Clergy Sex Abuse: Bishop Joseph Galante Responds

By Susan Hines-Brigger
Downloaded June 9, 2003

A member of the bishops' Committee on Sexual Abuse talks about the crisis and the future.

Bishop Joseph A. Galante, coadjutor of Dallas, Texas, remembers exactly when the enormity of the clergy sex-abuse crisis hit home for him. As a member of the U.S. bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, he has had the opportunity to listen to numerous stories of victims and their families.

One couple talked about their son who had been abused and committed suicide in his early 20s. "Altogether there were five young men who had committed suicide-all of whom were victims of the same priest," Bishop Galante says. "The horror of that, the pain that the families had experienced-that's mind-boggling."

"Horror" is a word Bishop Galante uses repeatedly to refer to the sex-abuse crisis. And he should know. As head of the U.S. bishops' Communications Committee, a position he has held since November 2000, Bishop Galante has had a front-row seat for the national fallout from the crisis. He has also served as a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, working to help get the message out on how the bishops are responding.

In addition to those two committees of the bishops' conference, Bishop Galante, who has a doctorate in canon law, also serves on the Canonical Affairs Committee. That committee is helping to set up the tribunals mandated by the Norms passed last November and made Church law for the United States the following month. All cases of credible accusations of abuse must be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. The Congregation will then decide whether or not they will judge the case themselves or refer it to the diocesan tribunals. The tribunals will determine whether an allegation of sexual abuse is true. If the allegation is found to be true, then "the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state" (Norms #8).

In mid-March, Bishop Galante spoke with St. Anthony Messenger about the crisis, the media coverage of it, the priesthood and what it will take for the Church to move forward.

Work Is Progressing

Bishop Galante says the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the accompanying Norms "is progressing." He points out that just that morning he had had a conference call concerning the training sessions held in Washington, D.C., for those involved in setting up the Church tribunals to hear abuse cases.

"There's a real commitment to deal in a canonical, juridical way with these cases and situations," he emphasizes.

Also in March, the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection announced that diocesan safe-environment programs to protect children and youth should be in the planning process by June 20, and fully implemented for the 2003-2004 school year. The adoption of such programs was called for in the Charter.

Not a New Issue

The issue of clergy sex abuse is not a new one for the U.S. bishops. They have been addressing it as a conference, in one way or another, for about the past 15 years.

In June 1992, the bishops established the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, which is currently overseeing the bishops' response to the current crisis, and of which Bishop Galante is a member.

At their November 1992 meeting, the U.S. bishops adopted five principles for dealing with cases of sex abuse. But as Bishop Galante pointed out to the Catholic Press Association in May 2002 in Minneapolis, "They were voluntary. And sadly, a number of bishops didn't follow them."

Those guidelines were:

. Respond promptly to all allegations of abuse where there is reasonable belief that abuse has occurred.

. If such an allegation is supported by sufficient evidence, relieve the alleged offender promptly of his ministerial duties and refer him for appropriate medical evaluation and intervention.

. Comply with the obligations of civil law with regard to reporting of the incident and cooperating with the investigation.

. Reach out to the victims and their families and communicate sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being.

. Within the confines of respect for the privacy of individuals involved, deal as openly as possible with the members of the community.

Bishop Galante became a bishop in 1992 when he was ordained as an auxiliary bishop in San Antonio, Texas. Two years later, he was named bishop of Beaumont, Texas. In 1999, he was appointed to his current position as the designated successor of Bishop Charles Grahmann in Dallas.

What's different now about the bishops' response to the problem? Bishop Galante thinks, "What's been different since the early '90s has been a greater awareness of the problem."

He notes that the conference has repeatedly had discussions and reports on the problem of clergy sex abuse throughout the '90s. "So much of what came out over the past year and a half was very much centered around abuse that happened before the '90s. There have been some since then, but the bulk of so many of these cases that came out go further back." He says he thinks the bishops have become "far more sensitive and aware for the last 10, 11, 12 years."

He does not, however, overlook the fact that mistakes have been made. During the past year he has been quoted as saying that "secrecy has killed us"; a number of criticisms made of the bishops "have merit" and the fact that some bishops reassigned abusers cannot be defended.

'They Reported What Was'

Since the latest round of this crisis started making news in January 2002, some Catholics-and many bishops-have chastised the media for its reporting. And reporters, as was evident both at the June 2002 meeting in Dallas and at the November 2002 bishops' meeting in Washington, D.C., have struggled to understand the intricacies of canon law and Church procedures.

