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Bishop Barnes holds forum to hear concerns and brainstorm actions in response to sexual abuse crisis

SAN BERNARDINO—The Diocese finds itself, along with the rest of U.S. Church, once again engulfed in the clergy sexual abuse crisis, spurred by the Aug. 8 release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on six dioceses, and earlier public revelations on the history of sexual abuse and harassment by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. 

 Bishop Gerald Barnes issued a statement on the crisis in the days following the release of the Grand Jury Report (read it in full on page 2). As expressions of anger, sadness and calls for action in response continued to pour in, the Bishop convened an Aug. 28 meeting of the priests and deacons of the Diocese, the Council of Religious Sisters, members of the Diocesan Review Board, Seminarians and lay directors of Diocesan offices.

 “When we listen to the details of the atrocities that were committed, what was done sickens us,” Bishop Barnes said of the Pennsylvania report. “We may come to some understanding about why these things take place but there is no excuse for them.”

 Bishop Barnes also addressed the appearance of then Cardinal McCarrick at the Combined Vicariate Meetings at the Diocesan Pastoral Center a decade ago, and with it the question of whether he had any knowledge of McCarrick’s history of abuse.

 “I swear to you today I didn’t know anything about it,” Bishop Barnes said. “I did admire him but I didn’t know this dark side of him.”

 During the all-day forum, which was facilitated by Catholic Charities CEO Ken Sawa, participants were invited to share in small groups how the re-emergence of the crisis is affecting them, personally, and in their ministries. Father Mark Bertelli, Pastor of St. Mary of the Valley in Yucca Valley, said he immediatley talked to parishioners and preached about the stories regarding McCarrick, and more recently the Pennsylvania report, with his congregation.

 “It had to be addressed,” he said. “There’s a great frustration among the people—how this could happen. They don’t want it hidden anymore.”

 For Father Amaro Samuell, the abuse crisis represents a betrayal of Christ and his Church that Samuell traces all the way back to Judas Iscariot. 

 “When people have power they often abuse that power,” said Fr. Samuell, Pastor of St. Ann Parish in Needles. “God expected it [to happen].”

 Those at the gathering were then asked to brainstorm and write down potential actions that the Diocese can take to address the crisis, promoting greater transparency and accountability. 

 Among the actions suggested were:

 • Publishing and posting the names of those credibly accused of sexual abuse in the Diocese

 • A Grand Jury type of review of Diocesan archives/files on clergy sex abuse cases

 • Town hall meetings allowing parishioners to air grievances and ask questions of Diocesan leadership

 • Liturgical responses such as Reparation Masses or a Day of Atonement

 • Annual reports distributed publicly on personnel actions related to sexual abuse or harassment cases

 • Lay input in the naming of new bishops

 • An audit of the diocesan seminarian program

 Many suggestions also called for the creation of lay boards, panels or ministries that would provide ethical oversight in the enforcement of Diocesan sexual abuse policies, and investigation of cases that are brought forward. One group called this kind of proposed body the “Office of the Defender of the People.” Another group proposed what it called the “Diocesan Internal Affairs Review Board.”

 It was noted at the gathering that since 2002 there has been a Diocesan Review Board that reviews all allegations of clergy sexual abuse and provides a recommended course of action to Bishop Barnes. It is made up of lay ministers, clergy, law enforcement professionals, the legal community and psychiatric professionals. Marty Swanson, a retired judge and a charter member of the Board, attended the Aug. 28 gathering and asserted that the Diocese already has a good story to tell in this area.

 “We have one of the most forward thinking bishops in the country,” Swanson said. “He listens to what the Board has to say. He does not interfere with our deliberations and discussions.”

 Swanson noted that in national audits conducted to gauge compliance with the U.S. Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the Diocese of San Bernardino is typically ranked in the top three.

 “I have confidence that our Diocese has done well, but we haven’t publicized it enough so that the common person can feel good about it,” said Kirsten Thorstad, Pastoral Coordinator of St. Martha Parish in Murrieta.

 An overarching theme of the brainstorming session, echoing many comments made in the wake of the crisis nationally, is that lay Catholics should have a greater role in the governance of the Church. Summarizing for his group, Father Duong Nguyen could not disagree.

 “The Church can be less hierarchal, more inclusive, more democratic,” said Fr. Nguyen, Pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral Parish in San Bernardino. 

 The suggestions offered at the meeting will be collated and reviewed by the advisory bodies of the Diocese to determine which ones might be implemented. Bishop Barnes indicated that local actions will be taken in the wake of the meeting.

 “We’ve got a lot of food for thought,” he said. “We will see what are some things we can do right now and what things will require some structural change.”

 Most agreed that Church leadership must follow-up its words of remorse and apology with corrective actions.

 “It was good sharing,” Thorstad said of the day. “Now we have to do something about it.”