BALTIMORE (OSV News) — The release of the Maryland Attorney General’s report on clergy sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore was a day of sorrow, Archbishop William E. Lori said in his first interview after the April 5 release.
“It’s a day that I must face, and the archdiocese must face the enormity of this horrid legacy of sexual abuse. It is a day when my heart goes out to the victim-survivors, recognizing how many people have been harmed, and harmed very significantly,” he told the Catholic Review, the archdiocesan news outlet.
He said that as he read the report, “just as a pastor of souls and as a Catholic, I felt deep sadness. I felt shame. I felt sickened by the report, and I had to ask myself how could this have happened in the life of the Church and how could it have gone on so long?”
He admitted he does not know the answer to those questions, although the topic has been studied and factors have been suggested to explain it.
“What I do know is that I am grateful that, however haltingly or imperfectly, the Church came to the realization decades ago that it could not go on, and that it had to change how sexual abuse allegations are addressed and how it is that we reach out and accompany victims,” the archbishop said.
“Through the voices of victims, the Church began to change decades ago. And here we must give the victims a lot of credit. Not all at once, but in a very steady way, (the Church) took really important steps to root sexual abuse out of our ranks,” he said.
Among those steps are zero tolerance and removal from ministry of anyone credibly accused of abuse; creating safe environments within parishes and schools to keep young people safe; reporting to authorities, including the attorney general, “any and every allegation, no matter how long ago it may have happened”; and offering counseling to victims and settlements where that was desired, no matter when the abuse happened.
Archbishop Lori said he spoke to some victim-survivors in the morning before the anticipated release, an opportunity for which he was grateful, as he has been for the many conversations he has had with victim-survivors over the years.
“I think that first and foremost is listening, believing, walking with (them) — those are the initial steps — but also helping, not only with counseling and settlements, but other ways that they might seek help,” he said. “A second way is to continually demonstrate an ever-renewed commitment, to create a Church that is safe.
“This Church of today is not the Church of yesterday. But … never would I ever say we’re done with this. We’re not done because as we learn better and better how to spot the signs of sex abuse, as we learn better and better how to help people who have been abused, those best practices and others have to be incorporated into what we say and what we do.”
Jerri Burkhardt, director of the archdiocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection, said that when someone comes to the archdiocese with an allegation of abuse, “the first thing we do is listen,” asking clarifying questions if necessary.
“We offer pastoral support when a person first discloses that he or she is a victim of Church personnel of the Archdiocese of Baltimore,” she said. “Pastoral support includes an offer to pay for counseling with a therapist of the person’s choice and an offer to meet with the archbishop or one of his representatives. That offer is open-ended.”
The next step is to report to law enforcement — including police, the appropriate state’s attorney and the attorney general — and Child Protective Services. The archdiocese cooperates with law enforcement, being careful not to interfere with their investigation. Once law enforcement gives the go-ahead, the archdiocese does its own investigation to determine the suitability for ministry of the accused person — lay or clergy.
All of these steps are reviewed with the archdiocese’s Independent Review Board, a mostly lay group that advises the archdiocese and the archbishop on child protection policies and practices, Burkhardt said.
Archbishop Lori noted that his predecessors and he have apologized for the abuse that people suffered at the hands of some people affiliated with the Church. He renewed the apology in a pastoral letter released at the same time as the attorney general’s report, “Apology, Healing and Action: The Church’s Work to Repair Sacred Trust.”
“In the pastoral letter, I truly tried to speak from my heart and from my experience of meeting with victims and offering a truly sincere and abject apology for the wrong that was done, not only the abuse that was committed, but for the instances in the distant past when these crimes were covered up and when priests were moved around,” the archbishop said. “I acknowledge that. I own it.”
Seeking forgiveness must spur us to action, he said.
Asked how he could take responsibility for crimes and cover-ups that mostly occurred before he was even a priest, Archbishop Lori pointed to the incidents in the report that peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, dropping off significantly after that, indicating that what his immediate predecessors put into place has proved effective.
“No, I was not here when these things happened. But I am the current pastor and there are people suffering now from what happened,” he said, adding that it therefore falls to him “to take this to heart and to not only apologize, but also to strive to accompany in a very pastoral way those who have been harmed and keep the door open for those who are not yet ready.”
Studies have shown that many people don’t come forward to talk about abuse as children until they are much older, sometimes in their 50s. Asked whether that could mean those victimized in recent decades could come forward in the future, he said there is no way to know.
“But there is a big difference between now and then. The big difference is that for decades we have been actively inviting anyone who has been harmed by a representative of the Church to come forward” through every channel of communication available to the Church “and we have created a different culture in the Church in which abuse is not tolerated.”
He hopes that new culture will continue to encourage victims to come forward so the archdiocese can welcome them with compassion and pastoral outreach.
He said he knows trust must be earned anew “every single day.” Being trustworthy means there can be no empty promises, so he and his co-workers are doing everything humanly possible to create safe environments.
“I want to eliminate sexual abuse from the life of the Church as much as any parent in the archdiocese does, and so do my brother priests, and so do my co-workers,” he said, noting that his efforts and commitment are supported by the Office of Child and Youth Protection; the Independent Review Board; pastors and parish and school leaders; and independent audits showing archdiocesan compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the accompanying norms.
He emphasized that there is no one currently in ministry in the archdiocese who has been credibly accused of abuse. Some priests who may have been credibly accused might not have been laicized yet, but they are still precluded from any kind of employment or volunteer service even while the archdiocese continues to process those laicizations with the Vatican.
He noted that the Church today is not the same as in the past. “There has been, over time, a dramatic change in how the Church has dealt with this. But my overarching message today is one of sadness that this ever happened and of love and concern for anyone who has been harmed.”
Archbishop Lori said he would continue to apologize as long as there are victim-survivors and invite them, as he has in the past, to have a conversation with him, if they so choose.
Christopher Gunty is associate publisher and editor of Catholic Review Media, publishing arm of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.