Bishop Schlert answers questions about the Grand Jury Report

There have been suggestions that you discredited victims of abuse. Is that true?

Absolutely not. I have always viewed victims as sincere, dignified, and extremely courageous for coming forward. I have always treated them with respect, and I always will. For those who suggest otherwise, nothing could be further from the truth.

The Grand Jury Report contains painful details of past clergy sexual abuse, yet you advocated for its release even as some others tried to block it. Why?

It is only by confronting and understanding our past that we can continue to heal and move forward toward a goal we all share: the elimination of child abuse, wherever it may occur in society. The Report will help victims and survivors know that they have been heard. Abuse is an issue on which we have made great progress as a Church, but there is always more that can be done. This Report is another step on that path.

Why did you publish a list of Allentown Diocese priests who have had credible allegations of past abuse?

We did it in the interest of further transparency. We also did it out of a pastoral and spiritual concern for the victims. It’s possible that their knowing that we are being transparent on this issue may help them with healing.

You’ve said the abuse issue has caused you great personal suffering. Say more about that.

It causes me great suffering that people who placed their trust in the Church, who thought the Church was a safe place, and who entrusted their children to the Church, were betrayed by some of our priests. Our Church is being called upon to do penance for the sinful actions of the past.
I also suffer for the vast majority of our priests who have never been involved in any such behavior. These men are doing their best every day, and they now have to live under a cloud of suspicion. That cloud greatly undermines their work, because a priest is only as effective as the level of trust the people place in him.
Another source of suffering for me is that some people have had their faith shaken. Some people may now find the practice of their faith an embarrassment. I hope and pray that they will be able to acknowledge, as the Grand Jury did, that the Church has made much progress in the past 15 years.
I am also saddened that some good candidates for the Priesthood may delay or end their discernment of God’s call to a noble vocation.

You have been meeting with victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse. What are those meetings like?

They are very moving. I am humbled by the fact that they even want to talk to me. Every Bishop inherits the history of his Diocese. It falls to him to shoulder any failings from the past, to apologize and ask forgiveness, to do what he can to prevent recurrence. I also want to ensure that victims and survivors get pastoral and spiritual care to assist in their healing.

What do you say to the victims and survivors in these meetings?

First and most importantly, I listen carefully to what they are saying. I tell them how profoundly sorry I am that this happened, and I ask for their forgiveness. I tell them that it should never have happened. Abusive behavior is not what the Church is, and not what it should be. I tell them that I am deeply saddened that their paths crossed with a person who misused his sacred office and violated their trust.

Are all priests accused of abuse reported to law enforcement?

Yes. Every Diocese of Allentown priest who faced an allegation of abuse was reported to law enforcement. Since I have been Bishop, I have continued to enforce a Zero Tolerance Policy, which calls for immediate removal from ministry, immediate reporting to law enforcement, and transparency in cooperation with law enforcement.  As an example, I would refer you to two allegations we received over the past several months, neither of which is related to the Grand Jury Report. In both cases, I immediately notified the District Attorney’s office and immediately removed the priest from ministry, pending the results of an investigation.

What is your message for all people now that the report has been released?

My first message is one of repentance and of deep sorrow for the harm that has been done to victims and survivors. Child abuse is devastating and tragic, and I pray for all who have been hurt by this terrible behavior.

I also want to emphasize a message of hope, now that we have made so much progress as a Church. For almost two decades, we have reported allegations to law enforcement, we have made sure perpetrators are removed from ministry, we have done background checks and provided training for anyone who works with children, and we have significantly raised awareness of how to prevent abuse and keep children safe. There also have been very positive changes in our formation for new priests, including more rigorous screening. We cannot be certain that there will never be another allegation, but the protocols we now have in place to prevent abuse and keep children safe are state-of-the-art.

We cannot allow our Church to be defined by this issue. Abuse is a sad part of our past that we need to acknowledge, apologize for, and do our absolute best to prevent as we move forward. It does not define who we are today, however. It does not define our Priesthood today. Rather than be defined by our past, we want to be defined by what we do about our past.

