The Burden of the Gospel – Papal Homily in Philadelphia on September 27, 2015

It is an odd coincidence – I would call it a grace – that the gospel reading for this Saturday and Sunday, as the World Meeting of Families concludes in Philadelphia, is the passage we have just heard from the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”

I have written about the joy of the gospel, but today I will talk about the burden of this gospel, which is not to be explained away.

Christ and his disciples have been walking in Galilee and have come to the lake town of Capernaum, where Jesus had called the first apostles to join him.  On this occasion, the apostles had been squabbling among themselves about “who was the greatest.”  But “taking a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me.’”

Let me be painfully specific about this Gospel reading and its importance.

Remembering and Healing

The millstone passage has often been quoted by survivors of sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy and religious.  The passage shows Christ’s condemnation of child abuse, and the episcopal arrogance and self-regard that have enabled abuse from that day to this.  So powerful is this Gospel message that it is invoked at what I think of as a pilgrimage site, St. Joseph’s Church in Mendham, New Jersey, not one hundred miles from this spot.

The Mendham monument – a 400-pound basalt millstone – honors the survivors of abuse by priests and religious, especially survivors of Fr. James Hanley, who abused children at St. Joseph’s and other parishes in the Paterson diocese.  The monument was proposed by Hanley survivor William Crane and supported by the pastor of St. Joseph’s, Msgr. Kenneth Lasch.  They were motivated in part by the suicide of another Hanley victim, James Kelly.

I am a city boy, a porteño, as we say in Argentina, a native of the great port city of Buenos Aires.  I have been very moved by my first visits to your great cities of Washington, New York, and Philadelphia – my Northeast Corridor tour.  But I know the United States is a huge and various place, full of many other big cities and many other small towns like Mendham.  And I am very sadly aware that in every city and town, here and in other countries, there are Catholic parishes and schools where priests and religious have sexually abused children, damaging and destroying their families.

As Catholics, we are obliged to love our neighbor and help the poor, including the poor in spirit.  Our first responsibility in this regard is to love and help those who have been harmed by us, by the church itself.  The World Meeting of Families should have taken as its first priority the tens of thousands of families that have been harmed and destroyed by abusive priests and vowed religious.  They are our particular responsibility.

Instead, clergy abuse has been almost entirely neglected in planning the World Meeting of Families.  Abuse is invisible in the keynote speeches and sessions, and in the breakout sessions.

I apologize for this grave mistake, which I could have corrected, and should have.  A survivor of clergy abuse will give the keynote address at the next World Meeting of Families.  Those sessions will focus on remedying the harm that we have done to families worldwide, and to working with civil authorities to make the church a safe place in the present and future.

The many other topics that were discussed at this World Meeting of Families are important.  But we cannot act effectively on them, or evangelize among families, until we as a church end the scourge of sexual abuse by clergy worldwide.  After many years of harm, a beginning has been made in the United States, but much remains to be done here, and even more worldwide.

Reforming the Periphery

The victims of clergy abuse have heard too many apologies and seen not enough action.  I will not repeat that mistake here in Philadelphia.  Instead, I would first mention Arthur Baselice III, may he rest in peace, and his grieving family.  Let them and all families harmed by Catholic priests and religious be honored and remembered always.

How often do your parish prayers of the faithful remember these crimes and their victims?  Every parish has survivors of clergy abuse to be respected and cared for.  Please consider this your Gospel responsibility and your Gospel joy.

We know about clergy abuse in Philadelphia because of three grand jury reports, written in 2003, 2005, and 2011.  Secular institutions have taken the lead in revealing and remedying these crimes.  Our church has often obstructed that justice, even after Dallas, when reforms were undertaken.  Beginning today, that obstruction will cease.

I must ask your indulgence while I talk specifically about what must be done.

Philadelphia is one of 30 dioceses in the United States that have posted lists of accused priests on the internet.  I commend them for this, poor as most of those lists are.

I have asked Archbishop Charles Chaput to make the Philadelphia list an exemplary state-of-the-art list, detailing the abuses and providing links to archdiocesan files from his secret archive.  I have asked him to name a truly independent person to be in charge of this effort, and I have recommended that he select Mr. Charles Gallagher III, who I understand worked on the first two grand jury reports, if Mr. Gallagher is willing.

I have asked Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, whose archdioceses I have also visited on this trip, to post state-of-the-art lists as well.  Currently, neither archdiocese has any public list at all.  This action is especially necessary in New York, where the cathedral has been beautifully restored at great expense, but clergy abuse has been handled in utter secrecy and disregard for victims and their families.  Only about 70 accused priests are known by name in New York, whereas about 135 are known here in Philadelphia.  In Boston, 249 accused priests have been identified, and about 90 more are still unnamed.  Clearly, transparency is much needed in the New York archdiocese and elsewhere.

