In Pursuit of Safety, Justice and Healing

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In the midst of turmoil and trials, pain and suffering, war and violence, poverty and disease, our world needs the Savior to come. This is especially true for the Church that I serve as priest and pastor. For there’s no avoiding the painful reality that recent reports from around the country about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church are reminders of past failures to protect young people for which there is simply no excuse. They are occasions of great pain and suffering that call for justice and healing.

As a priest and a Catholic, I wish I could turn back the clock on the tragic, shameful things that happened here in Rhode Island in the past. But that’s just not possible.

However, I do take some (small) solace in the knowledge that over the last 25 years our Diocese has established a commitment to safety, justice and healing that earnestly seeks to atone for the past in a forthright way and to protect our young people in the future.

Today, our Office of Compliance is led by Major Kevin O’Brien, a retired 23-year veteran of the R.I. State Police. For nearly two decades under Mr. O’Brien and his predecessor this office has promptly reported every single allegation of abuse to law enforcement, including the R.I. State Police in the pursuit of justice.

The Diocese also has a protocol where we report every single allegation of abuse to the R.I. Attorney General as well. This is a level of disclosure and transparency that is not required by law, but reflects our commitment to seek justice for victims, and punishment for abusers.

At the same time, the Diocese established an Office of Outreach & Prevention, which works to protect young people and to provide healing for victims. Led by Dr. Mike Hansen, a practicing psychologist in Rhode Island for 26 years, this office responds immediately to newly reported cases with compassion and caring, ensuring that victims receive support and referrals for needed counseling. It also oversees Safe environment training for all clergy and employees and volunteers at our Catholic schools, parishes, and other diocesan organizations and conducts 4,000 background checks every year.

The R.I. General Assembly begins a new legislative session this month. One of the many issues before our elected officials next year will be the discussion about how best to provide justice and healing for victims of abuse. We welcome the opportunity to engage in the process in a respectful, constructive way that seeks an approach that is fair and just.

One element of this issue will be how to amend the state’s approach to the statute of limitations in these cases. In recent months, and as we have done in the past, the Diocese has considered many ways to achieve a fair result. Some have suggested that we model our legislation after approaches taken by neighboring states. Many aspects of these approaches might offer a starting point for elected officials and all those involved to begin crafting sound public policy that is fair and just and truly serves the common good.

This New Year is exciting because it is filled with promise and opportunity. As the New Year commences, we hope to continue to find new ways to find safety, justice and healing for all in our community.

Father Bernard Healey is pastor of Our Lady of Mercy in East Greenwich and servers as director of the Rhode Island Catholic Conference.