Bishop Galante is quick to point out, "The media didn't create the problem, they reported it," but notes that their extensive reports did not always make it clear that so many of the cases were from the past. But, he reiterates, "I don't see the media as the villain. The media reported what was."

As for the media's struggle to report on Church issues, he chalks that up to individual perceptions and a lack of understanding of how the Church works. Numerous times during press conferences at the June and November 2002 meetings, Bishop Galante helped explain to reporters what his fellow bishops were struggling to make clear.

"We all tend to interpret things on the basis of our own experience, of our own perceptions," he says. "Oftentimes the interpretation of the Church would be the same interpretation as any large corporation. The problem is the Church isn't per se just a corporation," he explains.

The fact that the story continues to make headlines is, in a way, "a left-handed compliment, because it says priests are still held to a higher standard-to the standard that we profess we are called to live," he says. "And when we don't live it, then that makes news."

An Understanding of the Priesthood

A big issue that Bishop Galante believes has contributed negatively to the current crisis and must be addressed is a sense of privilege and entitlement that has been associated with the priesthood and episcopal leadership. He first spoke to the issue last June during the bishops' meeting in Dallas.

"Ordination to the priesthood brings about an interior, spiritual, theological change in a man," he notes. "However, what it should not grant that person is privilege and entitlement in a social setting.

"The Second Vatican Council talked about the fundamental equality of all the baptized. And within that community there are different roles and offices that are distinct. The priesthood is one of those roles.

"But when we lose sight of the mission, the calling to be a servant, be someone who is a guide, then we become self-centered and self-absorbed. We don't live out that vocation to which we are called. If [priests] see it as entitlement to special privileges, that's very unhealthy. We really need to reestablish that to be a disciple-a disciple of Jesus in the priesthood-is to die to self. It is to take up the cross each day and follow Jesus."

The True Meaning of Celibacy

Celibacy is another issue he thinks needs to be focused on as we move forward. No, he doesn't think it should be done away with, as many have suggested since the crisis broke. Rather, he believes there needs to be a greater understanding-by clergy and laity-of exactly what priestly celibacy means and represents.

"Too often priests and people think about celibacy in terms of just not getting married. That's not it. Celibacy is a positive orientation to life-to live and to love as Jesus does. It is a gift from God to enable us to love others as Jesus loves-without selfishness, without exclusivity, without keeping them for ourselves.

"A corollary to that gift of celibacy is that, because we're called to this kind of love, we can't devote ourselves exclusively to one other person, to a spouse. And also, we willingly make the sacrifice, if you will, of sexual activity in light of loving others in the way that Jesus loves others. It's not a negation. It's a positive orientation to life and that has to be more and more understood and appreciated first by celibates and then by our people."

Sadness and Horror

On a more personal level, Bishop Galante says he has dealt with the crisis "with a profound sense of sadness, and even-it may not be too strong to say-horror at the damage done to victims. That distresses me, disturbs me to no end." He says he also feels sadness for the perpetrators, and is determined "to see how we can prevent these things from happening in the future."

As for where the Church goes next, he believes this can be a "graced time" for the Church. "We always need to reform ourselves. Hopefully, this crisis gives us the opportunity to look at ourselves as Church, to look at our relationships in Church, to look at the meaning of the experience of the priesthood," he says.

A key component to that healing, he says, is for the clergy and laity to work together, adding that the laity are "very integral to the life of the Church."

The laity's role in the healing of the Church will be to "call the clergy to fidelity, at times challenge us and to interact without mythologizing the clergy," Bishop Galante emphasizes. "We have to see one another as brothers and sisters."

Steps Toward Healing

Bishop Galante knows that the healing process for the Church from this crisis will be a long and difficult one. He likewise realizes it will take time for the bishops to regain credibility. But he believes both will happen through "prayer, the acknowledgment of mistakes or faults, repentance for those faults, a firm purpose of commitment that this won't happen again-and also time.

"I think a lot of it has to come about by our interaction as bishops, by our commitments to safeguarding the children, by our visibility and our presence to the community and by just our commitment to be good shepherds. We've got to be shepherds."

He is realistic, though. "It's not going to come overnight. We shouldn't expect it to come overnight. We bishops have to work to have trust and respect. But we always should have to work for it."

At the end of the bishops' meeting this November, Bishop Galante will step down as chairman of the Communications Committee. He says he would love to continue serving-on that committee and others-seeking ways to address the crisis facing the Church.

Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of this magazine and a graduate of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio.


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