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Suicide is on the rise - What can the Catholic Church do to help?

Denver, Colo., Sep 15, 2019 / 04:42 pm (CNA).- This past week marked National Suicide Prevention Week in the United States, a week where mental and public health advocates share tips and advice on suicide prevention and spotting the warning signs of suicide.

On Monday of that week, popular evangelical pastor and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson, 30, reportedly committed suicide. Just hours prior to his death, Wilson had posted a message on Twitter about Jesus’ compassion for the depressed and suicidal.

“Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure suicidal thoughts,” Wilson wrote. “Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure depression. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure PTSD. Loving Jesus doesn’t always cure anxiety. But that doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer us companionship and comfort. He ALWAYS does that,” Wilson tweeted.

Wilson had been a long-time advocate for mental health, and founded “Anthem of Hope,” a Christian outreach for the depressed and suicidal, with his wife. His death followed that of Pastor Andrew Stoecklein, another young, vibrant evangelical pastor and mental health advocate, who committed suicide last year. 

In the span of just 16 years, suicide rates among working-age Americans (aged 16-64 years) spiked 34% between 2000 and 2016, according to data from the Center for Disease Control. Among Americans aged 10-24, the spike was even more dramatic - CDC data shows a 50% increase in suicides among this group between 2000-2017.

The suicides of these two pastors highlight this concerning upward trend in suicide, especially among young people, even among those who are part of a Christian community.

CNA spoke with three mental health professionals about why suicide rates, particularly among young people, are increasing, and what the Catholic Church and other faith communities can do to help.

Overconnected, and under pressure

Deacon Basil Ryan Balke is a licensed therapist at Mount Tabor Counseling in the Denver area, and the co-host of the podcast “Catholic Psyche,” which aims to educate people on the integration between the psychological sciences and Catholic spirituality, philosophy and theology. He is also a married deacon with the Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic Church.

Balke told CNA that he thinks one of the driving factors of an increase in suicide among teens and young adults is their constant connectedness to the world through mobile devices, coupled with a lack of greater meaning in their lives.

“When I was in high school...I would go home, and I wouldn't really have any contact with my friends unless I wanted it,” Balke said.

“And now with the saturation of the iPhone...you get the communication that is constantly there and constantly moving and so you can never unplug, and you can never continue on with life outside of the image you have to put out into the world (through social media),” he said.

“They’re always distracted, always moving forward. I was a youth minister for many years as well, and it was just - these kids never had a moment's peace,” he added.

Tommy Tighe is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the Bay area in California, who also hosts a podcast on Catholicism and mental health called “St. Dymphna’s Playbook.” Tighe told CNA that despite having more connections, young people today are more isolated than ever.

“There's so much more pressure...there’s so much more of a drive to be popular,” Tighe said, but social media connections often do not equate to “a close-knit community of close friends.”

According to a 2015 article from the peer-reviewed research journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, frequent social media use in children and teenagers is associated with poor psychological functioning, as it limits their daily face-to-face interactions, impairing their ability to keep and maintain meaningful relationships.

The study found that students who reported using social media for two or more hours daily were more likely to poorly rate their own mental health, and experienced high levels of psychological distress and suicidal ideation.

“There’s a trend towards superficial relationships, and of course you don't post on Instagram ‘I'm depressed’ or something like that, so I think people don't know who to reach out to,” Tighe noted.

Furthermore, Balke said, “I think what is also happening is the younger people have lost meaning in their day-to-day lives as well. I think all of us have lost meaning as a force in our lives.”

Balke said especially for young people, there is an increasingly intense pressure to perform academically or athletically that has replaced the things that used to bring people a sense of greater purpose, such as faith or virtue or close familial connections.

“Whether it be sports, they have to be track stars, they have to be in all AP (advanced placement) classes, they have to have like 30 college credits before they graduate high school, a 4.0 is not good enough anymore it's gotta be a 4.3 or something,” he said. “I don't even know how you do that. They're pushing themselves so aggressively to the point where there's no meaning behind it all because they don't have an overarching purpose. These things are substitutes for that.”