The U.S. bishops’ conference has released data that show 6,427 priests have been credibly accused of abusing children here since 1950.  This is a shocking number.  But we know the names of just 4,000 or so.  After all the U.S. bishops have finished their lists, the entire record of names will be known, and church documents will be public, documenting the abuse.

I have asked Archbishop Joseph Kurtz to put two items at the top of the agenda for the USCCB meeting in November: the upgrading and posting of lists of accused priests for every diocese in the United States, and the revising of the Charter and Norms, to propose improvements that will close loopholes and increase compliance.  I have promised the Archbishop that the proposed revisions will receive a positive review and prompt action in Rome.  I have asked that the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and the Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious coordinate lists of religious.

In anticipation of my next ad limina discussions with the U.S. bishops, I have directed them, individually and through the USCCB, to cease lobbying against statute of limitations reform by means of their Catholic Conferences.  The use of money from the collection plate to defeat child-protection legislation will cease immediately – it is a grave misuse of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Thanks to the survivors in the United States, and your free press, and your legal system, the Catholic church here has been obliged to make beneficial changes.  The further reforms that I have outlined will make the United States an example for improvements worldwide.

The United States is the fourth largest Catholic country, but the Catholics of the United States are a small part of global Catholicism.  In a sense, you are the innovating periphery, and it is my hope that your improvements can be brought to the center for everyone’s benefit.

From the Periphery to the Center

Instead of treating the U.S. Catholic church as an embarrassing exception, tolerated only because your Peter’s Pence are valued in Rome, I am asking Catholics in the United States, and especially your bishops, to become exemplary, so that we might remedy sexual abuse by priests and religious worldwide, and the enabling of that abuse by bishops and superiors.

Here is how we will do this.

I have directed Cardinal Seán O’Malley to request from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors a proposal for making the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith transparent in clergy sexual abuse matters.  I am seeking a plan for posting a docket of cases; for announcing laicizations, requests to live lives of prayer and penance, and other actions; and for releasing the vota (the requests for laicizations) with document attachments.

I have also directed Cardinal Seán to make the new tribunal for bishop accountability a priority. The Commission will propose bylaws and procedures for the tribunal to adjudicate both current cases and so-called retrospective ones.  I have asked Cardinal Seán to propose candidates for the tribunal’s prefect, and I have asked that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin be included on that list for my consideration.

I have also directed the Commission to propose revisions to the Holy See’s Circular Letter, which will provide bishops and religious superiors with better guidance for the drafting of sexual abuse policies worldwide.  The new Circular Letter will mandate zero tolerance and reporting of abuse, whether local law requires such reporting or not.

I am painfully aware that I am an unlikely person to be advocating such measures.  I recently named Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid to be the bishop of Osorno, Chile, although he is credibly accused of witnessing child abuse by Fr. Fernando Karadima and doing nothing about it.  Earlier today, I removed Bishop Barros on those grounds, and when I return to Rome, I will order that the Barros file be released, as a first step toward transparency in bishop accountability.

When bishops have been disciplined for abusing children or for enabling abuse by others, it has been church custom not to state the reason.  I am sorry that I have followed this custom, by not stating the grounds for removing Archbishop John Nienstedt and Bishop Robert Finn.

Belatedly, I state that Archbishop Nienstedt was removed because he kept one of his priests in ministry despite clear indications that the priest, Curtis Wehmeyer, was a danger to minors.  As a result, the priest sexually abused the sons of a parish worker and at least one other boy.  Bishop Finn was removed because he was convicted of failing to report one of his priests, Shawn Ratigan, who was creating child abuse images of little girls in his parish.

The Catholic laity and priests and religious have my word that the tribunal will aggressively prosecute bishops and superiors who endanger children and will turn their investigative files over to secular authorities, so that the bishops and superiors can also be tried in the secular courts.

A Mother’s Conversation

In the Joy of the Gospel, I wrote that the homily is a mother’s conversation.  This homily has been a challenging one, but it had to be so.  No mother would accept comfortable platitudes on such a subject.  We must speak clearly and act decisively.


Note: I wrote this essay as a thought experiment.  Imagine what this persuasive and popular Pope could do to remedy clergy sexual abuse, if he committed his papacy unequivocally to that goal.   —Terence McKiernan, President, aims to facilitate the accountability of the U.S. bishops under civil, criminal, and canon law. We document the debates about root causes and remedies, because important information has surfaced during those debates. We take no position on the root causes, and we do not advocate particular remedies. If the facts are fully known, the causes and remedies will become clear.



Picture Credit: By Alfredo Borba (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons