One Parent’s Demand for Justice

A father's challenge to the head of the US Bishops over the sex abuse scandal continues to resonate

Archbishop Wilton Gregory
Archbishop Wilton Gregory

BH: What inspired you to write it in the first place?

DS: The same sense of stunned disbelief that overcame every Catholic parent when the sheer magnitude of these revelations was becoming clear. During a conversation in early 2002 with a number of guys I play ball with, we realized that nearly every one of us had some indirect personal connection to clerical abuse of minors. One had been married by a priest who was later removed from ministry; another had young relatives who had been abused by a cleric. I’d personally lived in two parishes from which the associate pastors were eventually removed. As parents, Catholic or not, that was a really sobering realization. I still recall how I wished then-Bishop Gregory had been there that night to hear that conversation. Since he wasn’t, I thought I owed it to him, my wife, my kids and my teammates to try to articulate one dad’s perspective.

Ultimately, as it says in the text, I knew a day would come when I would need to be able to look each of my children in the eye and assure them I spoke up on their behalf. Even more than that, I wanted this tragedy to be ancient history by the time my kids had kids of their own. It looks now like that probably won’t happen.

BH: How was it received at the time?

DS: I’ve been blessed to work for a number of bishops who hired me to tell them what I thought, and then actually expected me to do that. Over the years I’ve seen lots of very articulate and outspoken people become almost woefully deferential in the company of bishops and priests, even when their hearts were breaking. That’s a cultural dynamic that doesn’t serve us well and, I’ve learned, is often just as frustrating for both parties.

I first handed the text to Bishop Gregory to read at his residence, but then I took it back and read the whole thing aloud to him so he’d receive it not as a memorandum from a member of his staff, but as an honest plea from a Catholic dad who couldn’t settle on an emotion — confusion, rage, disgust, disappointment, and maybe even a sense of relief that this was out in the open and would have to be addressed before any more kids could get hurt. The language was harsh and direct because I felt then as I do now that the moment for polite discourse had passed. It was deliberately not political or ideological because the scourge of priests abusing children is not political or ideological. There is no right and left in this; there’s only right and wrong.

That afternoon I put a vacation photo of my kids, taken the previous summer, squarely in the middle of his desk, where it remained. I printed twenty more copies and stuck them in his meeting packets, speech texts, on the podium — anywhere I felt it might help to remind him of what was at stake while he attended the upcoming conference of Bishops in Dallas.

I think he heard what I’d written as it was intended, as both an indictment and a genuine offer to help. I’d also like to think similar conversations were going on in every chancery in the country.

BH: Do you think it made any difference at all in the church’s policy on the scandal?

DS: Only in that it was generally consistent with the proposals set forth by just about every bishop willing to engage in gut-wrenchingly honest dialogue with their own staffs and advisors. My first piece of advice to my own bishop was, if this is the only place you hear any of these suggestions you would do well to summarily disregard them. If, however, you hear these or similar proposals across the board, you and your brother bishops need to get to work.

Of course, Bishop Gregory did hear similar calls from his diocesan pastoral council, his staff at the USCCB and the diocese, and just about every bishop, priest, deacon and lay person he encountered over the next several months. Though some were slower than others to accept what was being alleged, by late spring of 2002 I would say that anger and a sense of betrayal among Catholic parents was nearly universal — sometimes temporarily smothered by guilt over being so angry at their Church, but still universal.

To be honest, though, it saddens me to admit that a closer look at the specific proposals I made in 2002 reveals that they mostly have not been implemented, at least not as conceived. In fact, rereading the document for the first time in a while recently made me wonder what if anything I’d be able to delete if I were writing it today.

For example, every diocese is supposed to have a review board whose job it is to recommend fitness for ministry of priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors, regardless of how long ago the abuse is alleged to have happened. There’s no canonical precedent for it and it was understandably unsettling to our priests, but it was widely regarded as a necessary step to broaden professional involvement in assessing the validity of a particular allegation. When I proposed a national review board, it was intended to take the notion of a diocesan review board one step further: a group of professionals of complementary disciplines who would assess the facts — documentation, depositions and actions — regarding a particular bishop’s response to allegations involving his priests and then determine his fitness for continued episcopal ministry. They would then make a recommendation to the Holy Father, as a diocesan review board does to the local bishop, based on whether they believed the man was, say, “acting on the best advice of his experts at the time,” or merely avoiding his fundamental responsibility to protect the people of God in his pastoral care. Again, there’s no canonical precedent, but, I reasoned, leadership should always be prepared to model to a higher degree any standard to which they hold their subordinates. Besides, for many of us, that was the more egregious scandal.