“You might do something stupid like literally eating a tide pod, laundry detergent, and you become world-famous for thirty seconds. It's so crazy,” he said. “It's like these kids are just waiting for their next big break.” 

The lingering stigma of mental health care

Another driving factor in the spike in suicides among young people and other populations is the lingering stigma of seeking out therapy or other mental health interventions, Tighe said.

“I think we try to act like we’ve really changed (as a society) in our perception of mental health, but I don't think that's really true,” Tighe said.

“Especially...it seems like every time there's one of these mass tragedies in our country, mental health gets brought up and I think that pushes people even further away from wanting to reach out or identify as having an issue,” he added.

Additionally, Tighe said, not only do young people today have a harder time making meaningful relationships with their peers, parents are also often afraid to broach the subject of suicide and mental health with their children.

“I'm hoping that the younger generation of parents will be a little bit more willing, but it's scary, right? That’s super scary to talk about.”

But talk about it parents must, Balke said, and the more specific they are, the better.

“You want to use that exact phrase: ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ Or ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’ You don't want to use the phrase ‘self harm,’ or ‘Are you thinking about hurting yourself?’” he said. “You want to be very clear.”

Some people fear that bringing up suicide may plant the idea of suicide in their child’s head, or may worsen their depression, but Balke said that studies show that these fears are unfounded.

“Statistically speaking - you can't catch suicidal thoughts,” Balke said. “You're not going to be pushing kids to become suicidal by asking, ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’ That’s actually... helping them come out of that isolation.”

The Soul Shop movement: helping congregations prevent suicide 

In 1999, Fe Anam Avis was the pastor of a Presbyterian church in a small suburban town in southern Ohio when the suicide of three students within seven months rocked his community.

Searching for help and resources for his grieving congregants, he found that there was little to nothing when it came to faith-based resources for suicide prevention and mental health. He started traveling to speak about suicide, but noticed that clergy and church leaders weren’t among his audience members.

“He said, ‘I would go to these towns and they would have me in a fire hall and I would give a presentation about suicide and a hundred people would show up in a small town. And not one of them would be a clergy person,’” Michelle Snyder told CNA. Snyder is the director of Soul Shop, an organization founded by Fe that trains clergy and congregations in suicide prevention and interventions. Fe has since retired.

“(Fe) said consistently it felt like people in the church were not connecting this issue of suicide prevention with faith, and pastors were just not showing up to engage with this as an issue as a matter of faith.”

That’s what spurred Fe to found Soul Shop movement, a group which now travels the country to give workshops to congregations on how to speak about suicide, how to prevent it, and what the warning signs are.

“I'll often say to a group of faith community leaders, if you're asking yourself the question, is anybody in my parish thinking about suicide? You're asking yourself the wrong question. Because the right question is, which six people out of the hundred here are thinking about suicide right now?” Snyder said.

Part of the training consists in simply raising the awareness among clergy and church leaders that there are people in desperation within their own congregations who are at risk for suicide and need help. Snyder said they also train congregations on how to support people who have been impacted by the suicide of a family member or friend.

In addition, they study the stories about suicide, or suicidal ideation, found in Bible passages.

“There's quite a few,” she said. “We've got Judas, the story of Judas, and that's a suicide. But you've also got stories like Elijah (who was) praying to die. You've got Saul, who fell on his own sword and killed himself...you've got Job, who said death would be better than what I'm experiencing. You've got lots of heroes in the Bible who thought about (it) or else just said, ‘I'm in so much pain. Death would be better,’ but who didn't attempt (it). So you've got lots of suicide - you've got suicide attempts, you've got suicides, you've got suicide intervention.”

They also train church leaders in spotting some of the warning signs of a person who is at risk for suicide.

Tighe said some of those warning signs include people who have been noticeably depressed for long periods of time, social withdrawal, talking about suicide or self-harm, or the giving away of prized pocessions, among other things.

A warning sign that might seem strange, Tighe said, is when someone who has been depressed for a while is suddenly and inexplicably happy again.

“If someone's been super depressed and then all of a sudden they're sort of feeling really good...that makes us very nervous, because sometimes it’s because they’ve made the decision like, okay, on Friday, I'm going to do it. And they feel like a burden lifted off their shoulders, because there's an end in sight,” he said.

