A Message from Bishop O'Connell about the call to investigate sexual abuse claims
September 7, 2018
by Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M.
On this past Thursday, the Attorney General of New Jersey, Gurbir Grewal, announced that he will establish a task force to investigate allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy in the five Dioceses of the State of New Jersey as well as any indications of cover-up by their bishops and leaders in the Catholic Church.
His decision follows on the heels of the release of a Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report investigating similar claims there over a seventy-year period and the revelations earlier this summer by the Archdioceses of New York and Newark of credible and substantiated allegations of such abuse by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of a minor and several adult seminarians. All of these reported allegations are indefensible, revolting and horrific. They have done irreparable harm to their victims, their families and to the Church. Clergy and faithful alike have rightfully reacted with anger, outrage, disgust and disillusionment. It has profoundly shaken their faith and devastated the credibility of the Church’s leadership.
As a bishop, I hang my head in shame knowing that even my deepest apology is inadequate. Still, I offer it again.
A Church — any organization or agency, community or occupation, religious or otherwise, even a family for that matter — where innocent children and vulnerable adults are not protected or provided a safe environment has lost its way. The crucifixion of Christ continues in their suffering. Our faith assures us there must be a resurrection ... and that resurrection will occur through our renewed and dedicated work to ensure that all children and vulnerable adults are safe in our Churches, our ministries, our schools, our communities, our families.
It is my hope and prayer that an objective, honest and independent investigation will confirm what I wholeheartedly believe to be true …. that all allegations received by the Diocese of Trenton have been turned over to the prosecutors in accordance with our commitment made to them in 2002 along with the other dioceses in the state. Even so, we need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that accounts from the past – despite being handled correctly and responsibly – may be reported and will be difficult to hear. It will be a trying process, but one that is necessary when the stakes – the well-being and safety of those entrusted to our care – are so high. As Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, I pledge my full cooperation and attention in every way necessary with the Attorney General and his task force. It will not change the past, nothing will. Hopefully, it will help us shape a future free of the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.
I would also like to share a report from the New Jersey Catholic Conference outlining both our efforts to prevent this abuse and our responses to allegations:
NEW JERSEY CATHOLIC CONFERENCE STATEMENT
The Catholic Church in New Jersey has committed substantial resources to prevent any abuse of any child at any time by any person. Each diocese has comprehensive policies in place both to respond to complaints and to prevent the sexual abuse of minors. These safety policies and practices are regularly verified by an external audit of each diocese.
PREVENTION OF ABUSE
Safe Environment: All New Jersey dioceses have fully implemented comprehensive “safe environment” education programs and have together, over the past fifteen years, trained more than 2.3 million adults, children, employees, clergy and volunteers. Prior to his anticipated ministry, every priest seeking to minister in every diocese must present a letter of suitability from his bishop/religious superior testifying that he has never been accused of sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult.
Background Checks: The dioceses conduct background evaluations for all diocesan and parish personnel who have regular contact with minors. Over the past fifteen years, some 380,000 criminal background checks have been completed.
RESPONSE TO ALLEGATIONS OF ABUSE
Prompt reporting to Civil Authorities: All of the New Jersey Catholic dioceses have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the Attorney General and the County Prosecutors to facilitate the immediate intervention of law enforcement whenever there is any allegation that a minor is being sexually abused. The dioceses also promptly report all past allegations of abuse to public authorities, whether the person bringing the complaint is now an adult, no matter how long ago the abuse is alleged to have occurred, and whether or not the accused is living or deceased.
Zero Tolerance/Permanent Removal from Ministry: When sexual abuse of a minor by a priest, deacon, employee, or volunteer is established, diocesan policies provide that the offending priest, deacon, employee, or volunteer is to be permanently removed from ministry, employment, or volunteer service and that any such offending clergy may not be transferred to another diocese.
Therapeutic and Pastoral Response:Each diocese has a Victim Assistance Coordinator, who facilitates the provision of counseling and other professional assistance to help those who have been abused. In addition, all victims have the opportunity to meet with the bishop in order to facilitate healing.
Settlement of Claims: Claims of victims involving priests, deacons or others where the abuse has been established, are settled by all New Jersey dioceses. Altogether, the dioceses have paid out almost $50 million in settlements to victims. It should be noted that the “confidentiality agreements” reported by the media are never mandated or required by a diocese as part of a settlement. They are agreements made with victims and their attorneys to protect the privacy of victims.
We regret that in decades past, some in the Church failed in their responsibility to protect children. However, today, no institution, public or private, has done more to prevent abuse than the Catholic Church in New Jersey. We will remain vigilant to ensure a safe environment for every child we serve.