By the time the actual National Review Board was formed, of course, it didn’t look anything like that. What was created is invaluable, but it aligns with what I proposed in name only, which of course was the prerogative of the designers. Now that resignations of bishops are being accepted more frequently as an apparent result of their mishandling of misconduct allegations, it would seem sensible to try to determine some objective criteria and a process to slow down the dominoes.

Also in 2002, I proposed that those dioceses overseen by bishops who refuse to participate in the new reporting procedures should be investigated to ensure they’re in full compliance with what became the charter and the norms. As we know, that hasn’t happened either, and we owe a debt of gratitude to those bishops who have flaunted their deliberate lack of participation. Wearing the public revelation of their resistance like a badge of honor, they have demonstrated unequivocally that, institutionally anyway, individual bishops are still permitted to do as much or as little as they choose to protect our children.

BH: What should the Church be doing now?

DS: Society has come a long way in its understanding of child sexual abuse and those who commit it in the last several years, but we’ve had a lot of time to get this right. I think nearly every bishop is committed to doing things absolutely in the best interest of their faith community at this point, and obviously anyone named to the episcopacy in the past eight years deserves to start with a clean slate. Those bishops who still haven’t got it right and those who allow them to remain in ministry need to understand how their respective arrogance and indifference are compromising our ability to put this behind us for good.

I was asked recently what advice I’d give the bishops today, and these three things came to mind immediately:

  • We have to stop making rules without consequences.
  • We have to stop patting ourselves on the back for quickly enacting policies our people reasonably presumed had been in place for 2,000 years.
  • We have to stop comparing our crisis-driven responses to those of secular institutions for which we were all taught the Church would be our secure, God-given sanctuary when those worldly institutions inevitably failed us.

I would add to that a renewed sense of urgency. I closed my 2002 memorandum this way: “More than anything else, Christ’s Church should be about preserving and promoting innocence, not accelerating its ruin. Pardon the platitude, but it’s time we stopped protecting our past and did something to fortify our future.” We don’t have the luxury of “thinking in centuries” any longer, and we’re running out of second chances.

BH: You did this for your kids. What are your hopes for them in terms of the Church?

DS: A couple of weeks ago I was at a meeting out in my diocese and, as it regularly does again these days, this topic came up. Really good people were asking really hard questions about the most recent news and I flashed back to almost identical discussions in 2002, except that instead of being one of the youngest people in the room I was now a contemporary of most of the participants. It startled me that there was no one in the room filling the demographic I left behind when I moved kicking and screaming into “45-54.”

But then I experienced one of the most inspiring moments since this all started. A very young priest of our diocese, ordained in the years since Boston and the charter, started speaking about the scandal, the sin, the wounds and the whole crisis in a way that betrayed a depth of pastoral understanding that left even cynical me speechless. He was articulate. He was precise. He didn’t bob and weave or try to avoid or dismiss. He didn’t blame this scandal on the left, or the right, or the media. He listened carefully, he responded pastorally. He wasn’t embarrassed and he didn’t hold back. He didn’t pepper us with paper-thin talking points about how statistically we’re less likely to be abused by a priest than a scoutmaster. Or how we’ve developed the best prevention programs on the planet — you know, now that we’ve had to. He comforted and assured those present that if we let Him work through us, God would make all things new. I was profoundly proud of him and I was genuinely hopeful for us.

Somewhere on the drive home that evening it hit me that I may have just had my first glimpse of a healthier, holier, humbler Catholic Church that may still be a ways off, but is coming — the Catholic Church my grandparents, parents, and I thought we’d belonged to all along. The Catholic Church we owe our kids.

(Download a PDF of the letter here.)