To young men considering a vocation to the Priesthood, I ask them not to allow the actions of some to deter them from responding to God’s call. Listen to Him.

What has the Diocese learned from the Grand Jury Report?

When a man is ordained as a priest, he takes on a sacred trust to be a father figure, a protector, a provider and a defender in the spiritual realm. That leaves no room to prey on the young and vulnerable. When a priest does not live up to those ideals through his human frailty, he does catastrophic damage to his victims and to the entire Catholic community. There is no place for that in the Church.

Why were some offending priests allowed to retire rather than being laicized, or “defrocked”?

Back in 2002, imposing retirement on them was the quickest way to get perpetrators out of ministry to protect children. Now, there are more canonical grounds to laicize an offending priest. This is a process which requires Vatican approval. Many of those who initially were retired were later laicized.

What about the allegations of past cover-up in the Church, and the allegations of transferring priests rather than dealing with the problem?

Those things do not happen in the Allentown Diocese today. There’s no question that abuse has always been terrible and sinful behavior. The understanding in society of how best to handle it, however, has evolved over time. Today we don’t address abusers in that way. Now, every allegation is turned over to law enforcement immediately, priests are removed from ministry immediately, and we address the issue with transparency in cooperation with law enforcement.

Some might suggest that the abuse scandal has taken away the Church’s voice on moral or social issues. What are your thoughts on that?

It’s true that this Report may cause some to see the Church as hypocritical. For example, they might ask: “How can you speak about the evil of abortion when the Church has not protected children adequately?” It’s important to remember that the teachings of the Church are more expansive than the Church itself because they are divine, eternal, objective truths. Christ Himself entrusted these teachings to the Church as His witness in the world. While the actions of some people in the Church may have damaged its credibility, no one should negate the Church’s authentic teaching role in the world.

What if someone was married by an accused or defrocked priest, or was absolved by them in Confession? Do sacraments still “count”?

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

Some have called on Pennsylvania Bishops to resign. What is your thought about that?

Just as younger priests have been formed with the new realities of the abuse scandal in mind, and are now better equipped to prevent abuse and keep children safe, so too have newer Bishops like me been formed in that way. With hard work and continued vigilance, we can be even better at ensuring a safe environment in the Church. As a Bishop, I would like to be part of the solution. Of course, in the end it is only the Holy Father who determines how long a Bishop serves.

The Report is critical of the past decisions of “diocesan administrators.” You were Vicar General for a long time. What is your comment about that?

As soon as I was appointed Vicar General in June 1998, I began working proactively with Bishop Cullen, our newly-appointed bishop at the time, to remove offending priests from active ministry and to implement policies and procedures to prevent abuse and protect children.

Bishop Cullen and I were strong advocates for incorporating a Zero-Tolerance Policy into Church law to enable permanent removal of perpetrators. We convened a meeting of the District Attorneys of the five counties of the Diocese and turned over the personnel files of all priests known to have allegations against them.

We expanded criminal background checks for priests, deacons, employees and volunteers, formulated the Sexual Abuse Policy and Code of Conduct, established the Diocesan Review Board to assist the Bishop in dealing with abuse cases, created the position of Victim Assistance Coordinator, named Safe Environment Coordinators at parishes and schools, and required anyone with contact with children to take the “Protecting God’s Children” training course. I also was instrumental in ensuring that the Diocese was found fully compliant for the past 15 years with the Charter for Protection of Children and Young People.

The Report can give the impression that abuse is currently rampant in the Diocese. Is it?

No. Most of the incidents in the Report about our Diocese are from decades ago, and the priests have been removed from ministry, are laicized or “defrocked,” or are deceased. In our Diocese, a large majority of the cases of abuse were from 2002 or before.

