challenge is the same it has always been, in every movement to eliminate injustice and oppression — from abolitionism to the civil rights movement to our pro-life movement. Abraham Lincoln once said, “[T]he real issue… is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.  They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle.”

This is our struggle, our trial, in our time – to defend every human life.

We do this because have an unshakable confidence. We are not be discouraged by the powerful forces that oppose us. We will speak the truth with love. We will uphold the law that God has written into every human heart. We will lift up the weak and vulnerable. We will dare to do our duty to them.

And we know that by the grace of God and our hard work, our cause — our glorious cause — will triumph in the end.

What We’re Doing about Sex Abuse

Thursday, September 27th, 2018

The Church is once again facing the tragedy of child sexual abuse. My Public Policy Office recently had an open discussion with a group of young adults about the crisis, as part of our monthly Discussion and Discipleship series. It was clear in that discussion that it would be valuable to let people know in detail what efforts the Archdiocese has made to respond to and protect against child sexual abuse. Since I am also the Safe Environment Director, I put together this overview of what we’ve done and what we’re doing.

The vast majority of clerical sex abuse took place before 2000.

It’s important to understand the true scope and nature of the problem. Independent analysis by John Jay College and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University (which can be found here) confirm that the vast majority of reported offenses took place between the 1960’s and 1980’s, then declined sharply. The allegations that we have received in the Archdiocese follow that same pattern, as do the offenses reported in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. Since 2015, there has been an average of 7 reported cases nationwide that are contemporary (i.e., they happened in the same year they were reported). Thank God, here in the Archdiocese we have not had a substantiated contemporary claim since 2011.

Obviously, the only acceptable number of cases is zero. But the fact is that we are primarily talking about a historical problem — one that was very badly handled by the Church at the time and which we can never, ever let happen again.

The 2002 Bishops Charter was a decisive moment.

In the aftermath of the revelations in 2002 about abuse in Boston, the Bishops adopted the Bishops Charter on the Protection of Children and Young People. The Charter requires that: all allegations of child sexual abuse must be reported to law enforcement; every diocese is to have an independent review board to evaluate the legitimacy of these allegations; any priest who is found to have abused a child must be permanently removed from ministry (the “Zero Tolerance Policy”); and every diocese must establish a child protection (typically called “safe environment”) program to implement preventive measures. It also requires that pastoral assistance be offered to all victims of abuse and that dioceses cannot demand that settlements of lawsuits be kept confidential.

The Charter led to a fundamental and comprehensive change in the way that the Church addresses sexual abuse of minors. The Archdiocese has vigorously implemented the requirements of theCharter and, in fact, has adopted policies that are above and beyond the CharterAll of our policies are online and can be consulted by anyone. 

All allegations are reported to the authorities and thoroughly investigated. 

Under our policies, “Child Sexual Abuse” and “Sexual Misconduct” are defined very broadly, to include virtually any sexual offense under state and federal law, as well as Canon Law and Catholic moral teaching. We deliberately defined the offenses as broadly as we could, in order not to miss any kind of conduct that harms children. We also included offenses against vulnerable adults (e.g., those who cannot make decisions due to a developmental or cognitive impairment) in the category of offenses against minors, and other offenses against adults.

The first contact we usually have with a complainant is by email, but some people also call. We have a form on the Safe Environment Office website that allows a person to write out the basic facts of their complaint, and our phone numbers are also listed there. We get back in touch with them as soon as possible (usually within one business day), and we then interview them over the phone. This is done either by me or by our Victim Assistance Coordinator, Sr. Eileen Clifford. This is a hard conversation. For many, this is the first time that they’ve told anyone or the first time they’ve ever spoken to someone who will believe them and do something for them. For just about all of them, it’s the first time that anyone has apologized to them.

Once we see that the allegation is credible (i.e., it isn’t obviously false or absurd) and we identify the priest, we report it to the appropriate District Attorney. We give them all the information we have and we fully cooperate with their investigation. We have an agreement with the DA’s not to remove the priest from service at that point, so that they can investigate the case fully, but if there’s a current threat to children we will place the priest on leave right away.

