Bishop Taylor delivered this homily Aug. 31 during a Mass for victims of sexual abuse with diocesan staff.
This year what was to have been my annual vacation with old seminary classmates turned into something more like a retreat as we tried to wrap our heads around the unrelenting flood of scandalous revelations of sexual misconduct by priests and bishops and even cardinals, and their concealment of crimes committed by others. We spent a lot of time praying about this and discussing what was going on in each of our dioceses.
I for one spent a lot of time bringing what has occurred over the years here in Arkansas to the Lord in prayer. Not much of a vacation but a valuable time of reflection that I believe the Lord will use to help me shepherd the church in Arkansas at this difficult time.
I was guided in these reflections by the Scripture readings of the Masses we celebrated during those days and one passage in Matthew chapter 23 stuck with me very forcefully. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside may also be clean.”
In other words, act with integrity. Jesus saved his harshest condemnation for the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day. They looked holy on the outside but their true motivations were worldly, not spiritual. And one of the reasons Jesus called them “blind guides” is that these other concerns kept them from seeing the negative implications of the short sightedness with which they handled the issues of their day. And not only were they blind, they were also deaf. Deaf to the cries of those whose situation was made worse by their poor leadership, by the fact that, in Jesus words, they “have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity.”
And then in this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus expands on this, emphasizing that “nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. ‘From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.’”
To act with integrity can sometimes be very difficult, but it is to that which Jesus calls all of us and especially the priests and bishops to whom he has entrusted the care of the flock.
I have already spoken on numerous occasions about clergy sexual abuse, and to cover all that terrain again would make for a very long homily. We have safe environment policies which we enacted decades ago and have updated several times since then. These policies have served us well and we have done a good job of protecting minors, especially since our implementation in 2002 of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. But unfortunately the same cannot be said about incidents of misconduct with adults, regarding which I have had to deal with some painful situations during my 10 years here so far.
Even so, we really have done our best to provide help to victims of clergy sexual abuse of minors in the past. We have a very responsive hotline, we take every allegation or even expression of concern very seriously and we cooperate fully with the state of Arkansas and fulfill all of our reporting obligations.
But there is one thing that I think I have not expressed fully enough, and that is my appreciation of the courage it takes for victims to come forward in the first place. And this has caused me to reflect further on what we should be doing to try to help victims in general, including also those who were victims of someone other than a priest or representative of the Church. My heart goes out to all who carry deep wounds of this sort.
One such person whose abuser was not a priest brought this to my attention. He describes how it took 30 years for him to come to terms with his abuse and finally admit that he needed help. It takes much courage and strength to make this admission and it takes trust. And trust is something that gets twisted and manipulated by the abuser, so stepping forward is that much more difficult and will not occur until the victim feels safe and is confident that he or she will be heard.
And isn’t that the task before us today? Safe environment means not only a place where no one will be abused going forward, it also means creating a safe place where those who have been abused in the past can find understanding and healing and hope.
In any event, this is what the Lord was speaking in my heart as I prayed and reflected last week on this moment in the life of the Church. The Lord’s call to integrity, judgment, mercy and forgiveness. There are dark days ahead for us. This is a time of reckoning, including here in Arkansas, but it also is a time of grace. A time of healing and reform and hope.
Jesus is our good shepherd and he is no blind guide. It is he who in the 23rd Psalm leads us through the dark valley and with him there is no evil to fear, because he is at our side with his rod and staff that give us comfort.
I am confident that the words of Psalm 15 that we will proclaim as our Responsorial Psalm this Sunday will be true also for us: “The one who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”
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