FORT WORTH, Texas — To say that it’s been a tough summer for the Catholic Church in the United States due to the clerical sexual abuse crisis would be an understatement. Two prelates most affected are those who today lead dioceses where, over a decade ago, their predecessors settled with victims of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and who now insist they were never informed.
The damage done in Newark has been such that Cardinal Joseph Tobin announced last week he’s not going to Rome this October, after Pope Francis had handpicked him to participate in the three-week long Synod of Bishops on youth and vocational discernment.
“It’s sort of a double feature, or double headed crisis,” Tobin told Crux at the V Encuentro, a gathering for Hispanic leaders that took place in Fort Worth, Texas, Sept. 20-23.
“One is the sexual abuse of the most vulnerable by clerics, bishops and priests, but there’s also the strong perception that this has been mishandled, irresponsibly if not even in a criminal way, by people who should have known better, [especially] bishops and cardinals.”
“These two things I think are like double gut punches to the Catholic Church,” he added.
Hope without being “Pollyannaish”
Tobin’s words were echoed by Bishop James Checchio of Metuchen, where his predecessor settled with one of McCarrick’s adult victims back in the mid 2000’s.
“It’s obviously very hard for everybody, and just unending,” he told Crux at the Encuentro. “Summer has been tough, and in the long run, it’s been like Chinese water torture for years.”
“Our diocese has a double hit because McCarrick was the founding bishop of our diocese, and then the sex abuse issues that we all face,” Checchio said.
Yet despite it all, he sees signs of hope: “People still come [to Church]. They still come because they want the Eucharist, because they want to deepen their friendship with Christ, and they know the Church offers that despite all it flaws and mistakes.”
Speaking about the V Encuentro, Checchio referred to it as a “a breath of fresh air” in the middle of a complicated summer, and the four days spent in Fort Worth with the 11 people of his delegation as “uplifting.”
For Tobin, the Encuentro was a place to listen to “the joys, pains, triumphs and defeats of men and women of faith in this country.”
According to the cardinal, those who’ve worked as priest in Hispanic ministry — as he’s done for the past 40 years — “know the great affection that people have. You feel quite unworthy of it, but it’s a great gift that they offer.”
Being able to both adequately address the sex abuse crisis and the pain that it’s caused, while also taking the joy that was palpable during the Encuentro back to Newark, is something Tobin said he was committed to achieving.
“The joy, I suppose, is like hope, and in fact, I think the two are related. If you take that away from people, then they’re truly impoverished,” Tobin said. “Ultimately, people have to decide for themselves: is there reason to be hopeful, is there reason to be joyful?”
“I think that what we’re experiencing here is that people who, far from being Pollyannaish, they know what is going on and so many have come to me and said, ‘we’re praying for you’.”
“And I see that as solidarity but also as a challenge for me and my brothers to get it right,” he added.
Tobin said he doesn’t think people are going to “forfeit their hope and joy,” because as Pope Francis says in the opening line of his apostolic exhortation Joy of the Gospel, “anyone who’s encountered Jesus Christ cannot help but have a heart that is filled with the joy of the Gospel.”
“And these people have met Jesus Christ. As painful as the moment is, they can also be hopeful and joyful,” he said.
Not immune to the toll the crisis has taken, Checchio said he too has found comfort in the “strong words of support” that people have shared with him when he visits parishes on weekends.
Metuchen today has 22 seminarians, which is the most the diocese has had in 25 years, and Checchio presented this fact as a reason to be hopeful: “They’re good young men, and they come to the seminary to be formed,” he said.
But not every young man who wants to join the seminary is accepted, he said.
Checchio has a long experience with running seminaries, as he used to be the rector of the Pontifical North American College, the seminary for Americans in Rome that’s often dubbed a “bishop-making school,” as many of the men who today are in the hierarchy of the U.S. Church were formed here.
“The first thing we have to do is the screening, to see if they are even able to be formed,” Checchio said. “Because you can’t work miracles in seminary. Grace builds on nature. But they’re bold, dedicated young men who come to join in the seminary today. They’re not coming because of any affirmation from society. They’re making a radical choice, and their formation has to be radical too.”
Last week’s gathering, the bishop said, was about “encountering Christ and one another too,” and this is something that needs to be achieved in the seminaries: “Seminary formation is about a radical reorientation to Christ. That’s the key to all formation and the lifestyle of Christianity, but particularly for he who’s going to shepherd.”
The Gospel’s message, he said, is radical itself, and the young men in his diocesan seminary want it, and they want to pass it on to others.
“And talking with the people of our diocese this summer, [I found that] they want that too,” Checchio said. “And they want it for their children, and their grandchildren. And they’re disappointed when the Church doesn’t help them because of this [crisis].”
“But they want answers, and they deserve answers,” he said.
According to the prelate, much has changed since 2002, when the U.S. bishops adopted their “Dallas Charter,” which includes a zero tolerance policy toward abusers, but, he insisted, “we can never rest on it, we must be ever attentive.”
In addition, the Church needs to figure out “the misconduct thing, do something about it and be consistent, make sure that no one abuses power.”
“To have a young man come to the Church to be formed as a priest, offer himself in service, and to then hear accounts of them being used for one’s disorderly desires is an abomination,” Checchio said. “And that should be something that is never allowed, and young men should have a way out of that that doesn’t hurt them or make them feel like they’re doing something wrong.”