Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany wrote to the clerics of his local Church Sunday, saying that abuse of authority and sexual abuse by clerics is, more than a crisis of policies and procedures, a spiritual crisis.
His comments come amid a scandal centered on Theodore McCarrick, the Archbishop Emeritus of Washington. Last month the Archdiocese of New York announced that it had concluded an investigation into an allegation that McCarrick had sexually abused a teenager, finding the claim to be “credible and substantiated.” Since then, media reports have detailed additional allegations, charging that McCarrick sexually abused, assaulted, or coerced seminarians and young priests during his time as a bishop.
McCarrick resignation from the office of cardinal was accepted by Pope Francis on Saturday.
“Let me be clear,” Bishop Scharfenberger wrote, “in stating my firm conviction that this is, at heart, much more than a crisis of policies and procedures. We can – and I am confident that we will – strengthen the rules and regulations and sanctions against any trying to fly under the radar or to 'get away with' such evil and destructive behaviors. But, at its heart, this is much more than a challenge of law enforcement; it is a profoundly spiritual crisis.”
The Bishop of Albany's July 29 letter was sent to clerics and seminarians, as well as parish life directors and department heads at the diocesan chancery.
He began by reflecting on the betrayal of Christ, saying that “Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, many of our faithful are now feeling betrayed and abandoned by their spiritual fathers, especially the bishops.”
“No doubt you have been and will be hearing from your people about how shaken and discouraged they are over public revelations of despicable behavior on the part of a very popular and charismatic Cardinal with priests and seminarians in his care.”
Bishop Scharfenberger shared that he had been texted by a friend who conveyed “his family’s utter despondency over this and that the USCCB should disband itself: '[t]heir credibility is shot, probably for decades.'”
The bishop said that further “words are not going to repair, let alone restore, the damage that has been done. Lawyering, pledges and changes in the bureaucratic structures and policy – however well intentioned – cannot do it either. I do not see how we can avoid what is really at the root of this crisis: sin and a retreat from holiness, specifically the holiness of an integral, truly human sexuality.”
Bishop Scharfenberger repeated “as clearly and directly” as he could the Church's teaching that sexual activity outside a valid marriage is a grave sin: “A cardinal is not excused from what alayperson or another member of the clergy is not … This is what our faith teaches and what we are held to in practice. There is no 'third way.'”
Gravely sinful sexual activity outside marriage “includes grooming and seduction,” the bishop wrote. Such acts of McCarrick were detailed by a priest of the Diocese of Albany, who was once a seminarian under the former cardinal, in an interview with America magazine published July 25.
“The psychological and spiritual destructiveness of such predatory behavior, really incestuous by a man who is held up as a spiritual father to a son in his care – even if not a minor – cannot be minimized or rationalized in any way,” Bishop Scharfenberger wrote. “On that, it seems to me, we are experiencing an unusual unity amidst the many political and ecclesial tensions in our communities.”
“Abuse of authority – in this case, with strong sexual overtones – with vulnerable persons is hardly less reprehensible than the sexual abuse of minors, which the USCCB attempted to address in 2002.”
He noted that the Charter for the Protection of Young People, adopted by the USCCB in 2002, “unfortunately … did not go far enough so as to hold cardinals, archbishops and bishops equally, if not more, accountable than priests and deacons.”
Bishop Scharfenberger said he believes the vast majority of clerics “live or, at least, are striving to live holy and admirable lifestyles. I am ashamed of those of my brothers, such as the Cardinal, who do not and have not. As your Bishop, you can be sure of my support for you and all the faithful during this very difficult time.”
He expressed gratitude for “all of those who have come forward to expose these patterns of sin in the lives of some – as well the institutional sins of denial and suppression of those brave witnesses whose warnings went unheard or unheeded, so that some of the harm might have been prevented.”
“I hope and pray that others who may have suffered such traumatic experiences at the hands of their spiritual fathers will find the courage to say so. To you, if you are among them, and to them I offer my support and assistance in any way the resources I have can muster.”
Bl. Paul VI's Humanae vitae “prophetically warned … of the long-range consequences of the separation of sexuality and sexual behavior from the conjugal relationship,” he said.
“Contemporary culture in our part of the world now holds it normative that sex and sexual gratification between any consenting persons for any reason that their free wills allow is perfectly acceptable. This is not a sexuality befitting of human beings that responds to the need and true desire of every human person to be respected and loved fully and unconditionally.”
Clerics “must practice what we preach and teach,” he emphasized. “We also need to uphold what our faith proclaims about the gift and beauty of human sexuality, fully lived in its essential conjugal meaning.”
“A culture of virtue and chastity – in short, personal holiness – rooted in a trusting and committed relationship with Jesus Christ is the path toward healing and wholeness, even as we seek to drive the evil behaviors among us from the womb of the Church.”
Bishop Scharfenberger commended preparation for a Eucharistic Congress as “a time of spiritual renewal for all of us seeking to follow in the footsteps of our Lord and Master who was himself betrayed by his closest friends, but died for us to save us from ourselves and to offer us a way to living our humanity fully in this life and in the heaven to come.”