In the Vineyard: April 17, 2023


In the Vineyard :: April 17, 2023 :: Volume 23, Issue 7

National News

Help VOTF Mark National Child Abuse Prevention Month

By Patricia T. Gomez, Ph.D., Voice of the Faithful Trustee and Protection of Children Working Group Co-Chair

The Voice of the Faithful Protection of Children Team continues its work to ensure the safety of children in our faith communities. Building on early VOTF efforts, we call attention to the importance of ongoing local efforts to maintain safe environments during April, which the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services has designated National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

In recent years POC members have noted a de-emphasis on maintaining safe environments in our faith communities. This de-emphasis diverts us from the shame and horror that abuse of children occurred and persisted for so many years in our parishes. But the need to safeguard our children and those at risk remains constant!

This annual observance in April is a powerful reminder that urges ongoing Child Abuse Prevention efforts. Moreover, timely reminders prompt us to remain vigilant and renew our safe environment efforts. Especially during this month, we renew our commitment to protect children and the vulnerable among us in every diocese and faith community.


What can you do? Here are a few suggestions.

At the diocesan level: The POC team recommends looking at the abuse prevention measures posted on your diocesan website. Does your diocese promote the annual observance of National Child Abuse Prevention month in April? If not, ask your diocesan safe environment coordinator to do so on the diocese’s website. Here is a link to resources on the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference website — This also is the time for those os us in the pews to evaluate diocesan child protection measures and to determine whether we are living out those measures in our local parish communities.

At the local level: Are the posted diocesan measures for abuse prevention and safe environments comprehensive and, most importantly, are they carried out in your faith community? Call your parish safe environment coordinator and start a conversation. A good place to begin is asking if your faith community provides annual abuse prevention training to catechists, lectors, and eucharistic ministers. Become an advocate for safe environments in your parish!

The VOTF Safety Sunday project provides short tips for publication in parish bulletins, especially during National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April. Safe environment coordinators in many parishes have continued to utilize VOTF resources. Here is a link to April: Child Protection Month on VOTF’s webpage — Child Protection – Voice of The Faithful (

At the national level: VOTF calls for the enforcement of standards set in the U.S. bishops’ 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the Essential Norms. And we call for transparency and change in faulted structures and attitudes that foment clericalism, especially the insular and authoritarian culture fostered in many dioceses.

Recently, the POC Team investigated how the U.S. institutional church presents efforts to prevent abuse and respond to those abused. We completed the first diocesan website review for Child Protection and Safe Environment efforts last spring. The review scored the performances of the 176 dioceses in the U.S. on a series of 33 questions. A link to the detailed findings from that review is available on VOTF’s Child Protection webpage — Child Protection – Voice of The Faithful ( The second annual review will take place later this year.

Results of this first review indicate the need to enhance diocesan child protection policies and safe environment measures. Actions by all are essential to keep children safe in our faith communities.

  • Clearly-stated, publicly available, and comprehensive diocesan guidelines for safe environments will provide measurable standards that can be modeled in parishes and are essential to prevent further child abuse.
  • The USCCB should more frequently update its Charter and Norms.
  • The USCCB National Review Board should more closely monitor compliance with the bishops’ own standards for child protection by augmenting annual audits.
  • VOTF will continue to monitor diocesan child protection measures annually.

Parishioners have a key role to ensure the protection of children in our parishes. We need to work with diocesan and parish safe environment personnel to bolster child protection guidelines at the diocesan level and ensure that safety measures are carried out in our faith communities.

Alive in the life of Jesus, the entire People of God can transform into a sacramental community where children, youth, and the vulnerable are nurtured and protected in safe environments.

Keep the faith; change the church!

Read Voice of the Faithful’s Child Protection webpage …

Interested in Understanding More about the Female Diaconate?

The St. Phoebe Center for the Deaconess, the largest online resource on the female diaconate and its revival, recently published a video series on basic facts regarding the female diaconate. These videos include the history of deaconesses, recent calls for deaconesses, the need for woman-to-woman ministry, a discussion of the importance of ordination, and the benefits of a robust diaconate–male and female–for the church today. The series is on YouTube and can be seen here.

Update on the Synod

Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, gave a talk last week on “Synodality and the Common Good” as part of the Cardinal Bernardin Common Cause lecture series at the Hank Center for the Catholic Intellectual Heritage at Loyola University Chicago.

He noted that among the concerns of those delegates, who were handpicked by bishops, were restrictions against the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, possible changes to Catholic doctrine, the focus on inclusivity and the synod process itself.

As Stowe reported, “The North American group, which included the United States and Canada, was the only group of the seven not to hold in-person meetings for the continental phase … instead conducting their sessions with bishops and two delegates selected by each diocesan bishop via Zoom.”

He went on to note that “Asia, Europe and Africa with their vast geographies and cultural diversity were able to conduct continental assemblies. Even the Middle East created such an assembly,” he said. “North America did not, citing economic and practical difficulties in coming together.”