Unfortunately, virtually all of the allegations we receive can’t be criminally prosecuted because they’re too old. In New York, the statute of limitations for most criminal sex offenses is five years after the victim turns 18. As a result, the authorities share the results of their investigation and refer the case back to us to handle.

We then conduct our own investigation. Our interest is in finding the truth, regardless of where the chips may fall. We have hired a firm of retired federal law enforcement agents to ensure independence and transparency in the investigations. We have two in-house attorneys (I’m a former state and federal prosecutor, my colleague is a very experienced civil litigator) to help them. The accused priest is notified of the allegation and he is given an attorney to represent him. We interview the complainant and any possible witnesses, and search for any other relevant evidence. The accused priest is also interviewed, and we follow up on any leads that he gives us.

The key thing is to find any independent evidence that bears on the allegations, to try to determine what (if anything) happened. These cases are very difficult to investigate, because the alleged conduct took place so long ago and our complainants were very young at the time (mostly under 14). Memories are tricky and fade or change over time, witnesses are dead or missing, no physical evidence has survived, and many victims don’t report things right away so there’s no contemporary record of it.

When all investigative steps have been taken, the results are presented to our independent review board for a decision. This board consists of distinguished members of the community – judges, doctors, lawyers, a woman religious and a senior priest. They review all the information we’ve gathered, and sometimes they ask that the complainant and the priest give live testimony. Their task is to decide whether the allegation is substantiated – essentially whether it is more likely than not that the offense took place. Our experience is that at least three-quarters of the allegations are supported by sufficient evidence.

The Zero Tolerance Policy in Action.

As required by the Charter, anyone (clerical or lay) who is found to have committed sexual abuse of a minor is removed permanently from ministry and/or employment. Since the Charter, approximately 50 priests who had been in active service or retired were permanently banned from ministry. We’ve had many more credible  complaints against priests who are dead or were already expelled from ministry.

This is the “zero tolerance policy” in action. There are no second chances, no return to ministry after psychological testing, and no moving offenders around. Those days are over forever.

Once that has happened, the Canon Law process begins to have the priest “laicized” (i.e., degraded from the clerical state, or “defrocked”). This can only be done by the Holy See, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This can take a long time, because the file of documents that have to be submitted is very large, the number of experts who can do that is limited, and the office at the Vatican that handles the cases is very overworked. But we still do this with every substantiated case against an active priest.

Our Policy on Sexual Misconduct also covers offenses committed against adults, including sexual harassment, conduct in violation of professional standards within a pastoral or counseling relationship, and sexual acts that involve abuses of positions of power. The “zero tolerance policy” applies here too. Any person who commits a criminal offense against an adult is reported to law enforcement and if the allegation is substantiated they too will be permanent removed from ministry or employment. Persons who commit sexual harassment may also be punished and even fired, depending on the severity of the offense.

All victims who come forward are offered help.

The Charter requires that every diocese appoint a Victim Assistance Coordinator whose responsibility is to provide pastoral care to victims. Our coordinator is often one of the first contacts for victims, and she offers them support, including help getting professional counseling. Any victim, no matter how old the offense, is offered help. In addition, in 2016 the Archdiocese instituted anIndependent Reconciliation and Compensation Program that offers financial awards to victims. Over 350 victims have taken advantage of this program.

How do we know you’re doing all of this? 

The Charter requires that every diocese be annually audited to ensure that the requirements were being implemented. The audit is conducted by outside experts, and it involves statistical evidence, examination of files, and personal interviews.  The Archdiocese has been found to be fully compliant with the Charter in thirteen consecutive audits since the Safe Environment program became fully operational in 2005. All the policies and procedures of the Safe Environment program are also subject to the on-going oversight of our independent review board.

Every year, a report is published on the U.S. Bishops’ website, summarizing the results of the audits of every diocese in the United States. Statistical information about abuse cases is also submitted to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University for analysis, and their results are also published in the bishops’ report. These multiple levels of transparency will hold us accountable for implementing the Charter and our Policies.

What are you doing to protect children going forward? 