When those risk factors are spotted, those are the times to specifically ask people if they’re considering suicide, Tighe added.

During the Soul Shop trainings, Snyder said, the group takes a public health approach to suicide, meaning that they train faith communities to take a collective responsibility for the health of their own people.

“We spend a whole day equipping communities of faith on how to be communities of faith in relationship to this issue,” she said.

One of the biggest suicide prevention tools that communities of faith can provide, Snyder said, is being full communities of faith, where people feel connected and valued as whole people, and not just for one aspect of their identity.

People who are more resiliant to suicide are those whose don’t have all of their “eggs in one basket,” Snyder noted.

“If every egg is in the basket of being on a full scholarship for football, and then I get injured, every egg was in that basket. I have no Plan B, and so that becomes a risk. And helping our people in our congregation become well-rounded people with lives that are full and rich and diverse can be a suicide prevention initiative.”

Soul Shop, church communities that are trained in suicide awareness and prevention are called “full faith communities,” Snyder said, which are “communities where people are intentionally connected to each other...communities where everybody knows what to look for. Communities where we are aware of our tendency to shun when we get uncomfortable and are challenged to not do that.”

What else can be done?

Besides hosting a Soul Shop or other suicide prevention training, what else can pastors and parishes do to help prevent suicide?

Balke said he would encourage all pastors to meet with their staff and frequent volunteers in order to familiarize them with locally available mental health resources. They should know the location of clinics, the hours of those clinics, and what crisis numbers to call, he said.

“They need to have quick access to them, so that when someone is coming in their office, or after a bible study or whatever it is when this kind of conversation comes up, they have it on their phone ready to go and they won't have to go searching for it,” he said.

Tighe said he recommended that parishes have flyers posted on their bulletin boards with information on local mental health resources, as well as local crisis hotlines to call or text. In the United States, texting “741741” will connect users to a crisis text line.

Text lines get great response rates, Tighe said, because “everyone's like, okay I would send a text, because it's easier. And they're incredible. We get people who come to our clinic who are like, ‘I was driving to the bridge, (because that's a very popular thing here in the Bay Area for people who are suicidal), and for whatever reason texted these people and they told me to come to your clinic before I went.”

Pastors and clergy should also make it a point to build a personal relationship with the mental health professionals in their congregation, Balke said.

“Someone that they can just phone and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this? What should I do in this situation?’” he said. “I have a number of priests and deacons who have phoned me on a regular basis and say, ‘You know, someone came into my office and said this this and this. What's going on here?’”

Pastors and other church leaders also need to treat suicide and mental health issues with the seriousness they deserve, Balke said, and not treat them as something that is either not a serious issue, or something that can be solved solely by prayer or spiritual direction.

“Mental health in the Church is a real problem, and...it's not necessarily being addressed with the seriousness, from an institutional level, that it deserves. People are committing suicide in our parishes and in our churches.”

Snyder said that she is confident that, if properly trained, churches and parishes have a key role to play in preventing suicides in their communities.

“We talk a lot about putting your seatbelt on before the accident happens. And that's kind of what we're describing here, is how do we do that in faith communities long before crisis strikes,” she said.

 

Pope Francis: God forgets our sins after confession

Vatican City, Sep 15, 2019 / 07:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis said Sunday that God forgets sins absolved within the confessional.

“How do you defeat evil? Accepting God's forgiveness … It happens every time we go to confession; there we receive the love of the Father who overcomes our sin. It is no longer there, God forgets it,” Pope Francis said in his Angelus message Sept. 15.

“God, when He forgives, loses His memory. He forgets our sins, forgets. God is so good with us,” he added in a departure from his prepared remarks.

In the sacrament of confession, God completely erases the evil confessed, making one new inside, reborn in joy, Pope Francis explained.

“Brothers and sisters, have courage. With God, no sin has the last word,” the pope said.

