Thursday, November 8, 2018


Dear Archbishop George Lucas,

It’s time to go.

To be fair, you are not alone. The Catholic Church is rotting from within, from the top down to the people in the pews. Incremental change is ineffective in a time of crisis. The time for formal listening sessions and public relations blunders has long passed--it’s time to overturn some tables.

In every published word you have spoken (that I can find) regarding the scandal in which your archdiocese is currently mired, you’ve made it clear that it hasn’t been you who failed--it has been the policies to which you have adhered. Your explanations for future change are a constant, unceasing chorus of self-talk disguised as responsibility where you give voice to your own doubts and failures by nervously negating them in front of your flock--a constant dilution of your voice, thanking lay people for the generosity of their criticisms, and treating the “thanks” of your parishioners for your listening as a substitute for the gravity of accepting that your very actions placed them in the position to have those criticisms in the first place.
Every time a leader uses his voice for that sort of way, the power of his voice is diminished. Eventually, no one hears you at all. Repeating the words “transparency” and “personal conduct,” over and over as if verbal repetition imbues their virtues instead of instructing every priest in your archdiocese to torch every modern tradition that led to this lack of accountability is yet another step in the wrong direction. We don’t need transparency. We need men to accept the consequences that come with being men. If you can do that, then transparency will be one of many benefits to follow.

In your letter to the archdiocese regarding your handling of Father Francis Nigli, there was no actionable remorse on your part--only deflecting regret upon being caught. It’s time to move to the second step--you’ve had plenty of chances to blame other people, to show how this was someone else’s fault. Your failure to effectively do so indicates that a resignation is in order, as none of the people who you have suggested were responsible for silently installing a previously accused priest have been fired. There are almost certainly people who should be removed from their positions, yes. But you should join them, especially after leading with the following explanation (scroll to page 11 for "A letter from the archbishop on Father Francis Nigli") (gotta be patient, it's a Catholic web site):

In the assignment of priests in the Archdiocese of Omaha, we have consistently followed the provisions of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and of civil and canon law. There are no priests serving in this archdiocese who have been credibly accused of the abuse of a minor.

Father Nigli, the priest at the center of the latest scandal, wasn’t removed from service due to being accused of abusing a minor--his accusers were 18 and 21 years old. Talking about the lack of minor-abusing priests in response to a case involving two adult adult accusers is like listening to a fat guy who blames his ex-high school girlfriend for his weight gain in his mid-40’s. Abuse of a minor is universally regarded as bad, yes--but abuse of adults is also wrong, and the lack of the former does not lessen the impact of the latter.

There have been cases of priests who have committed an act of misconduct that is neither the abuse of a minor nor otherwise a crime. In considering whether it is appropriate for such a priest to be given a pastoral assignment, a thorough review is conducted, so that a prudent decision can be made for the good of all.

When Father Francis Nigli was considered for appointment to St. Wenceslaus parish in 2015, I knew that he was guilty of a significant breach of good conduct with a young adult. This incident had been reported to law enforcement and was not considered a crime. It was not a violation of the Charter. Father Nigli had a good record of pastoral service, beyond this inappropriate conduct with another person.

A lack of policy-violating accusations doesn’t make a valid accusation any less so. If Father Nigli’s actions weren’t a crime or a violation of some random Charter, then why were they not publicized prior his appointment to St. Wenceslaus? It wasn’t until after a second accusation that everyone involved in his appointment seemed to suddenly notice that his Father Nigli's appointment looked bad--a second accusation that, without which, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Those are bad optics at best.

The possibility of Father Nigli’s appointment was discussed at length with the Archdiocesan Review Board. This board is made up of lay experts in the fields of law enforcement, child welfare, psychology, education, and medicine, who are not archdiocesan employees. One priest also serves on the board.

