One of the greatest responsibilities of the church is to advance the flourishing of its people in the joy of Gospel. Few things have threatened this more substantially than clergy abuse. We Oblates deeply regret that some of our members have committed this grave harm. While we have worked to heal, to apologize, and to take responsibility for these sins, our work continues. We welcome you to visit this section of our website to learn more about our efforts to provide safe environments for all people, especially the youth, to flourish.
Oblate Provincial Responds to Questions on Healing from Abuse
As the provincial of the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, I am responsible for the care, assignment, formation, and supervision of the priests, brothers, and seminarians in our community. I was elected provincial in January 2008.
Below are a number of questions that I have been asked about the Province’s response to sexual abuse. If you have a question that you would like me to address, please submit it through firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 302-656-8529.
It is possible that your question may address a matter that I am not permitted to discuss because I am required to respect the limits of legal proceedings. If this is the case, I will respond to your email, but I may not be able to address your question directly.
In advance, I thank you for your question.
Rev. James J. Greenfield, OSFS
Q: When an Oblate is alleged to have abused a young person, what happens?
A: Anytime an allegation of sexual abuse, which is not initially shown to be manifestly false or frivolous, is made against an Oblate, that man is removed from ministry until a full investigation is conducted. If the information gathered shows that he is guilty of the abuse, he is permanently removed from public ministry as a priest or brother.
Since we Oblates are members of a religious community, we are responsible to provide housing for all of our men, whether they are in active ministry, retired, or infirmed. In a similar fashion, we provide for our men who are guilty of abuse. Presently, they are assigned to an Oblate community that is not attached to a public ministry of the church.
Q: How is the investigation conducted?
A: If the allegation is brought to our attention through a lawsuit, we are required to cooperate with the legal process and the outlined methods of discovery.
If the allegation is filed with the civil authorities about a recent incident, we cooperate with the various investigations that they lead.
If the allegation is not in reference to a recent incident, we will still contact the authorities and will hire an independent investigator to gather the necessary information. As Provincial, I will contact the Review Board, an independent committee of psychologists, counselors, social workers, and lawyers, who will make recommendations about the disposition of the case based on the information submitted by the investigator. The proceedings of the Review Board are monitored by Praesidium, the agency that accredits the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales for following industry standards in abuse risk-reduction.
Q: What happens to a man after he is removed from ministry?
A: I have assigned all men removed from ministry to live in an Oblate community that is not attached to a public ministry of the church. They have no public ministry. Some are involved in caring for the needs of our retired men.
As part of the recommendations of the Review Board, each man is given a Safety Plan that outlines the protocols that he must follow and details the activities in which he may or may not participate. This plan clarifies the daily life of the man. He is supervised directly by a trained member of his community. He must seek explicit permission to leave that property. In some cases, he will be accompanied by a companion. Safety Plans are reviewed annually by the Review Board.
Q: What has been the response to victims of sexual abuse by Oblates?
A: I believe that we Oblates have been caring, responsible, and just in our response to sexual abuse. I would like to comment on each.
Caring. Because I am a priest, I seek to help in the healing of anyone who is hurting, especially if this suffering was caused by an Oblate. It has been my practice since I have been provincial to reach out to listen to anyone who alleges abuse. Sometimes, this offer has not been accepted. Other times, I am prohibited by law because a suit has been filed, and my offering to meet with an alleged victim may be seen as potentially interfering. But, in those instances where alleged victims have met with me, I have experienced them as sincerely hurting, understandably angry, and desirous of healing. It has been my experience that they leave with a sense that we Oblates are willing and committed to helping them. And, I am left feeling the deep pain that sexual abuse causes. These meetings have taught me a great deal about the evil of abuse and the power of healing. They have changed my understanding of ministry in ways I never imagined. I am a better priest because of these experiences. I also hope that I am a better leader in the Church because of them, too.
Responsible. From my days studying Latin, I remember “responsible” coming from the word “to offer in return.” We Oblates have offered to help with the healing of abuse, providing counseling to anyone who has alleged abuse, even if the allegation was found not to be credible. As an effort to help someone who is suffering and as a gesture to our commitment to healing in general, we have worked to support people who are struggling. Part of this responsibility is a sincere apology. I have been moved by the power of people hearing me say, “I am sorry,” when they have been hurt by us. Sorrow is part of this responsibility. To anyone harmed by an Oblate, we say sincerely, “We are sorry, and we will help you heal.” Also, I have been moved to hear people say, “I accept your apology,” or “Thank you for listening.” Such simple words have taken on vast meaning for me.
Just. Justice is a foundational call for all Christians, and we Oblates take this Gospel imperative very seriously. As provincial, I have seen restorative justice in action as we have met with victims of abuse and their family members, and provided for the necessary services and resources that help them to heal. What’s more, biblical justice is taking responsibility for our relationships, and this applies directly to our ministry of healing. The relationships we have with the people we have served—and those we may have harmed—stand as a priority for pastoral care. Here, we are responsible to ensure that our people grow in ongoing environments of trust. I believe that we are doing this through helping people to heal from past wounds and making sure there are no more in the future.
Q: What are the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales doing to make sure that children and young people are safe now and in the future?
A: A great deal. Before my election as provincial, my ministry included coordinating the Province’s accreditation by Praesidium, an independent agency that certifies service groups in their compliance with industry standards for the prevention of abuse to children and young people. This process is similar to a school seeking accreditation to ensure that its academic and co-curricular programs are complying with national standards for learning and teaching.
Part of this effort was the training of all Oblates in identifying signs of abuse and reporting abuse. Additionally, our recruitment and formation (seminary) programs were evaluated for their ability to screen candidates before they are admitted to ministry. Finally, we participate in a process that involves lay people to help us implement these accreditation standards. I consult with the Review Board when I have questions. To date, I have accepted every recommendation they have made. I see their input as social workers, counselors, and lawyers as essential. Most important, though, is their perspective as parents and grandparents. I value their natural instincts as moms and dads in protecting children.
Q: What is your advice to anyone who may have been abused?
A: Get help as soon as possible, and report the abuse to the appropriate authorities. The pain of sexual abuse is deep, and healing is a necessary part of recovering the wholeness that is lost to the evil of sexual abuse. The suffering caused by this evil, especially when inflicted by a priest, brother, or seminarian, needs the attention of trained professionals to begin a process of healing. It is my prayer that anyone impacted by sexual abuse would come forward for help. I ask them to contact Kate McCauley, our victim assistance coordinator, for help. Her number is 703-525-1555. She will guide a person who has been abused through the different steps of seeking help and healing.
Q: Do you initiate or insist on confidentiality agreements when allegations are brought to your attention?
A: No. In fact, I do not believe that we Oblates have ever initiated or insisted on a confidentiality agreement. By law, we are required to contact the appropriate civil authorities when criminal behavior is reported to us, and these authorities then conduct necessary investigations. Furthermore, any civil litigation in which we have been involved has not resulted in a confidentiality agreement at our initiative.
Our Praesidium Accreditation publicly demonstrates that the Wilmington-Philadelphia Province of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales has achieved the highest industry standards in abuse prevention and response. Visit website.praesidiuminc.com for more information.