Pope Francis reflected upon Sunday’s Gospel from Luke in which the Pharisees complain that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

“Jesus 'welcomes sinners and eats with them.' This is what happens to us, in every Mass, in every church: Jesus is happy to welcome us to his table, where he offers Himself for us,” Pope Francis said.

“It is a phrase that we could write on the doors of our churches: 'Here Jesus welcomes sinners and invites them to his table,’” he added.

The pope focused on the lessons of God’s mercy and justice contained within Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. He said that the elder brother’s rejection of the father’s mercy for the prodigal son contains an important warning.

“The eldest son, who does not accept the mercy of his father ... makes a worse mistake: he is presumed to be just … and judges everything on the basis of his thought of justice,” he said. “It is also a risk for us: to believe in a more rigorous than merciful god, a god who defeats evil with power rather than forgiveness.”

“We are also wrong when we believe ourselves to be right, when we think that the bad ones are the others. Let us not believe ourselves good because alone, without the help of God who is good, we do not know how to overcome evil,” Pope Francis said.

“Our Lady, who unties the knots of life, frees us from the pretense of believing we are righteous and makes us feel the need to go to the Lord, who is always waiting for us to embrace us, to forgive us,” he said.

After praying the Angelus, Pope Francis expressed his joy because of two beatifications this weekend. Benedetta Bianchi Porro, an Italian laywoman, who died in 1964 of a lifelong illness at the age of 28, was declared blessed on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

At her beatification Sept. 14, Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu called Porro a shining example of “what the cross can and must be for us Christians.”

On Sept. 15, Father Richard Henkes will be beatified in Limburg, Germany. Henkes was a Pallottine priest, who died a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau in 1945 while caring for sick prisoners in the camp.

“The example of these two brave disciples of Christ also supports our journey to holiness,” Pope Francis said.

“Don't be afraid: God loves you, loves you as you are,” the pope said. “Only His love can change your life.”

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A bowl of soup, and a chance for compassion

Elmira, NY, Sep 14, 2019 / 04:25 am (CNA).- For nearly 15 years, a Catholic charity in south-central New York has sold ceramic bowls to raise both money for a local food pantry and awareness about the problem of homelessness in the region.

Catholic Charities of Chemung and Schuyler Counties is preparing for its 14th annual Empty Bowls Luncheon on Oct. 15, where donors will eat soup and hear the stories of homelessness.

Lindsay Baker, director of development for Catholic Charities in the area told CNA that the project informs people on poverty statistics and provides them with a souvenir bowl as a reminder of all the “empty bowls in the community.”

The project is a major event for the region. Local artists, including high-schoolers and students and faculty from nearby Elmira College, handcraft commemorative bowls for the luncheon.

“[We have partnered] with our local potters. They create commemorative bowls for each participant to take home with them. It’s meant to be a reminder of hunger in the community,” Baker said.

Most of the bowls are made by professional artisans, like Gene Carr, a local artist who helps each year with the pottery. Bowls are also made by two Elmira professors - Doug Holtgrewe, a former teacher of ceramic, and Chris Longwell, a professor of art. So far, they have made more than 200 bowls for the event.

Participants choose a custom-created bowl when they enter the luncheon, and are served soup from a local deli. Baker said last year the soup was chicken noodle and pumpkin squash.

“The idea is that you are satisfied but you are not stuffed. It’s a hunger awareness event so you may not leave extremely full, but people leaving the soup kitchen don’t always leave full too,” she told CNA.

During the event, those who have been homeless, or whose family members have been homeless, tell their stories.

“Last year, we had a woman share her story. Her son had been in a homeless shelter and he’s a heroin addict. She talked about the struggle she went through and how Catholic Charities met him where he is at and how is on a much better path,” Baker said.

She said the testimonies are a cause for personal reflection, but they’re also fun.

During lunch this year, Baker will read three testimonies from community members who have struggled with poverty. After the three people gather on stage, the crowd will guess which story belongs to whom.

She said the testimonies emphasize the work of Catholic Charities and the success of people who have overcome homelessness. She said stories help contextualize the reality of poverty because the testimonies are from ordinary people in the local community.

“I think this is one of the few events that highlight that it can happen to anybody. We have community members, we have volunteers, we have donors who will share their story. It’s not just somebody else’s problem. It’s actual human beings you can see.”

