Questions for the Bishop

As Bishop Alfred Schlert has been visiting parishes around the Diocese in the weeks following the release of the Grand Jury Report, many people have stayed to ask him questions. Now we’re giving you the same opportunity, anyone with questions about the clergy sexual abuse issue is invited to e-mail them to abusequestions@allentowndiocese.org.  

The Diocese will edit questions for clarity, length and appropriateness. Please include your name and hometown. On the website, we will identify questioners by their first name and hometown, unless you want that information withheld. We will not reveal your e-mail address or last name.

Latest questions appear first.

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Question: My husband and I were married by a priest who appears in the grand jury report and is now defrocked. Have we been ‘living in sin’ all these years?

Answer: It is understandable that this question may arise. The fact is that the graces of all of the Sacraments including marriage come from Jesus, the Great High Priest. A priest’s individual sinfulness does not invalidate the holiness and fruitfulness of the Sacrament.

Question: I am having a hard time understanding why, in the past, priests did not report crimes committed against children to the police. It just seems that Priests have acted as counselors, judge, and jury as to how perpetrators were handled. 
 
Answer: I agree that the past actions, and in the case of your question, inactions, of some people in the Church are very troubling. I am not sure we can ever fully know the reasons for this, since so many of the people involved are now deceased. When I was Vicar General, working with then-Bishop Cullen, the Diocese convened a meeting of District Attorneys and turned over the files on all known offenders to law enforcement. In the time that I have been Bishop, since August 31, 2017, for any new allegation we have immediately notified law enforcement, and immediately removed the priest from ministry pending an investigation.

Question: What do you think is the cause of this horrific crisis? 

Answer: I believe that the primary cause of the sexual abuse crisis is the lack of holiness on the part of clergy who did these horrible things, mostly many years ago, and also on the part of those in our Church whose inaction contributed to the crisis. All of us in the clergy need to recommit ourselves to living an authentically holy life as we work together with the people we serve to accomplish the goals we all share: preventing abuse and keeping our children safe.

Question: How is the culture of acceptance of sexual abuse being managed and changed within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church? 
 
Answer:The Diocese of Allentown does not tolerate a culture of acceptance. Our Zero-Tolerance Policy means that in the event of any new allegations, we immediately notify law enforcement, immediately remove the priest from ministry pending an investigation, and address the issue transparently in cooperation with law enforcement. I expect Bishops around the country to discuss additional measures to address clergy sexual abuse at their upcoming national meeting, and the Holy Father has called a meeting of Bishops from around the world to address this issue. I pray that all leaders of our Church will find ways to continue the progress we have made in eliminating abuse and keeping children safe. 

Question: The Grand Jury Report, and now a lawsuit, both accuse you of participating in a smear of a victim. What is your comment?
 
Answer:That’s a very distressing allegation to me, because nothing could be further from the truth. Over the years I have had positive meetings with many victims and survivors, some of whom I now consider friends. Victims of abuse are extremely courageous for coming forward, and deserve to be treated with respect, compassion, and dignity. I’ve always done that, and I always will.

Question: How has the Diocese of Allentown provided support for victims of abuse?

Answer: We promote healing for those affected by making available counseling and treatment at no cost, as well as spiritual support. Since 2003, we have had a Victim Assistance Coordinator to coordinate immediate pastoral care for survivors of sexual abuse and to help coordinate counseling, treatment and social-service assistance. Caring for victims and survivors and keeping children safe are top priorities for the Diocese. 

Question:  Are there any new steps beyond criminal background checks being taken in the discernment process and throughout seminary to try to root out potential problems before candidates reach the pulpit?

