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TO THE FAITHFUL OF THE DIOCESE OF JUNEAU: A letter from Bishop Andrew Bellisario, C.M. about the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church

December 12, 2018

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul exhorted the believers: “Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.” (Ephesians 5:11-14a)

If there is anything positive that can be said about these past six months, it is that the hidden sins and crimes of some ministers in our Church have finally come to light, and have become visible for everyone to see. For this I am grateful.

Let me speak first to the victim-survivors of clerical sexual abuse, especially in our diocese. Our Church and our society owe you an enormous debt of gratitude. With great fortitude you have come forward to expose the life-long harm inflicted on you as children and adolescents by those who you had every right to expect would cherish and protect you. Even when no one wanted to believe you, you courageously told your story and by so doing eventually forced the Church to face up to the crimes committed against children and young people by abusive bishops, priests, deacons, religious and lay ministers. In too many cases these crimes were denied and covered up by the Church’s leaders. It is my hope that the Church’s efforts to truly repent, to make restitution, to do justice and reform will help to bring you the peace and the healing you deserve.

To all of the faithful in our diocese, I want to say to you that I have been angry, sad and disheartened to read the shocking but necessary reports from dioceses all over the country detailing how my brothers in ordained ministry sexually abused, assaulted and grievously harmed so many children and young people over the past seventy years. After recently concluding ten listening sessions throughout the diocese, I know that many of you share these feelings and have expressed to me directly deep anger and outrage that these criminal, sinful and immoral behaviors have been tolerated and hidden. Many have shared a diminished, if not a complete lack of trust in the bishops. And, as one person succinctly put it at one of the listening sessions with great exasperation, “just get it fixed!”

Catholics around the country and in our diocese rightly expected that the Bishops of the United States would take effective and timely measures at their November meeting. Among the proposals for the meeting were a code of conduct for bishops and a system to report allegations of sexual abuse against bishops. However, Pope Francis directed the US bishops to delay voting on such proposals until after the Holy Father’s February meeting in Rome with the Presidents of the Bishops Conferences of the Catholic Church from around the world on the theme of “protection of minors”. As frustrating as this intervention by Pope Francis was, I trust in his wisdom and his larger perspective as the leader of the Universal Church. But while prayerfully awaiting the results of the meeting in February, I have identified important actions that can be taken in our diocese right here, right now.

Holiness, honesty, integrity and fidelity together with competency, accountability and transparency are at the heart of the credibility of the Church’s leadership. Guided by these virtues and the many interventions from the listening sessions, I have determined that one of the most pressing needs in this diocese is to conduct a thorough, independent review of our present and past clergy personnel files going back to the beginning of our diocese in 1951. We need to – and we will – publish the names of anyone credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor. As was announced recently, I have appointed three lay professionals with expertise in the law and criminal investigation to serve on an independent commission to do this. They will have full and unfettered access to diocesan records and my complete cooperation and that of my staff. It is crystal clear that the people of God want and deserve to know the truth. Jesus tells us, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32).

I have also ordered a review, updating and improvement of our current Diocese of Juneau Policy Regarding Sexual Misconduct and the Code of Pastoral Conduct for Clergy, Religious, Lay Employees and Volunteers of the Diocese of Juneau. They were written in 2003 and were last updated in 2015. More effective policies and procedures are vitally important but at the core of the matter is our call to holiness through a continual conversion to Christ. This is especially true for our leaders in ordained ministry. The ordained must live with integrity, fully embracing their commitment to live a chaste life, and to exercise their ministry according to the heart of Jesus. This includes me and all bishops.

From what I heard again and again at the listening sessions, you want your bishops to be holy and caring good shepherds; to lead with strength by example, and to defend their flocks. You want bishops to preach and proclaim the Gospel and the teachings of the Church clearly and with steadfast resolve. In the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 2:1-4, we read, “When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.” The apostles went forth to proclaim boldly the truth of the Word of God. It’s that type of holy and powerful, Spirit-driven, fearless leadership the people of God need and expect from the successors of the apostles.

In closing, I believe that this moment in all of our lives is an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, by living in the truth he has revealed to us in his life, teachings, death and resurrection. I invite you to pray especially for the victim-survivors of clerical sexual abuse, both in our diocese and throughout the Church, that God will sustain and heal victims, their spouses, children and families. Please pray too for all those in our Church who have been so scandalized that they struggle to trust the Church’s leaders or who have left the practice of our Catholic faith entirely. And finally, I ask your prayers for me and my brother bishops.

Sincerely in Christ,

Bishop Andrew Bellisario, C.M.

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