Colorado editorial boards weigh in on dioceses’ historic agreement with Attorney General

Mark Haas

“The Catholic Dioceses of Colorado should have reported to authorities any and all accusations of sexual abuse decades ago, but we must praise the development that finally came Tuesday when church officials announced they will open their records for scrutiny.” – Denver Post Editorial Board, Feb. 20, 2019.

In the days following the announcement of a voluntary agreement between Colorado’s three dioceses and the Colorado Attorney General for an independent review of past allegations of sexual abuse of minors and the creation of an independent survivors’ reparation program, newspaper editorial boards from around the state offered their opinions on the actions taken by all the parties involved.

The general themes seemed to be that while nothing can fully make right the sins of the past, the process the Catholic Church in Colorado has entered into is a positive step in the right direction, and one that should be modeled by other institutions in the state.

“Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila deserves credit for opening the records voluntarily, and we hope he is able to stand firm in his resolve to expose the worst of what remains hidden,” the Denver Post Editorial Board wrote. “The best that can come from all of this is closure, healing and restitution for Colorado survivors of sexual abuse.”

In Colorado Springs, the Gazette Editorial Board also noted the unfortunate history in the Church, but added that “fortunately, today’s American Catholic institutions are safe harbors when compared with most other environments that combine adults with kids.”

Praising the effect that the 2002 Dallas Charter has had within the Church, the Gazette Editorial Board wrote that it hoped the dioceses’ actions could lead to state-wide changes.

“Anyone who watches local news knows anecdotally about the alarming rate of sex abuse involving children in public schools,” the Gazette Board wrote. “Let us hope Colorado’s attorney general, bishops, investigators and sex abuse survivors can make the investigation a constructive model for others to follow. All children matter, Catholic and otherwise. Each warrants protection from sexual abuse — just as survivors deserve justice.”

From Pueblo, the Chieftain Editorial Board called the announcement a “remarkable partnership,” and said that it “represents a great opportunity to provide some comfort and relief for victims and a measure of redemption for the church.”

In Grand Junction, the Daily Sentinel Editorial Board questioned whether the church should be “lauded” for addressing a “crisis of its own making,” but concluded “if the church intends to re-establish its integrity worldwide, what it’s doing in Colorado should serve as an example of the right way to try to make amends.”

“At this stage of the sex abuse crisis, it’s about the best step the church can take,” the Daily Sentinel Board wrote. “It’s shining a light on its own negligence — at least in Colorado. That’s how repentance works.”

And back to Denver, where the Post board wrote that Archbishop Aquila’s “words and heart seem to be in the right place,” and concluded: “If the Catholic Church wants to move beyond this dark period in its history, the path leads through a transparent reckoning with all that has transpired and a willingness to face repercussions, whether they be legal, financial or simply public shame. This step forward is a recognition of that fact.”

COMING UP: Why stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash