Fr. Peter B. Mangum Addresses Thoughts on June USCCB Meeting and the Future of the Diocese

By: Fr. Peter B. Mangum

 

Dear People of Shreveport,

I begin this article on Pentecost Sunday, preparing for the gathering of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Baltimore. A year ago this past June, His Holiness Pope Francis announced the transfer of Bishop Michael Duca to the Diocese of Baton Rouge and two months later, I was elected to serve as Diocesan Administrator. I have had the opportunity to participate in a variety of gatherings of bishops, including meetings with the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, accessing issues affecting Catholics and institutions in our state, as well as with the Catholic Extension Society and the bishops of mission dioceses who face similar struggles.

In April, I participated in the ceremony of installation of Bishop David Talley, the former Bishop of Alexandria, as the new Bishop of Memphis. One of the archbishops told me then, face to face and in all seriousness, that, given all the other more important and pressing matters the Apostolic Nuncio is dealing with, I needed “to hunker down” as Diocesan Administrator as he did not foresee us getting a new bishop any time soon. In fact, dioceses that have been without a bishop less time than ours have already received new bishops.  I cannot wait to approach the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, tomorrow!

I have participated in USCCB meetings before. The first of these meetings was in November 2018, slated to have the vote of the century related to the Sexual Abuse of Minors or Adults by Clergy and “Standards of Episcopal Conduct” and to set up a “Special Commission for Review of Complaints Against Bishops.” We can all recall what happened next, the Holy See insisted that the American bishops delay the vote until after the February 2019 Vatican summit of all the presidents of bishops’ conferences worldwide to discuss the abuse crisis. Our common anger and disappointment was indelibly stamped on my consciousness and the experience is still fresh. That watershed moment in the life of the Church would wait until after all the bishops of the country met in January of 2019 in a weeklong retreat with the Pope’s retreat master and until after the Vatican Summit in February and Pope Francis’ subsequent document, issued in May, to govern the world-wide handling of all cases. The meeting is about to begin.

In the coming days, we will discuss and vote on a document related to the ministry of Permanent Deacons, a document on the Ordination of a Bishop, of Priests, and of Deacons, the Church’s engagement with the growing population of the religiously unaffiliated (the so-called “nones,”) among other items. But the world will focus on the centerpiece of the agenda: four action items dealing with the investigation of abuse claims against the bishops, accusations they have been negligent in handling or covering up cases of credibly accused priests and other church workers.  (Remember:  a Diocesan Administrator is equivalent in law to a bishop so I have the same vote as any active bishop present.)

As we anticipate this gathering of bishops, Pope Francis wrote his Apostolic Letter “Vos Estis Lux Mundi,” a new universal law to safeguard its members from abuse and hold its leaders accountable, a law which took force June 1st. It governs complaints against Church leaders worldwide regarding the sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons. We will debate and then vote on directives for implementing this Church law. As Pope Francis wrote:  “The crimes of sexual abuse offends our Lord, causing physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful.” This upcoming business meeting is to approve several proposals to hold the bishops accountable. The Holy Father, in his letter, calls for a “public, stable and easily accessible” reporting system for allegations, clear standards for the pastoral support of victims and their families, timeliness and thoroughness of investigations, protection for “whistleblowers” making allegations and the use of “proven experts from among the laity.” This document strengthens the protections already in place and expands the definition of vulnerable adults to include seminarians and any person made to engage in sexual acts due to a power differential/abuse of power and establishes a process for investigating various forms of misconduct by bishops.

The metropolitan archbishop in each province will have the oversight for investigations – the Archbishop of New Orleans has oversight of our state. I am particularly glad to read of the importance of lay experts being used, so bishops are not policing themselves and the need for accountability and transparency is met.In November, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and President of the USCCB, expressed “hope… that the Church be purified and that our efforts bear fruit… moving forward in concert with the Church around the world will make the Church in the United States stronger, and will make the global Church stronger.” I am optimistic that the delay from November until now will prove beneficial and that we will have a most fruitful meeting.

 

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The June 2019 USCCB meeting has begun with Morning Prayer this Tuesday after Pentecost. Cardinal DiNardo offers the opening remarks, “We begin the sacred work, this week, of purging the evil of sexual abuse from our Church….Veni Sancte Spiritus.  (Come Holy Spirit.)” I see this as harkening back to Pope Francis’ letter to the assembled bishops on retreat this past January in Chicago when the Pope made it clear that the need to be prompted and filled with the Holy Spirit was essential before moving forward in the way God wants us to…the importance of prayer before action, and the huge decisions the bishops face could not be made by a group who were divided; we could not come up with a plan of action and just pray it worked.