Answer: Yes. In the last decade we have increased screening for candidates for the seminary, improved the training and guidance seminarians receive, and strengthened the requirements they must meet to become priests.
Changes include:

  • Comprehensive psychological screening and evaluations, before acceptance to the seminary, and also during seminary studies.
  • Individual coaching and counseling on a regular basis, both from a spiritual director and from a formation adviser, to help seminarians adjust to the demands and requirements of a celibate priestly life.
  • Periodic careful evaluations of a candidate’s emotional well-being, spiritual well-being, academic performance and pastoral abilities.
  • Increased emphasis on the importance of protecting children, and on the clear expectation of reporting any suspicious activity immediately.
  • Careful evaluations of their interaction with staff members, youth and young people, and of their understanding of what it means to take a vow of celibacy.
  • Monitoring of their adherence to all safe environment requirements and training.
  • Expanded focus on the concept of priest as servant, which is at the heart of the priestly vocation.

Question: How has the Diocese of Allentown provided support for victims of abuse? 

Answer: We promote healing for those affected by making available counseling and treatment at no cost, as well as spiritual support. Since 2003, we have had a Victim Assistance Coordinator to coordinate immediate pastoral care for survivors of sexual abuse and to help coordinate counseling, treatment and social-service assistance. Caring for victims and survivors and keeping children safe are top priorities for the Diocese. 

Question: Does the money from the offering basket go to the abuse scandal? Specifically, does it pay for the Victim Assistance Coordinator? What about funding for legal settlements?

Answer: Most of the money given in weekly collections remains with the parish. About 16 percent of the weekly collection is forwarded to the Diocese to fund diocesan operations. Among the programs this money funds is the Victim Assistance Coordinator. It also funds counseling for victims and survivors, which is provided to them at no cost. In the case of settlements, some are paid by the diocesan insurance carrier and others by the Diocese itself. However, no funds from the Bishop’s Annual Appeal are used for any costs associated with the clergy abuse issue. All Bishop’s Annual Appeal gifts are used only for their intended purpose, as described on the BAA website at: www.faithhopecharitygives.org.

Question: I haven’t been to church since the report came out. I am so angry. What exactly are we, the people, supposed to do with our anger?

Answer: Thank you for your question and for expressing your anger to me. It is quite understandable that you are angry. Many people are feeling the same way you are. I am angry too. Some clergy who should have been our source of strength were instead a source of suffering.

Anger, if it is holy anger, can be a great source of reform in the Church. It has been throughout the history of the Church. Our motivation to reform and move away from the crimes and sins of the past must also involve prayer. The Holy Spirit is heard through prayer. We need the Holy Spirit to guide us in our reforms of the Church. It is also through prayer that destructive anger dissipates. It is my hope that you can be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in your life, and nourish your prayer through the reception of the Holy Eucharist at Mass.

Question: Do defrocked priests continue to receive medical and pension benefits?

Answer: Priests who are defrocked receive no financial support unless they are vested in the pension plan. If they are vested, it is the same as if they had worked in the secular world: They receive pension payments, and the amount depends on their years of service.

Some priests have been permanently removed from ministry but not defrocked. In this case, Church law requires the Diocese to provide “sustenance.” This monthly payment is less than the amount of their former salary, and it will be reduced over time and eventually eliminated. For these priests, the Diocese pays for health insurance until the priest is transitioned to another health insurance plan. If they are vested in the pension plan, they receive pension payments based on their years of service.
 

Question: What about recent allegations against priests? How can you say progress has been made?

 

Answer: Sadly, abuse still is part of the society in which we live. We have made great progress in the strong and decisive action we have taken to keep children safe, including awareness training, background checks, and safe environment coordinators in every parish and school. 

 

These recent allegations show how serious we are about doing the right thing. In both cases, we immediately notified law enforcement, immediately removed the priest from ministry, and were transparent in cooperation with law enforcement

 

Question: Does the diocese have any plan to establish behavioral analysis testing for seminarians? N.S.

 

Answer: In recent years we have increased screening for candidates for the seminary, improved the training and guidance seminarians receive, and strengthened the requirements they must meet to become priests. This includes comprehensive psychological screening and evaluations, before acceptance to the seminary, and also during seminary studies. Seminarians also participate in conferences each year on the topics of chastity and celibacy. They must also complete all the safe environment training required by the diocese and the state.