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U.S. bishops continue to deal with it, but crisis is not over: Greg Erlandson

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Kim Daniels, associate director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University in Washington, listens as Bishop Steven R. Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyo., speaks during a panel discussion at Georgetown Nov. 4, 2019. (CNS photo/Rafael Suanes, courtesy Georgetown University)

It has been a rough 18 months for the U.S. bishops. Much as they would like it to be over, some observers, including a fellow bishop, think they still have a long way to go.

The cascade of bad news started in June 2018 with the revelation that credible accusations of sexual abuse had been leveled against then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick. The flood of bad news continued, first with reports, investigations and scandals, then with the steady drip of dioceses opening their archives and detailing their own histories of dead, defrocked and, more rarely, active priests who had been accused of abuse.

Both the Vatican and the U.S. bishops have instituted major reforms to hold bishops accountable when accused of abuse or the cover-up of abuse, including a toll-free number that will allow allegations of abuse by bishops to be collected and investigated.

This is why there is an almost palpable hope among many church leaders that the worst is behind them and a bit of normalcy can be restored.

Not so fast, seems to be the conclusion of panelists at Georgetown University convened to discuss the crisis and its impact on the church. The Nov. 4 gathering was the official unveiling of a 50-page report titled “Lay Leadership for a Wounded Church and Divided Nation: Lessons, Directions and Paths Forward.”

Jesuit Father Gerard J. McGlone, himself a survivor of sexual abuse, set the tone for the proceedings when he declared that to say the church has moved beyond the crisis “is for a survivor to pour acid in our wounds.”

Patricia McGuire, longtime president of Trinity Washington University, compared the crisis to an earthquake. The immediate effects may be visible, but people don’t notice the tsunami that is slowly building out at sea.

“The collateral damage from this scandal is enormous,” she said, a damage that includes the betrayal of people who most trusted the church as well as the disillusionment of those administrators, staff and volunteers who have given their lives in its service.

Three of the panelists were victims, including Juan Carlos Cruz. Cruz has the distinction of being publicly called a liar by Pope Francis for his accusations of abuse in Chile. Incredibly, he later met with the pope privately and convinced him that his story was true.

Following that meeting with Cruz, Pope Francis ordered an investigation of the church in Chile and ultimately asked for the resignations of all the country’s bishops. Cruz has forgiven Pope Francis for his disbelief. “I believe he’s the right person to help us” with this crisis, Cruz said.

He criticized bishops in other countries who have not yet begun the reforms that have been instituted in the U.S., and he also condemned those who are using the crisis to attack the pope. “They are weaponizing survivors to hurt Pope Francis,” he said.

The lone bishop on the panel was Bishop Steven R. Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming. On the day of his ordination as bishop, Bishop Biegler recounted, he discovered that his predecessor, Bishop Joseph Hart, had numerous allegations against him. Two settlements had been paid to accusers.

Bishop Biegler ordered an investigation and took the case to Rome. While the Vatican supported the steps he took, Bishop Biegler acknowledged that the accusations and the publicity unsettled both Catholics in Cheyenne and some of his brother bishops.

The abusers have squandered generations of trust placed in the church, Bishop Biegler concluded. Earning that trust back will be a slow process.

“We have a long way to go,” Bishop Biegler said. “We’ve only just begun.”

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The report can be found at catholicsocialthought.georgetown.edu.

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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at gerlandson@catholicnews.com.

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