To my Salesian brothers and dear members of the Salesian Family,
On August 14, a Pennsylvania grand jury report was released which stated that more than 1,000 children had been abused by hundreds of Catholic priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses. It also stated that Church officials had tried to cover up these crimes. On August 20, Pope Francis wrote a letter to the People of God, expressing sorrow, shame, and the need for repentance in the face of such evils as abuse of children, abuse of power, and abuse of conscience. More recently, during his visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, the Pope again met with survivors of abuse and with great boldness spoke of the filth in the Church. He begged for forgiveness for a litany of abuses committed by members of the Church—those with roles of responsibility, consecrated religious, those who did nothing to stop the abuses, those who showed no compassion to survivors of abuse. We, Salesian religious and the Salesian Family, acknowledge that the wounds caused by abuse never disappear. With the Pope, we feel the shame and sorrow of abuse caused by our own members, we apologize to all those affected by abuse, and with deep conviction, we renew our pledge to create safe environments in our communities and educational-pastoral presences.
Care for Survivors, Families, and Communities
Our first concern is the pastoral care of survivors of abuse. Where people have experienced cruelty, pain and grief, by God’s grace we seek to be instruments of hope and healing. This includes having a leader of the province ready to meet in person with someone who alleges abuse. We also are ready to provide counseling that can help in the process of healing. We realize that abuse devastates not only the life of individuals, but also families and whole communities. As disciples of Jesus, we stand with the little ones and the vulnerable, striving to protect them from all harm, condemning any sin against their inherent dignity and integrity.
Renewal of Our Commitment to Follow Province Policies
Fifteen years ago, the Salesians of Don Bosco developed province policies in line with the USCCB Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the CMSM Standards for the Protection of Minors. These policies give us practical steps on how to identify abuse, how to prevent it, and how to report it. Each year the SDBs, employees, and volunteers review these policies and renew our commitment to follow them. They are a positive effort on our part to create safe environments in all our communities and apostolic presences, and a specific way of practicing the Preventive System. By following these policies faithfully, the province has been accredited twice by Praesidium, Inc.
The policies include requirements for a thorough screening of new candidates for our formation program, background checks for new and current members, specific systems of support and accountability, annual on-going education in protecting children and vulnerable adults, the means of holding the local and provincial leadership accountable, etc. There is an established protocol to follow when someone makes an accusation of abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult, which includes removing the accused from contact with children until the allegations can be investigated and the credibility of the allegations can be determined. We have reported and will continue to report all allegations of abuse to the law enforcement and ecclesial authorities. We work with an independent regional review board. No one with a credible accusation against him/her is allowed contact with children. We also commit ourselves to follow the code of conduct of the dioceses in which we serve.
Involve the Lay Community, Young People, and Their Families
The Salesian mission to educate and evangelize young people is shared with lay collaborators—both employees and volunteers. The young people and their families are also protagonists in this mission. All members of the Salesian Family, lay and religious, the young and their families, have an active role to play in preventing every form of abuse and responding appropriately to any report of abuse. The Salesians of Don Bosco and leaders of our educational-pastoral communities share responsibility to involve everyone in creating a safe environment. This might mean parent education sessions, class time set aside for this topic, bulletin or newsletter announcements about what to do if someone wants to report abuse, etc. Often the dioceses have good programs and other resources that have been developed to educate and empower the young people and their families to help create safe environments.
Prayer and Fasting
The abuse of a minor by anyone is a horrible crime; it is even worse when the abuse is committed by a leader in the Church. As part of the repentance and conversion needed in our religious communities and in the Church, the Pope calls us to prayer and fasting. I ask the leaders of each Salesian educational-pastoral community to decide how their Salesian presence will heed the Pope’s call. Allow me to offer a few examples.
At the open forum during the August retreat in Stony Point, some confreres were already sharing ideas for prayer services with students and faculty which could have a penitential and healing message.
We can join in the activities being organized by the diocese in which we serve. In the diocese of Erie, PA, September 15, the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows, is being set aside as a day of penitential prayer. The churches will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. On the same day in the Diocese of Bridgeport, CT, a holy hour with Rosary and a Mass of Reparation and Purification will be celebrated by the Bishop at the Cathedral of St. Augustine.
I suggest we consider fasting on a daily basis from the use of digital media during meals, so as to strengthen the interpersonal relationships in the community or family, which are essential supports in living our vocation with integrity.
We could fast from social media before Morning Prayer, starting every day with this simple reminder of the priority of God in our lives.
Of course there is the traditional fasting from food, but with other types of fasting the focus on interpersonal relationships, we will be able to give attention to the members of our communities and families, seeing each one as a brother or sister in Christ, with whom we grow in affective maturity.
We also would do well to fast from gossip.
How will your religious community and educational-pastoral community join the Church, the People of God, in prayer and fasting?
In the Preventive System, Don Bosco has given us a practical educational methodology, a profound spirituality, and an effective pastoral approach in the mission. The Salesian spirit and mission hold us to the high standards of the Gospel lived in the service of the young and the poor. We acknowledge that we have not always lived up to that high standard, and humbly ask the Lord to open our hearts and bring about the conversion of our structures, so that no young person will ever be harmed again.
With trust in the Lord, who welcomed the little children and blessed them, let us work to rebuild the trust of those to whom we are sent and those with whom we live and work.
Fr. Tim Zak, SDB