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US bishops feel Vatican support in worldwide crisis, McKnight says

US bishops feel Vatican support in worldwide crisis, McKnight says

March 3rd, 2019 by Joe Gamm in Local News

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, believes there is hope for the future after the pope's summit on child sex abuse.

Photo by News Tribune /News Tribune.

Admittedly, he's been impatient — waiting on the Vatican for actions dealing with clergy sexual abuse — said Bishop W. Shawn McKnight, of the Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City.

And because of the size of Pope Francis' summit on child sex abuse, gathering the church's world leaders in Rome over four days last week, McKnight feared the simple bureaucracy surrounding such a large, short event would prevent much from being accomplished.

But the results surprised McKnight.

"I'm hopeful because I see a green light coming from the Vatican for what we were trying to do as (U.S.) bishops back in November," he said. "We were asked to cease and desist until this summit were to take place. The indication I'm getting is that we are moving full speed ahead."

That's a reversal from the feeling U.S. bishops had late in 2018.

Last November in Baltimore, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held its annual meeting — to promote the greater good the church can do for humankind, according to the conference website — with a priority of adopting a strategy to deal with the growing clergy sexual abuse scandal. However, as the event began, the Vatican asked the conference to delay a vote until after last week's worldwide meeting of the presidents of bishops.

U.S. bishops were disappointed by the delay, they said. They've been dealing with the crisis for decades.

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On his own, McKnight had already voluntarily included the local diocese in a statewide investigation of clergy abuse and implemented a protocol for dealing with clergy abuse in his diocese. Within that protocol, any allegation of sexual abuse made against a bishop would be referred to an independent investigator who would make an initial determination of whether there is any truth to it. If so, the bishop would request a leave of absence from the pope until a preliminary investigation could be completed and a report submitted to the Review Board of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. That board would then make a recommendation to the apostolic nuncio (the pope's representative in the United States).

Knowing the church has not done a good job of policing itself, McKnight and other bishops hoped to rely on the laity to provide external investigative services into accusations of abuse. They worried after being asked to not implement a U.S. strategy in November that the Vatican was blocking their plans.

The conclusion of the Rome meeting has given U.S. bishops confidence, McKnight said.

"What I found very helpful for me and for other bishops of the United States is a recognition of what we have been saying: There is a need for transparency and accountability," he said, "to take this evil seriously."

In June, U.S. bishops will again consider the issue.

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"Come June, I expect votes to be taken and practical, concrete steps to be taken toward bishops' accountability," McKnight said.

He said the world meeting allowed outside voices, particularly those of women, to be heard in the Vatican.

"Sister Veronica (Openibo) really challenged both the pope and the bishops present to never return a priest guilty of a crime of sexual abuse of minors to the ministry," McKnight said. "We know it as zero-tolerance."

It's a policy U.S. bishops have been practicing since they adopted the Dallas Charter in 2002, he said.

The "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" is a set of procedures aimed at addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. It also include guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of future acts of abuse, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website.

Critics said it falls short, in part because it doesn't address clergy abuse of adults — and also because it doesn't apply to bishops.

The Diocese of Jefferson City's protocols are specifically drawn to apply to bishops.

Months ago, McKnight asked bishops, archbishops or cardinals who have known about clergy sex abuse to come forward. So far, none have.

"Another outcome (of the world summit) that's very important that we may have known about for a while in the United States, that they're finally picking up on, is not only sexual abuse of minors — which is something that needs to be dealt with — but cover-up, which is equally as bad," he said. "That provides for hope that there is — not only in the United States, but in the global church — that there is recognition this is a problem."

Archbishop Charles Scicluna, of Malta, south of Italy, said during the summit it's likely there are more cases like that of Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked Feb. 16. McCarrick is a former cardinal and the former archbishop of Washington, D.C.

McCarrick was suspended in July over allegations he sexually abused seminary students beginning in the late 1960s. Following the suspension, he retired.

The Vatican is expected to share a report on the McCarrick scandal with its bishops soon, McKnight said.

"Cardinal (Sean) O'Malley (of the Archdiocese of Boston) said there would be a report forthcoming. That is essential," he said. "Although the summit did not deal with the McCarrick scandal specifically, that is a major question in the minds of American Catholics — who knew what and when about Cardinal McCarrick? Until we get those answers, there needs to be more transparency. We need to get it all out."

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McKnight and the rest of Missouri's bishops had said they saw a lack of action from the Holy See (the administrative government that organizes and oversees operations of the Vatican) in the McCarrick scandal as a breach of trust between the Vatican and the church in the United States.

"The leadership of the Holy Father with the summit provides a pathway for that to be resolved," McKnight said. "It's contingent on the completeness and the timeliness of the final report from the Vatican."

The summit also helped frame the relationship clergy has with survivors of abuse, he added. The church hierarchy has acknowledged there's not a divide between clergy and survivors.

"The division is between good clergy and bad clergy," he said. "Good clergy are going to be on the side of and be advocates for survivors of clergy abuse."