Updated: Mar 11, 2019
This is the email I sent to Archbishop Jerome Listecki today with practical suggestions for responding to the abuse and cover up crisis in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. It has taken quite a lot of research to come up with a solid list of suggestions that are within the power of an individual bishop and might make a real difference, even if it's just a small one. I have some bigger dreams too, but these are the suggestions that seem most realistic to put forward at this time.
Dear Archbishop Listecki,
Thank you for your invitation to share my ideas for moving forward towards renewal and healing in our Archdiocese. I appreciate your willingness to listen and to be a proactive leader for our Church in this time of crisis.
I have spent the last few weeks researching possible steps that I believe are within your power as an Archbishop. From a plethora of options, I am sharing a short list of those that, to the best of my knowledge, could be implemented fairly quickly and create positive change. I am sure you have many emails to read, so I am sharing only a brief summary of each idea. I would be happy to share more details about any one of these proposals with you or another Archdiocesan staff member.
Build a New Website: You have stated that you want to improve communication about our Archdiocese’s response to clerical abuse. One obvious way to achieve this would be to create a new, user-friendly website specifically focused on youth protection in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. This would make the information that is currently available on the Archdiocesan website more easily accessible. It would also allow you to create new content (including an FAQ to respond to confusion about current policies) and update the presentation with compassionate and pastoral language for all who view the site. I recommend viewing the Diocese of Harrisburg’s new website at www.youthprotectionhbg.com as a model. The list of accused priests could also be moved to this website and organized in a format that makes it easier to view and search, like the list recently released by the Midwest Province Jesuits.
Use Different Language: Update the language that the Archdiocese uses about reporting abuse, clearly directing people to contact civil authorities first and offering archdiocesan contacts only as a secondary resource. Make this change on printed materials, websites, and all communications moving forward. The Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis has a new page with a very clear explanation (“If you suspect abuse of a minor, your first call should be to law enforcement”), which can be found at http://safe-environment.archspm.org/report-abuse.
Improve the Community Advisory Board: In your November 16 letter to the people of the Archdiocese, you stated that you would like to expand the Community Advisory Board to “involve more lay members and charge them with holding [you] accountable for [your] actions in this area.” I strongly affirm this direction and would urge you to move quickly in inviting new, independent-minded lay people to the Board. During this process, I would recommend you also ask the current Community Advisory Board members to honestly evaluate the effectiveness of the meeting frequency, format, and function and ask them to suggest ways to improve and expand their role. I would also suggest that the work of this board to be made public and transparent to the greatest extent possible and that you empower a confident lay member of this board to speak to the public on behalf of the board.
Include Laity in the Priest Placement Process: In this same November 16 letter, you also stated that you want to evaluate our Priest Placement process to “determine if the involvement of more lay people would benefit the pastoral assignments of our priests.” I strongly affirm the necessity of this shift, and I would urge you to implement this change quickly. I would also encourage you to bring greater transparency to the decision-making process whenever possible.
Create a System for Reporting Milwaukee Bishops: While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was unable to move forward on a national reporting system for allegations of abuse by bishops, this is still an essential step to demonstrate your commitment to accountability for all church leaders. I would recommend you follow the example of Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who recently created a local system for reporting allegations against bishops within that archdiocese. Information about that action can be found in this news article, as well as on the archdiocesan website here.
Host Listening Sessions: People throughout the archdiocese need to feel more connected to their shepherd. In your November 16 letter, you said that you would be hosting additional listening sessions in the new year. I would encourage you to prioritize this type of event in your schedule, even at the expense of other commitments, and widely communicate the schedule and format for these listening sessions as soon as possible. It would be valuable to ask wise and honest lay people to help you prepare for these sessions so that you are able to convey a compassionate, listening presence without any sense of defensiveness.
Make Your Apologies Specific: You have stated that you are willing to keep apologizing for as long as people still need to hear those words. I applaud you for this sentiment, and I encourage you to make your apologies as specific and personal as possible. There is certainly value in a leader of the Church apologizing for the sins of past leaders, but an apology for any of your own mistakes and failings is much more meaningful.
Help Priests and Laity Respond Effectively: Parish priests and lay leaders are on the front lines of responding to this crisis. I ask you to devote Archdiocesan resources to providing appropriate materials, support, and guidance for these leaders so that they can effectively care for their parishioners. Develop a set of “recommended best practices” for responding to the sexual abuse crisis that can be sent to all priests and lay leaders. Train and empower an Archdiocesan staff member to provide support for priests and lay staff members who want to host a listening session or other event but need additional support to feel confident doing so. Provide a training for priests and lay leaders that offers a clear and concise overview of the history of sexual abuse and cover up in the Archdiocese, the steps that have been taken to combat abuse, and the plans for continuous improvement in 2019.
Remain Informed: I understand that you have many commitments and priorities, which may not leave you time to spend hours reading and researching news, commentary, and best practices from throughout the United States. I suggest that you ask a member of your staff or another trusted individual to provide regular updates to you about all matters relating to the sexual abuse and cover up crisis, so that you can be fully informed about new developments, the varying perspectives of lay people, and creative actions being taken in other dioceses.
Stop Honoring The Guilty: Direct all parishes in the Archdiocese to stop honoring church leaders who have been complicit in covering up sexual abuse, including Archbishop William Cousins and Archbishop Rembert Weakland. As their names are removed from buildings and their images from displays, state with clarity the reason for the change and consider honoring abuse survivors in their place.
Reach Out to Survivors: Appoint a member of the Archdiocesan staff to build bridges with survivors in Milwaukee who have been hurt by past treatment in this and other dioceses. Ask these survivors what the Archdiocese has done wrong in the past and what could be done now to bring healing. Listen carefully to what they have to say. (According to this article, in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the chapter director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests meets regularly with the Director of the Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment. Consider the positive fruits that could come from that kind of relationship between the Archdiocese and abuse survivors.) If you do not have anyone on your staff who has the time, interest, and skills to invest in this kind of bridge-building, hire someone who does. The recommendations of Dr. Heather Banis presented to the USCCB General Assembly in November might be some helpful starting points for conversation. I would also suggest you consider the example of Archbishop Bernard Hebda in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, who publicly reiterated that he was available to meet with survivors and even set aside a regular time in his schedule to accommodate those meetings.
You can find additional examples of strong and creative episcopal leadership in this article: Sex Abuse Crisis: Bishops Press Forward with Own Reforms. I would also invite you to read the statements of Bishop Sean McKnight of the Diocese of Jefferson City (such as this statement after the General Assembly, this explanation about their diocese’s release of names, and this reflection on clericalism and the exercise of ecclesial leadership) for a strong example of direct and honest communication from a bishop to the people of his diocese.
While I have many other suggestions for our Archdiocese, these are some that I would consider a high priority in the short term. If you find some of these suggestions unrealistic, undesirable, or otherwise problematic, I would appreciate an explanation, so that I can better understand the realities of the situation.
If I can help the Archdiocese implement any of these actions, I would be happy to do so. My desire is only to serve the Church that I love.
Thank you for taking the time to consider these ideas. I look forward to hearing from you.