Proceeds will go to the Samaritan Center, an emergency shelter and a food pantry for homeless families and individuals. According to Catholic Charities, $40, the cost of a single ticket, will allow the organization to feed a family for a week, and $320, the cost for a table of eight, will cover the cost to temporarily shelter 15 people.

Baker said the event is a force for good in the region. She said the project is not only a fundraiser for the Samaritan Center, but it also promotes mental healthcare and awakens people to a reality which is often neglected.

“I think people are kind of numb to the reality of what life is like for some people,” she said. “[This event], in a nice way, slaps them in the face and tells them what life is like. People really leave moved. They have a better appreciation for what is going on behind the scenes.”

Secular Student Alliance has seen growth at religiously affiliated colleges

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Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Rejoice to find what was lost

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At Washington exhibit, the toll of the immigrant journey becomes art

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Violence, displacement on the rise in Sahel region of Africa

Washington D.C., Sep 14, 2019 / 12:00 am (CNA).- Catholic Relief Services is warning of increasing violence and displacement in the Sahel— the vast area of western and north-central Africa stretching from Senegal to Sudan.

In 2018, more than 320,000 people in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger were forced to leave their homes, CRS reports. Burkina Faso, in particular, saw a four-fold increase in displaced persons since the start of this year.

“The increase of violent attacks has been devastating to so many families,” Jennifer Overton, CRS’ regional director for West Africa, said Sept. 12.

 “People are struggling not only to keep their families safe and together, but also to meet basic needs like food and shelter.”

Ethnic tensions in the region, as well as threats from extremist groups including al-Qaeda affiliates, have boiled over in recent months.

Attacks by jihadist groups have increased since 2015, and AFP reported that almost 400 people have been killed in the past four years. The groups include Ansarul Islam, the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.

Last December, the government of Burkina Faso declared a state of emergency in several northern provinces as a result of these ongoing attacks, Reuters reports.

Pope Francis has offered prayers for victims of attacks on Catholic churches in Burkina Faso, including a May 12 incident when a group of gunmen burned down a church building in Dablo while Mass was being celebrated, killing at least six people including a priest.

Four died in an April 5 attack on a parish in the Diocese of Dori. Fr. Joel Yougbaré, pastor of Djibo, was kidnapped in March. Six were killed in an April 29 attack on a Protestant church in Silgadji.

Several more attacks on Catholic Churches, with additional fatalities, took place at Catholic Churches in Burkina Faso in the weeks after that attack in early May.

“Let us unite our prayers for the repose in God of the martyrs, for a prompt recovery of the wounded, for the consolation of the weeping families, for the conversion of the tormentors and for peace in our country of Burkina Faso,” Bishop Justin Kientega of Ouahigouya said after a May 26 attack that killed four.

CRS is working the region to supply aid for those forced to leave their homes, in the form of clean water and sanitation services, food, shelter and household items, as well as long-term aid in the form of healthcare, education, and agricultural and peacebuilding projects, the group reported.

“Very simply, unless this trend is reversed, we risk losing so many development gains over the last decade,” Overton warned.

“The window to prevent this backsliding is rapidly closing and demands urgent attention from the international community.”

 

Missouri AG refers 12 former clerics for prosecution

St. Louis, Mo., Sep 13, 2019 / 05:01 pm (CNA).- Missouri attorney general Eric Schmitt released Friday a report on his investigation into sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clerics in the state, and referred 12 former clerics for potential criminal prosecution.

“Since I took office, one of my top priorities has been conducting a thorough, exhaustive review of allegations of abuse by clergy members in the Roman Catholic Church. Today, as a result of that review, we are announcing that we will refer 12 cases of alleged abuse to local prosecutors for further investigation and possible prosecution – more referrals than any other state attorney general,” Schmitt, who is a Republican and a Catholic, said Sept. 13.

He added that his office will assist any local prosecutors who want to pursue charges.

“Additionally, we’ve provided concrete recommendations to the Catholic Church moving forward,” he added. He noted that his “suggestions for reform” are “aggressive and substantive.”