The people on the review board are not good at their jobs if they thought it was a good idea to reinstate a priest without telling anyone in his new parish about his past. Granted, if the Archdiocesan Review Board is anything like most Catholic boards, then their range of solutions was probably limited to the choices provided to them by Archbishop George Lucas. And it's almost certainly not a coincidence that the priest who served on that board--Father Tom Bauwens--serves as the pastor at St. Wenceslaus, where Father Nigli was serving at the time of his second accusation. Father Bauwens had every opportunity to inform his parishioners of Father Nigli’s history--just as Archbishop George Lucas did. But, for whatever reason, he did not do so until a second accusation surfaced. Optics matter. Father Bauwens can join you on your way out.

Father Nigli had admitted and repented of his offense. He had in place local support systems of laity and clergy. He agreed not to engage in regular ministry with young adults. The pastor was aware of his past and present situation in detail, and he agreed to monitor and mentor Father Nigli. In other words, my decision to assign Father Nigli to St. Wenceslaus parish was not made in isolation.

Although the decision might not have been made in isolation, its follow-through certainly was. And it’s not the decision to assign Father Nigli itself that was problematic. While Father Nigli was instructed to not engage in ministry with young adults, it was downright negligent that the young adults in his parish were not informed of the reason for the necessity of this arrangement. When you put a sober alcoholic in the presence of drinkers without informing anyone of his struggle, that’s a recipe for failure--not just for the alcoholic, but also for the people invested in his recovery. And, in this case, the people invested in his recovery put many vulnerable people at risk.

In spite of following established best practices and receiving expert consultation, our system failed. Father Nigli committed another offense against an innocent person. St. Wenceslaus parish was then informed that Father Nigli was removed from ministry for misconduct involving an adult who is not a parishioner. The parish has been hurt. There are understandable questions among many Catholics about the confidence that can be placed in me and in our priests.

Nope. Appointing a priest without telling his parish of his past should make people question your leadership, but waiting until history repeats itself confirms the validity of their lack of confidence. You should not be trusted--that’s where we are at this point. Questionable credibility is no longer an issue; when his credibility is gone, a self-aware leader knows to follow. It’s time to go.

During formal listening sessions with laity, in informal conversations, and now after meeting with St. Wenceslaus parishioners, I have heard very clearly a call for a higher standard of ministerial and personal conduct, as well as greater transparency, in the assignment of clergy. In response to this call, we are undertaking a review of present clergy assignments, to ensure that priests and deacons are appropriately placed for the good of our people. I have asked the Vicar for Clergy to work in collaboration with our Priests Council and Archdiocesan Review Board to update a clear code of conduct for clergy and laity serving in roles of ministry and service in the archdiocese.

That’s a lot of words to say that the guy who led the way into the current crisis is going to spin webs until something changes. Nowhere in any of these explanations has their been an indication that things would be any different today if Father Nigli hadn’t been accused a second time. This isn’t a response based on guilt--this is a response to being exposed for the initial mismanagement.

The scandals facing the archdiocese of Omaha don’t need to be discussed in terms of the priest(s) involved. Their offenses don’t need to be detailed--the legitimacy of their accusers is irrelevant. The focus can and should be put entirely on the head of the archdiocese. The mismanagement of their silent appointments after accusations is the only point that matters here.

During this time of renewed scandal and diminished trust in Church leadership, we must be diligent in developing even better standards and procedures for the assignment of those who are entrusted with the pastoral care of the people of God. I will make a report to the archdiocese as these improvements are put in place, and I invite your prayers for this effort. Pray, too, that in every way, we may become more clearly the church that the Lord invites us to be.

McDonald’s has a policy for this kind of stuff: fire people. Fire the accused, fire their manager if they even appear to cover for the accused. Just because we’re talking about God and churchy things doesn’t mean that clear-cut situations are suddenly cloudy and complex: a priest who was removed from his previous appointment without public explanation was silently sent to rehab and then silently appointed at a church whose own pastor was on the advisory board that approved his appointment. And neither that pastor or the archbishop of the diocese thought to tell anyone else of the priest’s history. It may not have been intended to be a cover-up, but that’s the result regardless of intent.

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