The Charter requires that every diocese implement a child protection policy, which we call our Safe Environment Program. Everyone whose duties involve contact with minors must be screened, including a background check for criminal convictions and sex offender status; they have to obey our policies and Code of Conduct; and they have to complete a class in child protection. The training includes how to identify warning signs of victims and offenders, how to respond and report incidents, and the requirements of our Code of Conduct and other policies (e.g., electronic communications, social media, and proper professional boundaries). We currently have approximately 49,000 people (clergy, employees and volunteers) whose duties involve contact with minors.

Since 2003, the following steps have been taken:

130,000+ background checks have been completed;
114,000+ clergy, employees, and volunteers have received training on keeping children safe;
129,000+ children received age-appropriate, morally sound safety training during the 2017-2018 school year.

The bottom line.

No system of child protection is infallible. Mistakes are always going to be made. Any failure is a horrendous tragedy. But perhaps this brief outline shows that we are doing everything we reasonably can to address the crimes of the past, and prevent anything like that from happening ever again. We can always improve these efforts and we’re constantly reviewing them to make them better. The Cardinal’s appointment of Judge Barbara Jones as an outside evaluator and monitor of our programs is proof of that, and I’m very optimistic about strengthening our program even more.

The Church I See

Thursday, September 13th, 2018

We have all seen the horror stories over the past few months about sexual abuse in the Church. We have all been disgusted and enraged by them. For some, it has been too much. They have decided to leave the Church because of all the ugliness they see.

I understand that. I see the same ugliness, more close up and personal than most people do. I have been working in the child protection program of the Archdiocese since 2005. I have read the public reports and I’ve read through the files of priests who have been abusers. I’ve read academic studies of child molestation and the testimony of victims. Part of my job is to help investigate allegations, so I’ve talked personally and at length to many victims of abuse. I see the raw ugliness of the sins that were committed against these innocent people. At times it’s overwhelming, and it is always depressing. I’ve also seen the poor responses, the indifference, sometimes the hostility of Church authorities who have tried to ignore, deny, deflect, or conceal what was going on. So yes, there is much ugliness.

But that’s not all I see when I look at the Church I love. Even with everything that’s been going on, and all the sin and evil in the Church, I still see so much beauty. I see things like:

  • The Holy Hour of Prayer for the victims of sexual abuse that we held in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. What could be more beautiful than adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the devotion of those who were there —  mostly young adults.
  • The deep reverence of priests towards the Eucharist during exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and even during daily Mass.
  • The profession of final vows by the Sisters of Life. A spectacular liturgy, sublime music, and the powerful witness of women who were dedicating their entire lives to the Lord and his least ones.
  • The consecration to Mary that my wife and I made on the feast of Our Lady of Knock. Mary has been a source of so much grace and consolation to us that it was wonderful for us to offer ourselves back to her.
  • The Divine Mercy Shrine in Stockbridge, which we visited recently. Such a powerful devotion, and a wonderful, peaceful location for prayer and reparation.
  • The ardent curiosity and commitment of the young adults who come to our monthly Discussion and Discipleship group. We talk about Church teaching on tough topics like contraception, life issues, and sex abuse. You can sense the yearning and hunger for truth in the hearts of these wonderful people.
  • The sublime beauty of the Traditional Latin Mass and the noble simplicity of the ordinary Mass.
  • The sight of members of the Legion of Mary, praying the Rosary at the Grand Central subway station. Such a wonderful public witness of the power of prayer.
  • The dedication of so many loyal Catholics whose hearts burn with love for Christ and his Church, and who are desperately looking for something to do to correct the abuses.

There certainly has been much ugliness in the Church, and we need to be ruthless in eliminating it. But I refuse to dismiss the whole because of the rot in some of its members. Without the Church, I would know nothing of God, I would never have encountered Christ, and I would still remain in my sins without hope. I totally relate to what St. Peter said when Jesus asked if the apostles would leave him because of his hard teachings, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

St. Paul wrote that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” (Eph. 5:25-27)

We wicked foolish humans have done our worst to deface and desecrate the Bride of Christ. We now have to do our best to cleanse her so that she can truly be without blemish and we can present her back to the Bridegroom as he desires. We certainly have a lot of work to do, but the Church I see is worth fighting for.

That’s because the Church I see isn’t the one tarnished by ugliness, but the one whose beauty remains eternal.