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Bishop Paul Sirba: Past abuse of children calls us to point to the mercy of Jesus

Recently, I received a letter from a parent whose son had been abused by a priest some years ago. Healing is still happening.

She wrote: “As a mother of a son abused by a priest, I know the effects of the abuse. However, the ones who have to deal with it publicly are not the ones who did the abusing. I want you to know that I pray for you every day, especially since you have had to deal with the abuse situation the last few weeks.”

Bishop Paul Sirba

Bishop Paul Sirba
Fiat Voluntas Tua

This mother is a wisdom figure for me and for us.

As we begin Advent and look toward Christmas, we prepare our hearts for Jesus’ coming within the context of a Holy Year, the Year of Mercy. Victims and their families have been forced to take on realities for which they did not ask. We are called to help them.

The Christ Child comes, himself perfectly innocent, yet willing to suffer to save us. Jesus’ coming reveals the mystery of redemptive suffering. Jesus, the babe at Bethlehem, was born to die. He took upon himself the iniquity of us all. We didn’t, nor could we ever, pay our own ransom for sin. It is God’s free gift to us. Thank you, Jesus!

God has called us to be the ones to respond to the sin of sexual abuse in our time.

The crime, sadly, is as old as human history. God knows why he has chosen us. It is up to us to point to Jesus and his mercy in order to heal where there has been great hurt and to provide a way forward guided by his grace.

My hope, based on the good work of my predecessors since 1992, is to continue to make our parishes, schools, religious education and youth programs the safest places for our young people to be.

I am happy to tell the story of the thousands of volunteers, teachers, catechists, young people and clergy who have completed our safe environment training and our recent implementation of the Circle of Grace program as the next step in this commitment.

We must always be vigilant, and we are constantly learning and improving at these efforts. This is the work of our lifetime. The church is providing best practices for our society, where the problem of sexual abuse, neglect, human trafficking and violence is only growing worse.

The “look back” legislation in our state and its lifting of the statute of limitations for this crime opens up the entire 125 years of our existence as a diocese to civil litigation. The great majority of the victims are predominantly men and women in their 50s, 60s and 70s today. Their wounds are deep, but please God they will find hope and healing for themselves and their families.

Exploring options

Recent litigation awarded $8.1 million to one victim. While we never contested that the crime happened, we did argue that the negligence in this case fell predominantly with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a religious community responsible for the priest, and not with the Diocese of Duluth, as we had no knowledge of the abuse in this case. Our legal team and insurance company are recommending an appeal of the verdict.

Many are wondering what the recent settlement and pending lawsuits could mean for our diocese. We have been transparent with our diocesan financial statements, so you know our annual operating budget is around $3 million. We have insurance and assets, but not in the amounts that this settlement and other pending lawsuits would demand.

We are presently exploring all options in response. I will continue to consult as broadly as possible to make the best decisions for the victims and on behalf of our diocese. You will find supporting articles in this issue of The Northern Cross as we try our best to provide answers to your questions as they arise and to keep you informed. We take our responsibilities as stewards of the funds entrusted to our care most seriously. Know that I remain very grateful of your continued support of your parishes and of our diocese.

Christmas fast approaches.

We are reminded during this holy season of Advent that we are people of hope. God is the Lord of history. Our world needs our example as people of hope living the Joy of the Gospel no matter the challenge we face. When all is said and done, we must never forget that we are loved by the God of mercy. Jesus comes to save us. Come, Lord Jesus!

Bishop Paul D. Sirba is the ninth bishop of Duluth.