A group of prominent Roman Catholics announced Tuesday that it’s pursuing a “lay-led,” independent review of the Seattle Archdiocese’s secret clergy files to fully expose the breadth and depth of the church’s sexual abuses in Western Washington and to find a path forward for healing the damage caused to generations of the religion’s followers.
Calling itself “Heal Our Church,” the group, which includes former judges and law-enforcement officials, abuse survivors, retired clergy and others, last week signed and delivered a letter and statement of key objectives to new Seattle Archbishop Paul Etienne, requesting his support of the endeavor.
The letter invites the archdiocese’s participation in the “appointment of an independent, lay led Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine pertinent church archives in order to produce a fact-based reconstruction of this horrific chapter of our church history.”
It also explained that once the proposed examination is completed, the review panel would issue a report that protects victims’ identities and ultimately oversee “assemblies of the faithful” to air its findings and discuss options for moving toward “truth, transparency and healing.”
“It’s universal that people are saying we don’t think we know exactly what happened in this archdiocese,” said Seattle lawyer and group member John McKay, a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington. “We know something horrible happened, but we’ve gotten only part of (the information). In order for us to heal, we have to know all of what happened and then make sure that it can never happen again. We don’t think you can do either of those things — heal or prevent — without full disclosure in a process that is led by lay people.”
Etienne issued a general response “to the people” Tuesday afternoon in his own letter posted on the archdiocese’s website. It said that he had “not yet officially reviewed” the group’s letter and was “was out” when it was delivered last Friday afternoon.
“I wish they had given me the opportunity to review the letter and enter into a real dialogue before going public, especially since I share some of this group’s concerns,” the archbishop’s letter stated.
But Etienne also wrote many of the group’s requests as detailed in news reports were “misinformed,” adding the archdiocese already is committed to transparency, has a review panel with lay experts in place and has undertaken various other efforts to examine and address clergy sexual-abuse cases.
Such past steps have included creating a “case review board” in 2004 to examine child sex-abuse claims against various priests, and hiring a former FBI-agent-turned-consultant to evaluate clergy-abuse archives that resulted in the 2016 publication of a list naming 77 clergy members with credible accusations of rape or other abuse dating back decades.
The archdiocese continues to keep a review board for consultation on sex-abuse cases and has quietly updated its list of the credibly accused, adding names of scores of clergy on loan from other dioceses or religious orders who had worked within Catholic schools and parishes in Western Washington, but hadn’t previously been accounted for in the archdiocese’s acknowledgments.
Last year, the archdiocese, under then-Archbishop Peter Sartain, launched its “Protect and Heal” website. The site includes its latest list of known and suspected abusers and posts an 800 helpline and other resources for abuse victims, among other information.
“Ultimately, the issue we face is really about trust,” Etienne’s response letter stated. “Our effort to build trust is much broader than the issues identified by this group. It requires everyone.”
But past actions taken to address the scandal have failed to tell the full story, members of the “Heal Our Church” group said this week, largely because the archdiocese directed, controlled and limited those actions. Among other problems, they said, the list of accused clergy still excludes names of offenders and leaves out details of when and where sex abuse allegedly occurred. The archdiocese also has failed to address whether and to what extent the chancery knew about and concealed sex crimes and protected offending clergy, they said.
The group this week launched its own website at www.healourchurch.com, outlining its key objectives and seeking to enlist other lapsed or practicing Catholics in Western Washington to its cause. Should the archdiocese choose not to cooperate with the proposal, group members said, they’ll find other means to address the matter.
The group’s call for a Truth and Reconciliation process driven by laity — or nonclergy members of the church — was formulated over the past 18 months during meetings of about a dozen core members, including McKay, retired King County Judge Terrence Carroll and Seattle attorney Colleen Kinerk. Heal Our Church counts about 50 signatory members, including clergy-abuse survivor-turned-activist Mary Dispenza, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes, former Seattle assistant police chief Clark Kimerer, and McKay’s older brother, Mike McKay, who also served as a U.S. attorney.
Kinerk, who said she’s had hundreds of conversations about the church’s clergy-abuse problems over the years, likened the decades-old scandal to an “oozing wound that’s never been healed” and has infected multiple generations of Catholics.
“I look at people my own children’s ages, where the attitudes toward the Catholic Church and the decisions not to actively participate are pretty heartbreaking,” she said. “But they’ve got some very well-articulated reasons, and it invariably seems to go to this crisis and the lack of transparency, lack of accountability and so many unanswered questions.”
Carroll, who has pushed for full transparency and accountability for years, blamed clericalism — or the church-based direction of past efforts to address the Seattle Archdiocese’s clergy abuse scandal — for limiting and undermining past initiatives purporting to address clergy abuse. In turn, those efforts have failed to regain the trust of the Catholic laity, he said.
“Growing up Catholic, one of the things we learned was to trust the church. That was part of how we were raised,” Carroll said. “Now we’re saying to the church: Trust us.”