Six Months After Arrival, Springfield Bishop Hopes Abuse Transparency ‘Encourages’ Other Dioceses

Jun 15, 2021

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is meeting this week on a range of issues. Among the newer faces at the virtual conference will be William Byrne of the Springfield Diocese.

Byrne took over the western Massachusetts diocese last December as it was still dealing with the aftermath of allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups. And last month — as he promised in December — Byrne released an expanded list of 61 priests and lay employees accused of abuse.

Bishop William Byrne: The reason it took us that long to publish the list is because we wanted to make sure we did it right. We didn't just review all the cases. We had them all investigated. We had the entire process, so that we were making sure we were...using the same metrics for each of the instances. We also did outreach to the survivors — if they weren't alive or their families — people that had been victimized by clergy or laypeople in the dioceses with a credible accusation. We wanted to make sure that they didn't get the information just that day from a press conference.

One of the changes that I decided to [make] when we evaluated was whether or not we would include posthumous allegations, those who were dead when they had been accused. In some schools of thought, if someone can't defend themselves, then that would be irresponsible. But our focus was on making sure that the victims-survivors understood that we had heard, but also those who had been victimized in the community knew that...if they saw a name they knew, they knew they weren't alone. So, in the deliberations, I went for the healing and the affirmation of victims-survivors before all else, because we have to live in today and make sure we're healing today.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: Some dioceses, including Worcester's, still have no public list of clergy accused of abuse. As a leader in the church, are you urging the Worcester Diocese and others to pursue the transparency that you have said is really necessary for healing?

Yeah, I think as bishops, the tone and the example set by one perhaps can encourage others. Each bishop has authority over his diocese. And so, I just hope the actions that we've taken and the steps that we've taken encourages others to consider making sure that we have a trauma-informed system on bringing healing, but also not re-traumatizing. So I think a rising tide, I hope, lifts all boats.

This week you're meeting with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. And among the most high-profile topics up for debate is a potential proposal to deny Communion to Catholic elected officials like President Biden, who support abortion rights and other policies at odds with Catholic doctrine. The Vatican has urged caution on this issue, and dozens of bishops called for the item to be removed from the agenda, although you're not among them, according to the Catholic news website The Pillar. What is your feeling on the question? Should Catholic politicians who support abortion rights receive the Eucharist?

I was not on the list of signatories because I was never asked, and I think it's probably because I am just too new.

And so, the letter [PDF] from Cardinal Ladaria to the American bishops, is something I think we need to take seriously. I think we also have to — both as individual believers and as bishops — make sure that we are informing the consciences of those to make decisions. I believe that each person must make a free decision, but it must be an informed decision. So I believe that the first and foremost tool that we need to do after really basically 30, 40 years of failed religious education in some sense of not really giving people an understanding of what the value of the Eucharist [is] and why we should be as prepared as we possibly can be, that we need to make sure that we're informing.

So we're going to have, in this diocese, starting just before Christmas, a year of the Eucharist. It's not going to be just a celebration of the great gift of Christ's presence in the Eucharist and this central focus of the life of our church. But it's also to be a chance for us to get the word out so that the people, understand truly — at every level of society — what it is that we're being asked and the great gift that we receive. And that we should seek, although it's never possible to be as worthy as we possibly can.

If I may press you on that — do you think Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should receive the Eucharist?

I think anyone that advocates for abortion places themselves...now, I can't read the conscience of every single person at every single moment at any time, really...The state of one's soul before God is something that only God in that person knows. But I do think that if a Catholic advocates in any way or participates in any way in the ending of a human life, then they place themselves in very, very serious moral danger.

And so...it's ultimately not my judgment that really is of concern, but the individual person before God. And as a, not as a political leader but as a religious leader, I would encourage anyone, whether they advocate for things — not just abortion, but other issues that are contrary to the teachings of Christ — they need to make sure that that they take that very seriously. And remember that, you know, God will not be mocked.

For much of the pandemic, Catholics have been granted a dispensation to the obligation to attend Sunday Mass. But you've announced that that will be lifted this coming Father's Day weekend — meaning that practicing Catholics who are not ill or homebound should attend in-person Mass. What prompted the change, and what about those who are not vaccinated?

The change is prompted by the directives of our health officials and our understanding that now it's safe to move on. We've made it clear that those who have any health issues, of course, are not obligated to go to church. And those who are not vaccinated need to make sure that they are making their own health decisions responsibly.

An obligation can be a beautiful thing, like the vows of a marriage are not an obligation that makes one's life onerous, but makes them secure and beautiful. So, I say I have an obligation to walk my dog Zelie — yes. If I don't, we have trouble. But that obligation brings me more health and brings her health, as well.

So, it's one of those things where the opportunity and the obligation to receive the Holy Eucharist is to say, you have to keep yourself nourished in order to to have the energy to move about and to bring God's love into the world. And if I don't feed myself, I can't feed others. And what if I don't have I cannot give. So, it's a call for us to be a loving community together, in-person if we can. And that the value of a family being together — yes, it's an obligation, but it's an obligation of joy and love.