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Race, sexual abuse of children top U.S. bishops' agenda in St. Louis

Protecting children and removing abusers from the Catholic Church should be among the top priorities of a national assembly of 250 Catholic bishops meeting in St. Louis, a church leader told the bishops on Wednesday.

Francesco Cesareo, the chair of the national review lay board, called on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to improve its annual audit of U.S. dioceses' work on protecting children and removing abusers from the church. Cesareo said audits should include adults who commit “boundary violations” — generally touching in non-sexual ways — because these violators sometime move on to sexual abuse. Spotting problems early can help reduce abuses, he said.

Among the 188 dioceses audited in 2014, six cases of abuse by Catholic priests nationwide were found. "Bishops should not conclude that sexual abuse of minors is a thing of the past with six new abuse cases nationwide," Cesareo said, adding that the safety of children and healing of victims should always be at the top of the bishops' concern.

At a news conference Wednesday, the conference president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville said the Vatican announcement that Pope Francis is setting up a group to oversee bishops who fail to remove abusive priests will be helpful to bishops who want to keep children safe.

Ferguson's shadow

In his opening remarks, Kurtz made a clear reference to Ferguson and the death of Michael Brown, saying he "mourns tragic event in which African Americans and others have lost their lives in altercations with law enforcement officials."

STL Archdiocese photo of Joseph Cardinal Ritter
Cardinal Joseph Ritter

It was not a surprising remark. Almost since the founding of the conference in the 1960s, Catholic bishops have spoken out about the evil and sinfulness of racism. Kurtz also recalled that St. Louis Catholics have a history of racial inclusion.

"Here we are in St. Louis where in 1947 Cardinal Joseph Ritter integrated Catholic schools well before the 1954 Supreme Court Decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. It shows the Catholic church can be at the forefront of promoting justice in racial tensions," he said.

Kurtz suggested that those concerned with racism make sure that Catholic parishes and neighborhoods welcome of families of different racial and religious backgrounds. He also said people should get to know local law enforcement officers and express their support and gratitude.

Underscoring the importance of the issue, the bishops were attending a late afternoon Mass at the Cathedral Basilica where they can see a large mosaic of Ritter and black and white St. Louis Catholic school children together.

Social media and the church

Archbishop John Wester, the new Santa Fe shepherd, recalled a conversation with his friend, Father Dan Dorsey, as Dorsey's nephew Jack was tweeting the priest. Wester was amazed by what he considered the trivial comments that Jack was tweeting and said the young nephew  “was wasting time when he should be studying.”

Credit (Twitter)

Wester laughed at at himself as he told the story to the bishops — and flashed a photo of Jack Dorsey, a graduate of Bishop DuBourg High School and the founder of Twitter.

Wester now used the social media platform, as many bishops do, seeing it as an evangelical tool. He urged other bishops to be on edge of new media as a way of evangelism.

He also called Pope Francis' visit to East Coast Sept. 22-27 an important evangelical event and said a new app to be launched in mid-July will help “to bring the church closer to Catholics and Catholics closer to the church,” Wester said.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia gave the 250 Catholic bishops in attendance the basics about  the pope's visit Sept. 26 and 27 visit to his town for a special meeting on the family, which will include 130 speakers addressing family issues. Between 1 million and 2 million are expected to worship at the the outdoor Sunday Mass. Most events will be translated into at least five languages. About half of the 10,000 volunteers needed have signed up. He called the work "overwhelming" but a blessing for the U.S. at a time when "even the definition of family is confusing."

The church and climate change

Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami discussed the pope's new encyclical due out next Thursday. Before  the full assembly, the archbishop stressed that the poor have contributed least to climate change but suffer the most.

He is also recalled that going back to the book of Genesis, the scripture has called on humankind to cultivate and care for the earth and resist the culture of waste and its effect on the poor.

“The pope's is a voice that will transcend" the controversy over climate change, he said. Since 1991 the bishops have issued climate change statements, covering many themes that pope will cover, Wenski said. Pope Benedict was called the green pope for installing solar panels and other alternative energy products in Vatican City.

In Africa, the expanding Sahara desert has driven farmers off their lands, leading to economic insecurity and making up-rooted people vulnerable to upheavals in undemocratic governments, Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, N.M., told the assembly. The impact of the diminished bounty of the earth falls largely on the poor.

The morning session ended on a hopeful note with an update on Catholic relief and other Catholic efforts,  especially those helping to rebuild Haiti after is devastating earthquake.

Waiting for the Supreme Court

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone won the most sustained applause this afternoon for his talk about how the bishops can be ready to respond the Supreme Court's decision on same-sex marriage. He said bishops need to listen to wonderful examples of families and share their stories. He finds lay people eager to defend the traditional definition of marriage.

Off the floor, some bishops wondered if American Catholics might just let the civil authorities perform legal, same-sex marriages and leave the sacrament of matrimony to the church.That is what French bishops and those in other nations do but none of those who spoke to with St. Louis Public Radio were willing to speak on the record.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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