As we had done in our diocese at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans with our Prayer Vigil for Reparation and Petition, so the bishops did in a beautiful Penitential Service led by one of the cardinals, themed “The Church on Her Knees,” highlighting the need to seek forgiveness personally and as a group. Every bishop of this country was so aware of the pain of everyone who has been let down by the Church. This has been a year of great suffering and pain for the Church in the United States and we all acknowledge this to be a critical moment in our history.

 

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I have come to learn that our Apostolic Nuncio is in ROME with Pope Francis and over a hundred other ambassadors to other countries. There goes my chance to ask him about where we are in the process of getting a new bishop.

 

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Today is the Feast of St Barnabas. This first day, which included discussion and debate amongst the successors of the apostles, concluded with Mass and hearing from the Acts of the Apostles. Cardinal DiNardo said that the bishops’ credibility is to be like St. Barnabas, desiring “to do God’s will and to do it carefully and with discretion but also with what the Holy Father calls boldness — apostolic boldness…ours is hard work to do this week.”

 

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We are all aware that it has now been one year since the exposure of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as a predator and the beginning of a crisis of confidence in the ability of Church leadership to handle sexual abuse cases. Last November’s attempt at more stringent accountability norms, postponed by the Vatican, has been refined and augmented and is now ready for the final debate and vote. We have dealt with all these matters via constant communication with the main USCCB Office, such that there is not anticipation of much more debate or discussion, though three and a half hours are set aside for such this morning.

We only needed 70 minutes. The Bishops voted on several proposals to hold bishops accountable for instances of sexual abuse of children or vulnerable persons, sexual misconduct, or the intentional mishandling of such cases. We specifically committed to involving and utilizing lay professional experts. We also established a new, independent mechanism for the reporting of such cases, ensuring complaints are evaluated thoroughly, and that justice is achieved for victims and survivors.  (cf:  USCCB Q & A)

These voted-on-proposals are now all based on and consistent with new universal law for the reporting and handling of complaints against bishops, new procedural norms, applicable around the world. This is all the latest in a series of steps the Church has taken to respond to the sin and crime of sexual abuse. The Church first implemented a strict zero-tolerance policy in the United States in 2002. (Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, commonly referred to as the Dallas Charter, along with the Essential Norms.)

In the resolution, “Affirming our Episcopal Commitments,” the bishops clearly state that we are “committed, when we receive or when we are authorized to investigate such cases to include the counsel of lay men and women whose professional backgrounds are indispensable.”  Indeed the new USCCB documents uplift the gifts and expertise of the laity.

The new law covers sexual harassment of adults if such harassment involved any sexual acts.  Other forms of sexual harassment are covered by codes of conduct that already exist in dioceses and eparchies. “Vos Estis” does not interfere with these local codes of conduct.

Remember, any complaint against a bishop can be made immediately to local law enforcement, the chancery, the Apostolic Nuncio, or to the Holy See directly. Those avenues of reporting will continue to be available. The third-party system will simply provide another means of reporting that will make the process simpler in the future. This all brings unprecedented accountability of all bishops throughout the country.

With the voting completed, I wanted to slam my fist down on the table for joy! Though part of me knows that, amongst many people there is a ‘crisis fatigue,’ now the cry for action is heard.

 

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As I noted in November, being in the thick of things as Diocesan Administrator, the past ten months has affected the way I pray. I am grateful for the great support I have received from the priests of our diocese as well as many lay people. Since then we have also seen the publication of the list of names of priests who were convicted of or very credibly accused of sexual abuse from the territory now defined as the Diocese of Shreveport, all before 1986 and our creation as a diocese. I continue to face this crisis and the need for healing for and with everyone in our diocese. I minister, not in a Church I would prefer, but in the Church as I find it. Yet even in our broken human condition, we get glimpses of the Church perfected and made whole in Christ, just as He promised…he will never abandon His Church! Lest anyone think to the contrary, I have not lost the sense of outrage at the abuse crisis and cover-ups. We must take seriously Christ’s call to holiness, starting with our bishops, priests and indeed everyone! Jesus Christ truly is the Word made flesh, the splendor of the Father, the One sent to save us and give us Himself in the Eucharist, and His transforming, purifying grace in and through the Church as He founded.

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