The attorney general's office made five recommendations in its report, the first of which was that “the Church should assume greater responsibility and oversight over all religious order priests and priests visiting or relating from other dioceses to subject them to the same procedures and oversight with regard to youth protection and clergy abuse as if they were diocesan priests.”

The report said that dioceses have less oversight over religious priests than their secular counterparts, and stated: “this arrangement has prevented the AGO from conducting a complete review of religious order priests working in Missouri. The AGO has had to rely on the scant diocesan records provided to it regarding these priests, along with information gathered from victims presenting evidence relating thereto.”

“Before granting faculties to a religious order priest or a priest from another diocese, the IRB should complete a meaningful and thorough review of the prospective priest’s records, rather than simply accepting a simple attestation from another bishop or provincial,” the office said.

It also recommended that each diocese ensure its “Independent Review Board is composed entirely of lay people and its determinations of credibility and sanctions will be given authoritative weight with respect to the ability of an offending priest to minister in its diocese.”

The third recommendation was that dioceses review all claims of abuse from before the 2002 adoption of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, subjecting them to the Charter's standards.

The office said that when the review boards have found credible allegations against priests, this “should be publicly disclosed without delay.” It stated that an offending priest's age and health should not be considered a reason to forgo dismissal from the clerical state, and that dioceses “should advocate for reforms of the laicization process so that it may be completed within one year after the IRB makes its decision,” or that “discussions of reform within the church should include proposals for expediting the process of laicizing priests after the completion of a diocesan review of misconduct and the establishment of a complete corroborating factual record.”

Finally, the attorney general's office recommended that “a robust program on notification and supervision of priests removed from public ministry or from the clerical state should be undertaken.”

The report said it recommendations would “strengthen oversight and protect victims from future abuse.”

The Archdiocese of St. Louis said that it is “taking the Attorney General’s recommendations to the Catholic Church into careful consideration and will continue to evaluate and enhance our safe environment programs for the safety of all of our families.”

Bishop W. Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City commented that “it is my sincere hope the report assists the Catholic Church in Missouri in achieving our goals of accountability and transparency, while respecting the legal standards for privacy of all affected by the report.”

“I will take into consideration the recommendations from the report on how we can improve our efforts to keep our children safe and in healthy environments,” he added.

Schmitt's investigation was begun last year by his predecessor, Josh Hawley.

His office reviewed the personnel records of priests serving in the state's four dioceses dating back to 1945, and spoke to abuse victims or their families who contacted the office.

The investigation found credible allegations of 163 instances of sexual abuse or misconduct by diocesan clerics against minors. The offenses range from boundary violations, such as inappropriate discussion or correspondence, to forcible rape.

Of the credibly accused, 83 are dead. Of the remaining 80, 46 are past the statue of limitations for prosecution, 16 have already been referred for prosecution, 12 will be referred for prosecution, five have been or are being investigated by prosecutors, and one is still under investigation by the Church.

The instances of misconduct “overwhelmingly” occurred before 2002, the report notes, and since that year the dioceses in Missouri “have implemented a series of reforms that have improved their response to, and reporting of, abuse.”

It added, however, “that since 2002, the church has, on occasion, failed to meet even its own internal procedures on abuse reporting andreporting to law enforcement,” citing Bishop Robert Finn's failure for five months to report possession of child pornography by one of his priests. Finn resigned from office in 2015.

The report said that since 2002 “the church has generally taken a much more pastoral approach to engaging with victims and has, in most instances, promptly reported suspected abuse.”

The attorney general's office identified what it called “certain internal and systematic failures of the dioceses,” saying first that “there is no independent oversight of a bishop’s day-to-day implementation of church protocols. Bishops report to no one below the Pope in the hierarchy of the church and, while uncoordinated and sometimes overlapping networks of associations and working groups exist throughout the states, regions and country, there is simply no single source of outside oversight over each bishop and no means by which best practices are effectively implemented.”

It asserted that “the lack of independent oversight of the bishops’ implementation of protocols, as well as the lack of independent review of allegations against bishops themselves, remain significant impediments to reform and improved protections.”