You and your brother bishops across the country have been deeply affected by the reports of clergy sexual abuse. Two weeks ago you talked about this with your priests. What did you tell them?
I made sure, first of all, to thank them sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, for their ministry. Even as this crisis has been revealed, our priests are on the front lines doing ministry every day. They are celebrating the Eucharist, marrying and baptizing people. I hear from so many parishioners how appreciative they are for our priests’ dedicated ministry. They are grateful, but so am I. I’m sure there are so many different feelings that our priests are holding in their hearts right now. For some, there is tremendous outrage, terrible disillusionment and doubts about the authority of bishops. There’s been some great discouragement and questioning, and I share those feelings. It is a painful time in which we must pray and remain faithful to the Lord. This is a time that we have to be united as priests of the church and move forward.
You gave a powerful interview on a local radio station recently about the abuse crisis. You gave an analogy during that interview. Could you share it with us?
No one should ever be abused, especially by a member of the clergy or a leader in the church. It is always wrong, and those who are the abusers should be brought to justice. There is an analogy I have used, which I don’t really like, but I’ll share it because I think it helps people to understand. People have told me over the years that in many cases where sexual abuse has happened in a family, the position was not to tell anybody. The family decided to keep it between them and not scandalize anybody. That’s wrong, but it is what happened so often in the past because they didn’t want the family to be embarrassed. In the past, I think the church made a terrible mistake by taking a similar position. Before 2002, it may have been said, “Let’s not tell anybody because we’ll deal with the person. We don’t want to embarrass the family.” This is not an excuse, because this is terribly wrong and does not put the victim’s healing as the first priority. We need to be straightforward, we need to be transparent, we need to be honest about our sin.
What is church law regarding clerical sexual abuse?
If a priest is involved in sexual abuse of a minor, it’s not only a civil crime but it’s also a criminal act within the church. Since the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People went into effect in 2002, it’s one strike and you’re out. If there is one case of sexual abuse – and it doesn’t make any difference when it occurred in a priest’s life – he is automatically taken out of ministry as a priest. I am the shepherd and promise to do everything I can to promote safe environment.
What happens when someone comes forward with an allegation?
If a parent or anyone else comes to us with an allegation that a priest has abused a child, the first thing we do is pick up the phone and call the police and say please investigate this immediately. We also do a very thorough investigation. It’s different if a person comes forward and says he or she was abused 40 years ago as a child. In most cases, the alleged abuser is dead, but we still take this very seriously and do an investigation to the extent that we can. In all of this, what we are most concerned about is the victim or the survivor. They have been hurt. Their heart is broken, their lives have been affected and sometimes devastated. I, as a leader of the church, want to be there for them and walk with them in that pain and suffering so that they can move toward that healing.
You’ve talked about repentance and purification of the church.
This is a time when our sin is public. We have to repent and go through purification. We have to make sure that the future is different. I beg people not to leave the church but to give us the opportunity to correct the wrongs.
You’ve also tried to give some context on how the church has responded to the sexual abuse crisis since 2002.
I want to be very careful here, because in no way am I minimizing the damage that has been done to abuse victims. The way much of this has been reported is that all of this abuse is going on today in our schools and our churches, and that’s not true. That’s why I’m asking people to give us a chance for purification and repentance and to change things. We have already begun that. Now, do we have a ways to go? Yes. But I would like people in the archdiocese to know that we have not had a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest in more than a decade. We have made progress. Some of our purification and repentance has taken place, and we still have ways to go. All of the cases I’ve been dealing with recently go back 30, 40, 50 and 60 years ago. We know a lot more now about pedophilia and sex abuse than we knew 30, 40, 50 and 60 years ago. We know that it’s really not treatable. That pattern will come back in a person’s life, so now we are dealing with it differently. Our safe environment program in the archdiocese is excellent. Anyone who works with a child or young person has to go through a background check and safe environment training, and that includes volunteers in our ministries. We have made significant progress since 2002. That’s why we can say with confidence that we have not had a credible allegation in more than a decade. In the last several years, the number of cases of sexual abuse of a child by a priest have been a handful or less throughout the whole nation, so progress has been made. That doesn’t make up for the pain of those who have been abused in the past, and I pray for them every day.
Has this taken a toll on you?
I have great pain in my heart. The church is my family, and when there is sex abuse in the family, I hurt. However, I also know that my hurt is not the same as it is for those who have been abused and for those who are survivors. Their hurt is unique and very different. People have called me and expressed their feelings of anger, heartbreak and disillusionment, and my feelings are the same. But I want people to remember: God is faithful, and we can repent. I really do believe we’re going through Calvary right now. We haven’t gotten to the top of the mountain, but we’re getting there, where the crucifixion takes place. After that, I do believe that Jesus’ accepting our repentance will lead us to renewal and a sense of new life. But that’s going to take time. We will meet as a body of bishops in November to discuss and vote on a plan calling bishops to more accountability and giving lay people a confidential way to report allegations against bishops to a third party. These are just our first steps. Again, I would like to repeat a heartfelt invitation I have made the last several weeks: If anyone has been sexually abused by a member of the church in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, please call me.
Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.