Your Holiness,

Though our churches differ in many ways, we believe in the same God. As your brother in Christ, it pains me to see Catholics struggle with your response to recent allegations of sex abuse by priests. Since my denomination has also battled these demons, I want to share what I have learned as a bishop of the Episcopal Church.

About 20 years ago, our church became aware of sex abuse by our clergy here in the United States. To our shame, we learned of it in lawsuits filed by victims alleging that some of our bishops had minimized the seriousness of the abuse and/or swept their claims under the rug.

Some cases were related to the abuse of children; others involved male clergy who took advantage of their pastoral relationship with vulnerable women. These men violated the sacred trust placed in clergy to focus on parishioners’ needs and to separate those needs from their own. To prevent further such abuses of power, we moved quickly for the good of the victims and of our church.

Whether civil courts recognize a statute of limitations, the church must hold its clergy members accountable to their vows to be faithful shepherds of their people. In 1994, the Episcopal Church opened a two-year window of opportunity to hear complaints about priestly abuse of the pastoral relationship with adults.

Just because an event occurred many years ago did not make it any less egregious, especially since perpetrators rarely have only one victim. We addressed all complaints through our canonical disciplinary process.

As for instances involving children, we have no statute of limitations on reporting abuse. Those suspected of committing child abuse are immediately reported to the civil authorities for investigation.

Rather than refusing to acknowledge our transgressions, we sought to alter our church’s culture, which took no small amount of courage.

In my diocese in New Hampshire, and across the Episcopal Church, we perform a thorough background check on every bishop, priest or deacon who serves under my authority. We correspond with every employer the clergyperson has ever had and every bishop under whom the clergyperson has ever served to determine whether there is a history of complaints.

While procedures vary from diocese to diocese, we here in New Hampshire require six hours of abuse-prevention training for clergy and all church employees, youth workers and parish leaders, with a refresher course required every five years. Events with and for children must always be conducted with two adults who are always in view of each other. This protects children and adults, who might be falsely charged.

We want everyone to know how to report suspected abuse. We want to keep the issue before clergy and laity alike.

But the thing victims most want to hear from the church, especially its leadership, is: “I am so sorry. This should never have happened to you, especially here. We are going to do everything in our power to see that nothing like this happens again.”

Victims, who know their horrific experiences can never be undone, seek assurance that the church will change the system that allows abuse and take action to hold perpetrators accountable. Child abusers do not deserve protection; they must be reported immediately to civil authorities and prosecuted.

The Christian church has been wrong before, from the Inquisition and the Crusades down to our defense of slavery and denigration of women. Over time, the church has repented and sought to change its ways. Sexual abuse by clergy also calls for repentance and reform.

I would not presume to instruct you, nor would I impose upon you advice you’ve not sought. But I do offer you the benefit of my experience as you seek to deal responsibly with these challenges to your church’s integrity. Your letter to the faithful in Ireland and your meeting in Malta with victims were a good start.

But it is wrong for gay men to be scapegoated in this scandal. As a gay man, I know the pain and the verbal and physical violence that can come from the myth, now thoroughly debunked, connecting homosexuality and the abuse of children. Representatives of and advocates for the Roman Catholic Church have blamed sexual abuse on gay priests. These people know, or should know, that every reputable scientific study shows that homosexuals are no more or less likely to be child abusers than heterosexuals. Psychologically healthy homosexual men are no more drawn to little boys than psychologically healthy heterosexual men are drawn to little girls.

Sexual activity with children or teens is child abuse. Meaningful consent is impossible, by definition, for the underaged. You will not rid your church of sexual abuse by expelling homosexuals. Gay priests have served God responsibly throughout Catholic history. To deprive them of their pulpits is a tragedy for the people they serve and for the church. Yours is a problem of sexual abuse, not orientation.

I will pray for your church and for you, as I hope you will pray for my church and for me. In Luke 12:2-3, Jesus tells us: “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the rooftops.”

And may God have mercy on our souls.

Your brother in Christ,

V. Gene Robinson


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