So what happens next? The final document for the continental stage from North America, along with the contributions of the six other continental assemblies, will form the basis of the Instrumentum Laboris, the global synod’s working document, to be released by the General Secretariat in June.

To read more about the Synod, click here and here.

Top Stories

Report details ‘staggering’ church sex abuse in Maryland
More than 150 Catholic priests and others associated with the Archdiocese of Baltimore sexually abused over 600 children and often escaped accountability, according to a long-awaited state report released Wednesday (Apr. 8) that revealed the scope of abuse spanning 80 years and accused church leaders of decades of coverups. The report paints a damning picture of the archdiocese, which is the oldest Roman Catholic diocese in the country and spans much of Maryland.” By Lea Skene, Brian Witte, and Sarah Brumfield, Associated Press

Jesuit resigns from pope’s clergy abuse commission, criticizing group’s leadership
“One of Pope Francis’ key advisers on clergy sexual abuse has resigned from the pontiff’s child protection commission and has launched searing criticisms against the organization’s leadership and its alleged lack of transparency. The president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, announced on March 29 that one of the commission’s founding members, German Jesuit Fr. Hans Zollner, had asked the pope ‘to be relieved of his duties as a member … In an unusually blunt 400-word statement issued several hours later, Zollner said that after nine years of service on the commission, it was “impossible” to continue given his mounting concerns ‘in the areas of responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency.’” By Christopher White, National Catholic Reporter

Clergy abuse and the church’s silence leave deep wounds for Catholics, study finds
“The more stories he heard from clergy abuse survivors, the more Marcus Mescher realized that their suffering wasn’t just emotional or physical − it was a moral trauma. Clergy abuse victims often feel alone and empty − if not ‘dirty,’ said Mescher, an associate professor of Christian ethics at the Jesuit-run Xavier University in Cincinnati He and his co-researchers at Xavier published a report in December, demonstrating the abuse of children and subsequent concealment by the church resulted in ‘persistent psychological and emotional distress, moral confusion, spiritual anguish, social alienation and distrust for institutions.’” By Deena Yellin,

North American synod gathering focused on concerns about pope’s process, says participating bishop
“A U.S. bishop who helped draft the synthesis document for the North American continental phase of the ongoing process for the Synod of Bishops said he saw “notable differences” in this phase’s virtual listening sessions, compared to input from the previous parish- and diocesan-level phase. ‘Concerns about the direction of the synod were more pronounced,’ said Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Kentucky, noting that among the concerns of those delegates, who were handpicked by bishops, were restrictions against the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, possible changes to Catholic doctrine, the focus on inclusivity and the synod process itself.” By Heidi Schlumpf, National Catholic Reporter

Click here to view the rest of this issue of Focus …

Should the Catholic Church Modify the “Seal of Confession”?

Reverend James E. Connell, J.C.D., is a former chancellor in the Diocese of Milwaukee who joined with SNAP in seeking open files and justice for survivors there. He was a speaker at  VOTF’s 2012 and 2015 conferences. (Here’s the 2015 link: ) He also was part of the Healing Circles team that led to the Broken Vessels program. He is also a canon lawyer.

Father Jim believes that “for the good of the society, we need to remove the obstacle of confidentiality so that the police can do their job; children and vulnerable adults can be protected; and criminals pay their debt to society.”  He recently spoke out about this issue, which he explains in detail below. He was reprimanded by Archbishop Listecki for his comments. Below is a statement from Father Jim as well as a review of the canon laws related to the seal.

My priestly status has been changed,
by Reverend James E. Connell, J.C.D.

The Context 

In November 2018 the National Catholic Reporter published my commentary: “Now is the time to modify the Catholic Church’s ‘seal of confession.’” Soon thereafter, in an email from a person I do not know, it was suggested that I read a specific Louisiana State University Law School law review article, which I did read. The author’s very good point is that, even if the pope were to change the seal of confession law, priests would still be prohibited from reporting the crime to civil authorities because of the clergy-penitent privilege that exists in most states.

In fact, 33 states include clergy as mandatory reporters of child abuse or neglect, while all 33 also have a clergy-penitent privilege that excuses or prevents the clergy of all faiths and religions from reporting, if the information about the crime is obtained in a confessional or confidential setting. Repeating an effort I pursued in 2019, beginning in early January 2023, I have contacted by email all the state legislators in those 33 states – that is a lot of legislators (State Senate and House) and a lot of emails. My point is that confidentiality that hides and protects those who abuse or neglect a child or a vulnerable adult, thus endangering potential victims while also frustrating the efforts of law enforcement to have criminals pay their debt to society, are immoral laws and should be repealed. This applies to the seal of confession and to the clergy-penitent privilege statutes. 

A state representative in Delaware took up the challenge and has introduced a bill to repeal Delaware’s clergy-penitent privilege. In an effort to support that proposed legislation, I submitted an op-ed piece to a news media organization in Delaware, and the piece was printed. 

