By KATIE BORKOWSKI
CARROLL – Bishop Walker Nickless led the first of three meetings in the diocese at St. John Paul II Parish, Holy Spirit Church, on Oct. 3 to offer parishioners an opportunity for conversation, comments and questions about clergy sexual misconduct.
More than 50 people attended the gathering, which began with the rosary and other prayers led by the bishop. Amy Bloch, director of Catholic Charities and Father Brad Pelzel, vicar general, accompanied the bishop.
Bishop Nickless offered remarks in the Greteman Center, including the prayer recited before each meeting of the conduct response team.
“Gentle Jesus, shepherd of peace, join to your own suffering the pain of all who have been hurt in body, mind and spirit by all those who have betrayed the trust placed in them,” the bishop prayed. “Hear our cries as we agonize over the harm done to our innocent brothers and sisters.”
Bishop Nickless thanked those gathered for their presence and their prayers.
“We know we can’t do anything without God’s presence in our lives,” he said. “If we are going to deal with the issue of sexual abuse, we are going to need to pray and do even more than that.”
The bishop acknowledged this is a difficult time for the church in the United States and the “Diocese of Sioux City is no different than any other diocese in our country – as a matter of fact, in the world.”
“As your bishop, your shepherd, I want to be with my people, my flock,” he said. “I want to hear from you tonight. I want to give you plenty of time to talk – maybe to vent, maybe to express your anger and disappointment.”
Bishop Nickless asked the question: “Why are we here again?”
“The sexual abuse and misconduct by clergy has resurfaced,” he replied. “You have all heard about it if you pay any attention to any news media anywhere in our country. We thought we had pretty much handled the problem and gotten a pretty good grip on what needed to be done.”
The Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was set into place in 2002. It is a set of rules, expectations and regulations the United States bishops put together to address the problem, the difficulty and the sin of clergy sexual misconduct by priests and deacons.
Over the years
Father Pelzel explained if someone looks back before 1900, cases of sexual misconduct and abuse by priests is “virtually unheard of.”
“When you get past 1905, it starts to pick up a little bit; It starts to climb in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s,” he said.
In the 1950s, “particularly 1955,” Father Pelzel noted, the numbers start to increase.
“The majority of cases you will hear about clergy sex abuse in the United States took place between 1960 and 1985,” he said. “By 2002, we are back to the early 1900 levels. In the last three years in the United States, there have been 22 reported cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests.”
Father Pelzel acknowledged changes in society and culture were “reflected in our priests.”
“However, in 1979, John Paul II became our pope and brought with him both the Theology of the Body and a fundamental change in our seminaries,” he said.
The vicar general recalled when he sought out the priesthood, the application he had to fill out was 12 pages long and “intimidating as all get out.”
“By the time I left as a vocation director, the same application was 30 pages long,” Father Pelzel said.
Lack of confidence
Bishop Nickless referenced a lack of trust and confidence which has surfaced again, “especially in our leadership, with me, and my brother bishops and with our Holy Father.”
The bishop noted most join him in feelings of “anger, being ashamed and being sorry.”
“Clergy should not act this way with the tender children who are placed in our midst – yet, they do,” he said.
Bishop Nickless expressed his regret by saying, “I’m sorry,” to those in attendance.
“I can’t say it enough,” he emphasized.
“Tonight, I want to hear what you need, as the people who sit in the pews, to help you deal with this,” the bishop continued. “What ideas do you have that maybe we haven’t thought of that can make a difference?”
Phil Phillips, a member of St. John Paul II Parish in Carroll, stood at the podium and – in his words – spoke “frankly, honestly and respectfully.”
“Because of some actions of some priests and some bishops, the credibility of all priests and all bishops have come into questions,” he said. “So, how can we regain the trust we had and what should we do?”
The Carroll parishioner recommended to the bishop, “You must go out of your way to get to know your people and to pastor your priests, deacons and laity.”
“We can’t just see you at confirmation time,” he insisted.
In the Carroll area, Phillips felt the bishop had acted “with a heavy hand that has hurt many parishioners in our smaller churches,” referring to Ministry 2025, pastoral planning for the diocese which resulted in church closings and linkages.
“If our priests are overworked, why do you limit their sacramental duties for which they have been trained, but they are still required to do business and administrative duties for which they have not been trained?” he wondered. “We can easily find lay persons to run our parishes, but only a priest can consecrate a host or forgive sins.”
Conduct response team
Bloch, who is a member of the diocesan review board, explained the response when there is an accusation of clergy sexual misconduct.
“Currently our board is 50 percent male and 50 percent female,” said Bloch, who has been with Catholic Charities for about four years. “It includes myself, a psychologist, two nurses, an additional counselor, a district court judge, a former chief of police, a current chief of police and others.”
Posters with the information about the victim assistance coordinator, Angie Mack of Mercy Child Advocacy Center in Sioux City, appear in all diocesan churches and schools, Bloch noted.
“We want to make sure any victim would feel comfortable going to someone outside the church to make an allegation or complaint,” she said.
Mack gathers the information, which is put into a report that is sent to Bishop Nickless and Father Pelzel within 24 hours. The information is then presented to the diocesan review board, which has been in operation since 2002. The diocesan review board assesses the information and makes a recommendation to the bishop about how to proceed.
In his Sept. 20 letter in The Catholic Globe, Bishop Nickless noted he was arranging three meetings in different parts of the diocese, “to which all are welcome.”
The second meeting will be held Oct. 29 at Holy Cross Parish, St. Michael Church, in Sioux City, and the third will be Oct. 30 at Holy Trinity Parish, Corpus Christi Church, in Fort Dodge.
The two future meetings will follow the same order of events beginning at 6 p.m. with prayer in the church.