My Turn: Creating a safe place for God's children

Posted: Wednesday, April 07, 2010

During the days when I was discerning a priestly vocation, I struggled between the decision to live a chaste-celibate life or to get married and have children.

As you can imagine it was not an easy decision. Nevertheless, I proceeded with my vocation to follow God's call and enter the priesthood.

Over the last 27 years, I have lived a full life filled with joys and challenges. But I never thought when I was ordained a priest that the Catholic Church would be involved with the evil, pain and suffering that we see today in the clergy sexual abuse scandals. Crimes committed by those who were meant to bring about God's mercy and compassion.

During my priesthood, I served as a vocation director for my home diocese. The vocation director is the one who admits men to the seminary for studies to the priesthood. When I met with a man who expressed an interest in the priesthood, we would put him through a battery of exams and interviews. These included psychological testing, various background checks and a number of elements of screening.

Part of my own assessment was whether or not I felt that had I been married with children, if I would be comfortable with this man around my wife and children. This "gut assessment" helped me in my ministry of the screening potential candidates to the priesthood.

Nevertheless, what we have been learning, with some regularity, about proven reports of child sexual abuse by clergy within the Catholic Church, are gut-wrenching. As a Catholic man - I am angered and repulsed. As a Catholic bishop - I apologize for any pain or harm that has been done to children by priests or other Church ministers.

First and foremost, I am concerned about anyone who has been victimized. The heart of this scandal is that a trust has been betrayed, a crime has been committed and innocence has been violated - all at the hands of someone who should have been trusted. I am also concerned about the members of the Catholic community who are outraged and embarrassed by the actions of their spiritual leaders. And I am mindful, too, of those who are not Catholic and have come to the conclusion that the Church is evil and selfish.

As the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska, I vow that all is being done to assure a safe environment for our children within the Catholic community. This does not happen without a great amount of effort and planning - but it is a priority. Our Diocese has had this as a priority for years now.

That being said, I am still distressed when I hear of such scandals throughout our region, country and world. In hearing such stories, I am mindful of the passage in Scripture when Jesus calls a child over and with the child next to him in the midst of the disciples says that to whomever causes harm to one of these little ones, " ... it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea." (Mt 18:6)

On March 31, I participated in our Governor's initiative to end domestic violence. Various members of our community were present. It is clear - wherever abuse exists, we must address it. Whether in the institution of the family, the institution of marriage, the institution of the Church or the institution of society - it cannot be ignored.

While I do not have children of my own, I do have a lot of children to protect within my diocese. It is my goal and the goal of the Diocese of Juneau to provide a safe environment for our children and young people.

• Edward J. Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska. He was apointed by Pope Benedict XVI and was installed on April 2, 2009.

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