The other important thing to know is this: For many years we have be dealing much differently with any allegations. Recent news has shown that in the event of an allegation of abuse, we immediately remove the priest from ministry pending the results of an investigation, we immediately notify law enforcement, and we address the issue in a transparent manner in cooperation with law enforcement. We have strict procedures and policies, and everyone at the Diocese has a clear understanding of what we need to do. We know we can never completely remove the risk of abuse, so we are committed to remaining vigilant to keep children safe.

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

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 the awareness training, the background checks, the safe environment coordinators in every parish and school, the Independent Review Board.    

We also have made major changes in the way that allegations are dealt with after they are received. In the case of the allegations against Monsignor Nave and Father Lonergan, for example, under our Zero Tolerance Policy we reported the allegation to the District Attorneys immediately, and I immediately removed them from their assignments and forbade them from all priestly ministry pending the results of the investigation.    

Also, in the case of Father Lonergan, the allegation first came to light when the victim told another priest, who immediately reported it. That’s a great example of our enhanced culture of vigilance, and of protecting children.

What is the Diocese doing to end clergy abuse and to protect children?

Our top priority is keeping children safe. We’ve taken strong and decisive action. We have strict protocols in place to protect children. We see ourselves as partners with law enforcement on this issue. Our Zero Tolerance policy means that allegations are reported to the authorities immediately and perpetrators are removed from ministry immediately. We require rigorous background checks and training for adults and children in recognizing and preventing abuse. We also provide training for those people who are “mandated reporters” under the state’s Child Protective Services Law. Sadly, abuse still is part of the society in which we live. In the Diocese of Allentown, victims and survivors are heard and cared for, perpetrators are held accountable and children are protected.

How is the Diocese helping victims and survivors and their families?

We continue to promote healing for all people who have been hurt by abuse. We make available counseling and treatment, as well as spiritual support. For the past 15 years, we have had a Victim Assistance Coordinator to coordinate immediate pastoral care for victims and survivors of sexual abuse and to help coordinate ongoing counseling, treatment and social-service assistance.

Have donations to the Church been used by the Diocese to pay for expenses related to the Grand Jury Report?

Our legal expenses in this matter are paid out of the Diocese’s general fund. We have not used donations made to the Bishop’s Annual Appeal or to Strengthening Our Future In Faith, our previous capital campaign. We also have not used funds from the Endowment for Retired Priests, or any pension funds, or any Catholic Charities funds.

Does the Diocese pay the legal expenses for accused priests?

No. Priests facing accusations of abuse retain their own civil legal counsel, at their own expense.

What can be done to re-establish trust with people who have been shaken by the Grand Jury Report?

We will continue to do the work of the Church every day, and continue to proclaim the Gospel without compromise. Priests must continue, through a deep life of prayer, to model holiness of life. Also, I think we all need to remind ourselves of how the Church was founded: By Jesus, to be a presence in the world and a source of salvation. That doesn’t mean that people in the Church are perfect. We all suffer from the effects of Original Sin. The beauty and mystery of the Church is that despite the failings of its members, the mission, the work, and the foundation of the Church remain holy, and remain our only source of salvation.

What can the faithful do to support the Diocese as it works to end the problem of abuse once and for all?

First, please pray for the victims. They are our brothers and sisters, and we have a great need to support them in our prayers. It’s a sign of our Roman Catholic family of faith that we embrace our hurt brothers and sisters who have suffered at the hands of a clergy abuser, not only in prayer, but in helping them heal.

Next, we must pray for members of the Church, imperfect as we are. We must pray that all of us become even more aware of how to prevent abuse and keep children safe. We must constantly work to promote genuine renewal in the Church for all members, clergy, religious and the laity. It is only by an authentic conversion to Christ and the grace He brings that we can be healed of this terrible sin.

Finally, as a Diocese, all members of the Clergy, Religious, employees, teachers, volunteers and parishioners must continue to be vigilant, and continually evaluate the effectiveness of our programs and policies.
When it comes to protecting children, we can never let down our guard.