So much changed this past Aug. 13 when Father Angel Perez, Pastor of St. Luke’s Church in Woodburn, was arrested because he had been accused of abusing a minor.  Until then most of us thought we had turned the corner on the terrible tragedy of child abuse here in this archdiocese. Policies for the protection of children were in place and seemed to be taken seriously in most parishes by parishioners and staff.  We were hopeful.

But I should have remembered those words from the First Letter of St. Peter that the church prays every Tuesday at Night Prayer, “Stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”  Yes, the evil one is clever and will not rest. One of our own children did not get protected from the hand of an abuser, a man who had given his life to protect people from evil. As your archbishop, I feel angry, frustrated and helpless. But such sentiments serve no useful purpose. We cannot let discouragement and failure lead us to abandon our sincere efforts to protect our children from all such abuse.  

I am truly sorry that one of our own children has been violated by one of our own priests.  I extend my heartfelt sympathy to the young man, to his family, to the parishioners of St. Luke’s Church and to all of you. This is a time of shame for the church.  Once again it will likely be a time for people to walk away from the church because of her human failings. I can understand such a decision, but sincerely believe it is a mistake. It is the church, all of us called to be disciples in mission, which has the best opportunity to bring healing and reconciliation to all involved. Why? Because, in God’s inexplicable plan, he extends his mercy and peace through us. To many that might not seem now like a very good plan. But it is God’s plan and I want to do what I can to make it a success. I hope you do, too.

It was back in October of 2002 that I, as archbishop, signed off on a revised Archdiocesan Child Abuse Policy.  We did this as a sincere effort to ensure the safety of children entrusted to our care.  At the time I stated that, “The safety of children entrusted to our care and the healing of abuse survivors are important church priorities.  They are concerns I share with all archdiocesan personnel.” The new features of that policy included:  the appointment of a Child Protection Officer to assist parishes and schools in implementing the Child Abuse Policy and developing “safe environment” programs; encouraging direct reporting of suspected child abuse to civil authorities; and  the designation of an in-house Assistance Coordinator to coordinate response in situations of reported child abuse.

On our darkest days, it is good to look for some light.  How reassuring it was to learn that there was no delay on the part of those who had learned of the abuse in reporting it to civil authorities. It is clear that church personnel and parents have helped children understand they need not be afraid or hesitant to tell trusted adults about behavior they’ve experienced which they found to be uncomfortable or abusive. The youngster in this case ran away from harm and was immediately assisted by those he met. I do not believe that would have been the scenario in a similar situation some 25 years ago.  

In that 2002 policy we also stated that “the response of the archdiocese in cases of child abuse by any of its personnel must also address the pastoral needs of the victim, the well-being of the community, and the assessment and treatment of the offender.” It was furthermore stated that “care is to be taken that all involved will be treated in a manner that is consistent with the gospel values of dignity, compassion, understanding, and justice, as well as those standards that are normative in the wider professional community.”  

Here too I am pleased that policy has been observed. Efforts have already been made and will continue to be made to reach out to the victim and his family and to communicate our sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being. Archdiocesan staff and neighboring pastoral ministers, including priests, have reached out to parishioners and staff at St. Luke’s Church to assist them in their time of grieving and confusion. I myself was able to visit the parish staff the day after the pastor’s arrest.  Msgr. Dennis O’Donovan, my Vicar General, spoke at all the Masses to parishioners on the following Sunday.  A newly appointed priest-administrator, Father John Henderson, and our Victim’s Assistance Coordinator, Cathy Shannon, visited people and personnel of St. Luke’s several days after all the charges of criminal activity had been reported.

Ten years ago when our Child Abuse Policy was promulgated, a statement was made that may not have seemed so significant at the time. “It is recognized that no policy in itself prevents abuse or harm.  It is vigilance that prevents abuse and sees that no child, no one at all, is victimized by such sinful and hurtful behavior.”  What troubles me now as we learn about this incident of child abuse is the possibility that we were not as vigilant as we should have been.  The “we” includes all of us, parishioners, friends, colleagues and co-workers of the accused and myself. Were there signs that gave some indication that all was not well? The reluctance to report bad news about someone we love or respect can impede the appropriate vigilance we should maintain in our efforts to protect children and avoid abuse. This is an examination of conscience we all must make. Whatever we can do to improve such vigilance in the future, we must do.

Lastly, in that now 10-year-old policy, we reminded ourselves that a truly sacred relationship exists between our church and its members.  Child abuse of any kind is a matter of grave concern.  When we find out about such abuse the situation definitely calls for a special response so that the safety of children and the community in the future will be assured and healing can take place. That is the work in which we are presently engaged. The focus of many in the community has been upon the accused, his future, his incarceration, his lost ministry.  This is, of course, a great tragedy for Father Perez and he will pay the price for his crime. But this can be no cause for satisfaction on the part of any of us unless we do our part to support healing and reconciliation and to create the safe environment needed so that such abuse will not occur again on our watch.

The courts of law have now been set in motion to do justice.  It is our sincere hope that Father Perez will be punished justly for his own crime but not for the crimes of others who seemingly have escaped the sufferings, isolation and pain he will suffer for the rest of his life.  As people of faith, we know deep in our hearts that God’s forgiveness is extended to the most despicable criminals.  Can we extend our forgiveness to Father Perez? I don’t know. I hope so. Forgiveness, however, does not exclude the consequences of justice.

As for the youngster and his family, we must do what we can to support them, bless them and pray for them. This too is a time to turn to Jesus.  We know from Scripture that he clearly loved children.  He welcomed them. He embraced them. He blessed them. His example will hopefully inspire our own efforts to bring healing to this youngster and all who have suffered as a result of this very real and present human tragedy.