The Action Taken by Archbishop Jerome Listecki

On various occasions since 2010, I have been publicly supporting victims/survivors as I call for the Catholic Church to be open and honest about the church’s clergy sexual abuse scandal. My mantra has become: without the whole and complete truth there can be no justice, and without justice there will be no healing. Throughout all of this I have received no discipline, not even a warning phone call or letter.

However, on March 22, 2023, I received a phone call from the Vicar for Clergy, Father Nathen Reesman, to inform me that Archbishop Jerome Listecki has ordered that I cease any and all discussion about the seal of confession and the clergy-penitent privilege because of my dissemination of inaccurate information about the seal of confession. The Archbishop contends that I am teaching that there are situations when violating the seal of confession is permissible, and that I have caused confusion and unrest among the People of God. On the contrary, I am calling for a change in the seal of confession church law. I have not said that a priest can currently violate the seal of confession without suffering the consequence of immediate and automatic excommunication which is the current penalty in church law for deliberately violating the seal of confession. Moreover, I have consistently presented myself as an individual priest speaking my personal opinion, not as an official spokesperson for the Catholic Church. In any event, the Vicar also informed me that immediately the Archbishop has removed my faculty to hear confessions within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee or anywhere in the world. I was stunned, hurt, angry, yet remained polite. I could not get to sleep that night. 

Furthermore, unbeknownst to me, at some time on that same day, the archdiocese issued a statement about the situation. The next day, March 23, some news media people began to contact me looking for a comment. Yet, given that I had had no sleep and that I still was feeling hurt and angry, I decided not to speak with the news media, at least not then. But the situation became more tense. Also on March 23, the Vicar for Clergy sent me an email answering a question I had raised the day before but also telling me that Archbishop Listecki wants me to realize that, if I do not comply with the orders to cease speaking and to not hear confessions, there will be further consequences, e.g., loss of the faculty to preach and also being prohibited from all forms of public ministry (suspension). In spite of the increased pressure, I slept very well that night. 

When I awoke the next morning, March 24, I found a smile on my face and the word ‘opportunity’ on my lips (meaning that as one door closes another door can open; rely on the Holy Spirit). Shortly thereafter, I looked at my emails. There was none from the archdiocese but there were many from supporters. One of the emails announced that Peter Isely and Sarah Pearson, co-directors of Nate’s Mission, were planning a news conference at 11:00 am on the steps of the Cathedral of Saint John the Evangelist and I was invited to participate. I did so because I did not want to disappoint the supporters nor did I want to miss the opportunity to explain my position to the news media: confidentiality that hides and protects those who abuse or neglect a child or a vulnerable adult, thus endangering potential victims while also frustrating the efforts of law enforcement to have criminals pay their debt to society, are immoral laws and should be repealed

Two TV stations and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper were present and the news conference went well. Obviously, I was violating the order of Archbishop Listecki to not speak which means that further penalties could be on the way. I contend, however, that Canon 212, §3 of the Code of Canon Law provides that all the Christian faithful, the laity and the clergy alike, “have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful … “ Indeed, I and all the Christian faithful have the right and at times the duty to speak our opinion, and that is what I am doing. 

I will not be silenced, l will not be quiet, I explained to the news media. I am convinced that the Catholic Church has it wrong and needs to change. I realize that many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, disagree with me, while other people do agree, and that others have not thought about the issue. Hence, perhaps my new found sense of opportunity is to try to plant seeds of change, wherever and whenever I can.  

Thank you, 
Reverend James E. Connell, J.C.D. 
March 25, 2023 


What Does Canon Law Say?

The civil laws that support the seal of confession do not apply only to priests. Depending on the wording for each state’s laws, the clergy-penitent privilege covers any person acting as “confessor” with a member of his or her congregation, so it applies to ministers, rabbis, and imams too. It is similar in courtrooms to the attorney-client privilege as well as to that observed between therapist and patient. But only three Christian traditions–Anglican, Catholic, and Lutheran–make the confessor-penitent “seal” a part of their canon laws and impose extreme sanctions on any who violate it.

In the Catholic Church, the canon laws covering the Sacrament of Penance come under Title IV, Canons 959-997, with the Seal itself covered in Chapter 2, Canons 983 and 984:

Can. 983 §1. The sacramental seal is inviolable; therefore it is absolutely forbidden for a confessor to betray in any way a penitent in words or in any manner and for any reason.

§2. The interpreter, if there is one, and all others who in any way have knowledge of sins from confession are also obliged to observe secrecy.

Can. 984 §1. A confessor is prohibited completely from using knowledge acquired from confession to the detriment of the penitent even when any danger of revelation is excluded.

§2. A person who has been placed in authority cannot use in any manner for external governance the knowledge about sins which he has received in confession at any time.

You may find other interesting provisions in Title IV, which covers such things as who can hear confessions, who can confer the “faculty” to hear confessions, the types of penances to impose, and even a directive to pastors to set times for hearing confessions that are convenient for the parishioners (not the priest).


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