Updates on meeting, compensation fund, other matters

NOTE: The following letter was published in the November 29, 2018 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.

My dear brothers and sisters,

I pray that your Thanksgiving was a good one. I was blessed to celebrate Thanksgiving Mass at two of our schools last week and at our Cathedral on Thanksgiving morning before heading home to have dinner with my family. I also enjoyed helping Bishop Ahr/St. Thomas Aquinas High School students distribute food to those in need at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry in Perth Amboy. It was an inspiring week in so many ways and spending time with our youth always lifts my spirits and refocuses me on the truly important things that I should keep forefront in my life of service here.

The week before Thanksgiving, I attended the fall meeting of the bishops of the United States in Baltimore. It is a time when we bishops get an opportunity to express our views, opinions, comments and concerns. With over 400 bishops in the country not everyone could speak during the three-day meeting, but many did. There was a resolve to continue to build on the procedures, enacted by the U.S. bishops at Dallas in 2002, which have been effective in dealing with clerical sexual abuse of minors. Gratefully, as a result of the Dallas charter, which was approved by the Vatican and enacted, there is no priestly ministry for any cleric who has sexually abused a minor — ever. In Baltimore, there was clear continued support of this past decision.

In our diocese, every claim of abuse is reviewed by our diocesan review board, which consists of a majority of lay people and includes a past victim of clergy sex abuse. It remains a priority for our diocese to continue our efforts to aid victims in the process of seeking justice and healing and to prevent future abuse from happening anywhere in our society. Our diocese offers and provides counseling to victims. We directly apologize to victims. In addition, child protection procedures have been taught to children in our schools and religious education programs and to anyone working or volunteering with our youth. All these adults must also undergo criminal background checks.

Bishops who abuse minors were not included in the language of the Dallas Charter. While the Holy Father has removed bishops who had abuse cases from their past become known, this language needs to be amended as soon as possible. The issue of bishops who do not follow these procedures needs to be formalized, too, so they are held accountable by the Holy See and adhere to civil law, as well.

In regard to the Archbishop McCarrick investigation, no further steps were decided upon by the bishops in Baltimore as we await the Holy See’s report on its findings from their studies, as well as the impending canonical trial against Archbishop McCarrick. The Archbishop currently is living a life of prayer and penance in Kansas. Clear procedures on reporting abuse of power/sexual misconduct by a bishop toward a priest or seminarian need to be put in place, too. I remain committed to establishing a process to have a third-party reporting mechanism to report wrongdoing or impropriety on the part of a bishop in a diocese.

While the Vatican has asked the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to delay voting on a national process until after its international meeting in Rome in February, there is nothing that prevents bishops from working to establish proper guidelines in their own dioceses. I believe it is a good idea and I am committed to have this process in place. When national guidelines are implemented, we can adjust ours to be consistent at that time. For now, I have instructed our priests, deacons and seminarians of a reporting process, which takes place outside our diocese and allows for a lay review board as well as law enforcement to review them. I have been bishop here for two and a half years now, and a priest for more than 26 years. Thanks be to God, I have been faithful to the promises of my ordination day, so I cannot imagine anything that would need attention in this regard. I pray for the grace to persevere each day, and ask for your prayers for me, too. As you may have read recently, bishops of our province of New Jersey have come to a common commitment to establish a Victim Compensation and Counseling Program. Details are now being worked out. The program will not be finalized until we have received input from relevant stakeholders and further researched best practices from other dioceses that have put in place such a mechanism. This program will formalize what we have been doing for many years now, which is settling cases of child sexual abuse, rather than going to court. Confidentiality clauses exist only at the request of the victim. Most, if not all, of the claims that led to these settlements were barred by the statute of limitations, but we settled anyway.

As I have shared before, since our founding in 1981, the diocese has paid out 1.5 million dollars in settlements. Funds for this new program in the Diocese of Metuchen will come from self-funded insurance reserves. While this new program will not take away past wrongdoing, it is a step in good faith to proactively address those who have suffered so greatly and encourage them to come forward. As we approach the season of Advent, a season of hope, I pray and ask you to pray that our efforts may bear fruit in bringing healing and be a sign of renewal.

Finally, I also want to make you aware that all of the dioceses in New Jersey are undertaking a complete review of their clergy personnel files so that, by early next year, the names of all priests and deacons who have been credibly accused of the sexual abuse of a minor will be published. Again, this is an effort to protect children now and to assist in healing for victim survivors. In 2002, the Diocese of Metuchen underwent a thorough audit of all the files of the priests of the diocese. It was conducted by an outside law firm and our diocesan chancellor. The diocese turned over to law enforcement every alleged case of sexual abuse of minors and adult misconduct we had since the founding of our diocese. We even made available the complete files for the prosecutors. Since that time, it has been our practice that the Diocese of Metuchen has turned over to the county prosecutor’s office every single reported claim of sexual abuse of minors or adult misconduct. I have directed that the diocese engage an independent firm to conduct another thorough review of our files by lay people to confirm what we have done.

Having just celebrated Thanksgiving, I want you to know how grateful I am for all of you. It remains one of the great blessings of my life to serve here in Metuchen. I certainly remain committed to serving and loving you with all the strength and grace God gives me. I have been serving you in transparency and sharing these tragic situations with you, so that you are aware of them and can join with me in prayer and in working to resolve them. It falls to us to ensure a brighter, healthier future. Together, we are to be part of God’s intended harvest for this local Church. I do not know what He has planned for us, but I am comforted that we are going through this together. I thank you for your valuable input and heartfelt support that you have shared with me these difficult past months.

May you and your loved ones be blessed in all your efforts to advance the Kingdom of God, and may you always enjoy God’s mercy, friendship and protection. Know of my love and prayers for you, even as I ask for your prayers for me. God bless you as we begin a new Church year this week and make even more room in our hearts for Christ to come to us anew at Christmas.

The Most Reverend James F. Checchio, JCD, MBA
Bishop of Metuchen