Healing the Wounds

Oe of the most striking comments made by the Holy Father in his recent America magazine interview was his image of the role that the Church can play in our troubled world: “I see the Church as a field hospital after battle… You have to heal the wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.”

There can be no question that our society bears many wounds, particularly when it comes to the troubled lives of young people. The stories appear in the news with distressing regularity: sexual abuse of children in families; estimates that 10 percent of students in public schools experience sexual misconduct, rape, or sexual assault; overt sexualization of young boys and girls in media and advertising, which treats people as commodities to be bought, sold, and displayed; the prevalence of pornography, which deludes people about the beauty of human sexuality and damages their hearts; forms of entertainment that rob children of their innocence and teach them all the wrong lessons about their bodies and themselves; and human trafficking, which drugs, handcuffs, and kidnaps children and youth to become sex toys.

We in the Church certainly have had to learn hard lessons about sexual abuse of minors, the need for vigilance in our institutions, and, especially, the need for healing. Over the past 11 years, since the enactment of the Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and with the help of a lot of you, our Church has become the leader in promoting child protection, in being transparent about our efforts, and in holding ourselves accountable. Our dioceses, schools, parishes and programs have made a massive investment in child safety—stressing the screening and training of all those who work with children better to prevent abuse from occurring, strong oversight by leaders and administrators, and prompt and decisive responses to problems when they do occur.

Our critics—and their name is legion—will not let us forget the horrible way the Church responded—or failed to respond—to this nausea in the past. We will not forget. But, they are mute when passing on the observation of Dr. Paul McHugh, acclaimed child abuse psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins, that, “Today, nobody protects children better than the Catholic Church.” Our people tell us they remain angry about three things in this painful area: that trusted priests abused; that bishops failed to act decades ago; and that only the Catholic Church is criticized for a scourge that afflicts every family, church, organization and institution.

Each year, we are audited by independent examiners, who test our policies and procedures, and subject them to searching questioning. We just concluded our annual audit here in the Archdiocese of New York, and I am pleased to report that we once again passed with flying colors—our ninth consecutive successful result. This is a testimony to the dedication of our people to put the safety of children at the top of the agenda, and their willingness to do the hard work to ensure that our policies are implemented.

Are we perfect? Certainly not, although we try to be, and we are always open to learning how to do this better. In this regard, we are grateful for the efforts of our Archdiocesan Review Board, which not only carefully examines the cases of those priests who are alleged to have committed an act of abuse (after they have been reported to the police), but also reviews our policies and procedures to make sure that we are doing what we should do to protect our young people. The extent and effectiveness of our child protection programs offer a model for other institutions to follow, and we invite others to learn from us, as we have from them. We are honored when other religions or institutions approach us for help in dealing with their problems with sexual abuse.

We are also dedicated to offering positive, concrete ways to eliminate the exploitation of children. We need to proclaim more effectively the essential virtues of purity and chastity, from our pulpits and in our schools. Wonderful ministries like Generation Life, which works with youth, and Courage, for those with same-sex attraction, offer support and assistance for those who wish to live chaste lives and find good healthy friendships. Resources like our Family Life Office’s Parent Guides to Human Sexuality help them teach their kids how to live good, upright lives. Marriage preparation and enrichment programs offer guidance to couples so they can be authentic witnesses to the self-giving beauty of marital love.

Along with these virtues, we need to recover our own fortitude—most especially to speak the truth about the damage being done by a culture that has lost its way when it comes to sexuality. And we need the courage to do something about it. The exploitation of children should be unthinkable in this day and age, and we all should be motivated to do whatever it takes, to prevent it.

In the end, programs and vigilance are not enough. There are still so many wounds that need to be healed. This involves the work of pastoral and psychological counselors, as well as the irreplaceable role of our wonderful priests and the Sacrament of Confession. We remain irrevocably committed to offering help to those who have been hurt.

Our society is wounded. Millions of people bear the scars. Our friends, family, and neighbors are suffering. We in the Church have a message for all of them: The field hospital is open.