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Amid abuse scandal, advice from Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson to Pope Benedict

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By Bishop V. Gene Robinson
Sunday, May 2, 2010

Your Holiness,

Though our churches differ in many ways, we believe in the same God. As your brother in Christ, it pains me to see Catholics struggle with your response to recent allegations of sex abuse by priests. Since my denomination has also battled these demons, I want to share with you what I have learned as a bishop of the Episcopal Church.

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About 20 years ago, our church became aware of sex abuse by our clergy here in the United States. To our shame, we learned of it in lawsuits filed by victims alleging that some of our bishops had minimized the seriousness of the abuse and/or swept their claims under the rug. Some cases were related to the abuse of children; others involved male clergy who took advantage of their pastoral relationship with vulnerable women to manipulate them into sexual relationships. These men violated the sacred trust placed in clergy to focus on parishioners' needs and to separate those needs from their own. To prevent further such abuses of power, we moved quickly for the good of the victims and of our church.

Whether or not civil courts recognize a statute of limitations, the church must hold its clergy members accountable to their vows to be faithful shepherds of their people. In 1994, the Episcopal Church opened a two-year window of opportunity to hear complaints about priestly abuse of the pastoral relationship with adults. Just because an event occurred many years ago did not make it any less egregious, especially since perpetrators rarely have only one victim. We addressed all complaints through our canonical disciplinary process.

As for instances involving children, we have no statute of limitations on reporting abuse. Those suspected of committing child abuse are immediately reported to the civil authorities for investigation.

Rather than refusing to acknowledge our transgressions, we sought to change our church's culture -- an effort that took no small amount of courage. In my diocese in New Hampshire, and across the Episcopal Church, we perform a thorough background check on every bishop, priest or deacon who serves under my authority. We correspond with every employer the clergyperson has ever had and every bishop under whom the clergyperson has ever served to determine whether there is a history of complaints.

While procedures vary from diocese to diocese, we here in New Hampshire require six hours of abuse-prevention training for clergy, all other employees of the church (organists, parish administrators, maintenance workers), youth workers and elected parish leaders. A refresher course is required every five years. Events with and for children may never be conducted without two adults present and always in view of each other. This protects children from abusive behavior and protects adults who might be falsely charged. Many of our parishes have installed windows in the clergy office doors, so that no activity -- even private counseling -- may go unobserved.

We want many pairs of eyes watching for signs of abuse. We want everyone to know how to report suspected abuse of children and abuse of the pastoral relationship between clergy members and parishioners. We want to keep the issue before our church -- clergy and laity alike -- and to keep the conversation going.

But the thing victims most want to hear from the church, especially its leadership, is: "I am so sorry. This should never have happened to you, especially here. We are going to do everything in our power to see that nothing like this happens again." Victims live with their horrific experiences and know that their abuse can never be undone. And so they seek assurance that the church will change the system that allows abuse to go undetected and take action to hold perpetrators accountable. Child abusers do not deserve protection; they must be reported immediately to civil authorities and prosecuted.

The Christian church -- like any institution -- is as capable of sin as any individual. We have been wrong before, from the Inquisition and the Crusades down to our defense of slavery (using scripture) and our denigration of women. Over time, the church has repented for these sins and sought to change its ways. The discovery of sexual abuse by clergy is another situation that calls for the church's repentance and reform.

I would not presume to instruct you. That would be arrogant. Nor would I impose upon you advice you've not sought. But I do offer you the benefit of my experience as you seek to deal responsibly with these challenges to the integrity of your church. Your letter to the faithful in Ireland and your meeting in Malta with victims were a good start. I hope the future will bring more truth-telling, which will make your church a better, safer place.

However, I believe it is misguided and wrong for gay men to be scapegoated in this scandal. As a gay man, I know the pain and the verbal and physical violence that can come from the thoroughly debunked myth connecting homosexuality and the abuse of children. In the media, representatives of and advocates for the Roman Catholic Church have laid blame for sexual abuse at the feet of gay priests. These people know, or should know, that every reputable scientific study shows that homosexuals are no more or less likely to be child abusers than heterosexuals. Psychologically healthy homosexual men are no more drawn to little boys than psychologically healthy heterosexual men are drawn to little girls.


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