San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy spoke at the first of eight listening sessions about clergy abuse.
San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy at first of eight listening sessions on clergy sex abuse. Photo by Chris Stone

Despite voiced parishioner concerns, San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy denies that a gay subculture exists among diocesean priests or seminarians — men studying to be Roman Catholic priests.

Writing in the January issue of the diocesan newspaper The Southern Cross, McElroy says he agrees that such a subculture would be a “threat to a healthy Catholic community.”

But the former San Francisco cleric added that “I have not witnessed the presence of such a subculture in my three years as bishop of San Diego.”

Bishop McElroy: “Our recognition that the grace of God pervades the life of the Church in so many dimensions does not free us from recognizing the sinfulness that has characterized the Church’s culture, structures and actions regarding the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.”

McElroy’s statement, titled “Pastoral Reflections on the Listening Sessions,” is part of a report released in response to concerns raised at eight listening sessions in October and November throughout the diocese on the heels of continuing revelations about clergy sexual abuse.

In his 1,600-word response, McElroy delineated steps taken or will be taken as a result of the sessions.

Initiatives include hiring a full-time diocesan victim assistance coordinator and providing and paying for victim counseling.

Other efforts that have begun or he promised will be done involve more lay people in diocesan discussions and decision-making, hire a professional investigator to examine abuse accusations, publicize lists of clergy sex offenders and re-examine church files about clergy behavior.

“The Catholic community,” writes the 64-year-old bishop, “must continue to bear a historic responsibility of shame and profound regret at this moment and moving forward because, for so many decades, it allowed a culture of reassignment of priests who had abused minors to destroy the lives and wound the souls of tens of thousands of boys and girls, young women and young men.”

Bishop McElroy’s statement took up nearly all of page 11 of the January edition of The Southern Cross.

Major concerns at the listening sessions involved care and healing for clergy abuse victims, actions taken against predators, bishop accountability and perceived connections between homosexuality and clergy abuse (since most of the victims are male).

Some of the 2,000 parishioners attending — including conservative Catholics associated with far-right publications that oppose Pope Francis’ policies — insisted that homosexuality was the root of the clergy abuse.

That segment said that gay people shouldn’t be allowed in the priesthood and that gay influences exist in seminaries.

But in the statement, McElroy cites a John Jay College of Law study commissioned by U.S. bishops that studied sex abuse data and concluded in 2003 that “homosexuality was not the substantive source of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.”

He called that finding consistent with numerous studies “across the spectrum that have concluded that a homosexual orientation does not predispose a man or woman to abuse minors.”

Throughout his tenure, McElroy has welcomed the LGBT community to Catholic churches and said gay men could be ordained if they, like all priests, pledge to be celibate.

In his statement, published on page 11, he wrote that the screening and evaluation of seminarians is “rigorous and expansive.”

“It includes a battery of psychological tests, programs to form the whole person in the image of Jesus Christ, in-depth evaluations and oversight by priestly, religious and lay formators throughout the five or more years during which our seminarians prepare for the priesthood.”

The Catholic Church opposes gay marriage and teaches that homosexuality is “intrinsically disordered.” However, church teachings further say that LGBT people should be accepted with “respect, compassion and sensitivity” and “every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.”

Another major concern at the listening sessions was bishop accountability. Some have been accused for years of ignoring victim accusations and transferring offending priests from parish to parish.

In November, McElroy attended a U.S. Bishops conference in Baltimore. He writes that one of the great disappointments of his life was that the assembly failed to establish a process of substantive accountability for bishops “regarding their personal sexual misconduct or their oversight of cases of sexual misconduct within their dioceses.”

The Vatican had asked U.S. bishops to delay their vote on proposals at that time. The pope plans to meet with bishops worldwide in February about the clergy abuse issue.

“We bishops must work together with the Holy Father to construct a structure which fully incorporates lay insights and lay judgment,” McElroy writes in the 38,000-circulation Catholic newspaper for San Diego and Imperial counties.

“Even more importantly, [we need] to renew our culture as bishops to guarantee that clerical blindness never obscures our obligation to protect the members of our flock from sexual abuse.”

McElroy himself was a target of criticism when he didn’t act on warnings about sexual abuse against New Jersey seminarians and an altar boy by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Former priest Richard Sipe, the late clerical sexual abuse expert, wrote to McElroy in 2016.

The bishop asked Sipe for corroboration of the accusations, but it wasn’t provided, McElroy told parishioners in at least one listening session.

McElroy now writes that in the wake of the McCarrick scandal, which brought the cardinal’s dismissal in July 2018, “It demands that new structures and a new culture of accountability for bishops must be established in our country immediately.”

The bishop also discusses clericalism – the privileged status of priests — as a source of the clergy abuse scandal.

“The combination of a misplaced desire to forgive, ties of friendship and a common vocation, and a desire to avoid scandal for the Church are at the core of the sinfulness that has brought us to this moment,” he writes.

An antidote to the “moral blindness,” he said, was the “substantive inclusion” of lay people in all levels of the decision making of the local church. The San Diego-Imperial diocese counts about 1 million members.

While noting calls for an end to celibacy for priests and the inclusion of female priests, McElroy didn’t advocate in the statement for either of those proposals.

Regarding help for victims, the diocese will convert the part-time position of victim assistance coordinator to full-time, McElroy announced.

That employee will work with survivors of clergy sexual abuse and their families, form support groups, provide ongoing counseling, and ensure that allegations are referred to law enforcement and the diocese’s Independent Review Board.

The diocese also will provide and pay for counseling for any victim of clergy sexual abuse regardless of where the abuse took place.

Parishioners at the listening sessions also peppered McElroy with questions about church procedures for dealing with abuse accusations.

The bishop explained that the diocese’s review board consists of an abuse victim, a priest, a retired judge, two attorneys, a lay expert on Church law, a counselor and a social worker.

That board has hired a professional investigator to evaluate the evidence and determine the validity of the allegation. A finding of abuse against a minor calls for automatic and permanent removal from public ministry, the bishop writes.

Parishioners also requested action involving adult victims.

In response to that request, the review board will now review all allegations of sexual misconduct by priests against adults “where there is any indication of harassment, coercion, spiritual manipulation or disparities of power and position,” he writes.

In addition, he said, the diocese has hired a firm to extensively examine diocesan files for past sexual abuse of minors or danger signs of substantive risk of inappropriate clergy behavior. The review will be completed in February.

In November, the diocese released a list of priests who served in local church assignments who had a credible accusation of sexual abuse of a minor.

McElroy wrote that he believes that despite the parishioners’ anger and disillusionment, a deep faith and love for the Church continues.