SEX ABUSE CRISIS PROMPTS YEAR OF ACTION, REFLECTION


Mary Solberg
01/18/2019

Bishop Lawrence Persico meets with the media in December. Photo by Mary Solberg.

Following a year of horrific truths revealed about the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico has maintained a singular focus on victims.

He meets personally with those who have been violated and their families, as well as priests and parishioners. He does all of this while walking through the virtual legal and emotional minefield created by the release of the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report implicating hundreds of priests in the assault of more than 1,000 children over a 70-year period.

“I remain committed to transparency and doing everything I can to assist victims of sexual abuse in the church,” Bishop Persico said.

In December, he participated in the fittingly titled public forum series “Uncomfortable Conversations,” hosted by Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. About 200 people attended the one-hour discussion between the bishop and Tribune-Review reporter Deb Erdley of Greensburg.

Bishop Persico was the subject of some of Erdley’s previous coverage, having distinguished himself as the only bishop in Pennsylvania to testify personally before the members of the investigative grand jury. He also is considered to be the only bishop in the United States to include lay people along with clergy on the list of people who have been credibly accused of actions that disqualify them from working with children.

Erdley delved into a full range of topics, ranging from why the bishop cooperated with the grand jury to the potential damage of the scandal on the church as a whole.

She also asked about the current criticism of Pennsylvania bishops for offering victims’ compensation funds versus favoring a widening of the statute of limitations window for abuse victims. A bill to suspend the statute of limitations retroactively was passed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, but remains stalled, at press time, in the Senate.

“I have victims in the diocese who are 87 years old,” Bishop Persico said. “It’s too long for them to wait for the legislation on the statute of limitations to go through the court system.”

COMPENSATION FOR VICTIMS

Bishop Persico has long supported abolishing the criminal statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims, and he agrees with the grand jury’s proposed amendment of the civil statute of limitations, as long as that amendment applies equally to everyone, not just clergy.

But he’s still concerned about abuse survivors whose time-barred cases cannot be litigated and who may face the prospect of a long legal battle. So, he approved the launch of the Diocese of Erie’s Survivors’ Reparation Fund. It will be administered beginning in mid-February by Kenneth Feinberg, one of the nation’s leading experts in mediation.

The fund will offer time-barred survivors of sex abuse in the diocese a straightforward, non-contentious path to obtain monetary compensation.

“Although money will never fully heal the deep wounds felt by survivors, this fund is a crucial step in the diocese’s ongoing reconciliation and reform efforts,” Bishop Persico said.

Money for Phase I of the fund will be provided through a new line of credit obtained by the diocese and secured by historic investments. No dollars donated to any parish, school or charitable cause within the diocese will be used by the compensation fund.

For full details of the Survivors’ Reparation Fund, go to www.ErieRCD.org and click on Bishop Persico’s recent statements.

“It is important to me that victims can access the fund in a timely and efficient manner,” the bishop explained.

PRIVATE MEETINGS

Bishop Persico also has kept his eye on the needs of parishioners, many of whom are reeling from the knowledge that priests they knew and loved committed heinous acts against children.

Accompanied by members of the diocesan Pastoral Response Team, under the auspices of Catholic Charities, the bishop has met with parishioners from three parishes. Each parish requested that the bishop visit and address their concerns.

According to Ann Badach, executive director of Catholic Charities, “I believe that he [Bishop Persico] wants to make sure that people have clarity and the assurance that he is working very hard to rebuild the trust that many have lost.”

NEED FOR REFLECTION, SELF-EVALUATION

In light of the abuse crisis, Pope Francis recommended that all U.S. Catholic bishops attend a spiritual retreat at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago.

Bishop Persico was among those in attendance Jan. 2-8.

The pope offered the retreat services of 84-year-old Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, who has served as the preacher of the papal household since 1980.

“Before we can do what we’re called to do, we needed to recollect and to spend time in silence,” Bishop Persico said. “It was important to be reminded of our role as shepherds and being open to the Word of God. That’s the only perspective from which we can begin to bring about healing.”

Additionally, Pope Francis requested that the heads of all the world’s bishops’ conferences, the leaders of the Eastern Catholic churches and representatives of the leadership groups of men and women religious address the crisis at the Vatican Feb. 21-25.

The unprecedented meeting will focus on three areas: responsibility, accountability and transparency.

Pope Francis has asked each participating bishop to meet with abuse survivors before going to Rome.

At least one victim would agree. Jim VanSickle, who was abused by a priest while attending Bradford Central Christian High School in the Diocese of Erie, asked Bishop Persico during the “Uncomfortable Conversations” event what he would do for victims who maintain their faith despite abandoning the church itself.

“We really need to do some outreach for people who have been abused. They’re still Catholic and they’re still a part of the family,” the bishop said. “We need to find a way to let them know they are loved.”

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