The Diocesan Pastoral Council gathered Sept. 19 at Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School in East Syracuse for its first meeting of the 2015-2016 session. The DPC is composed of pastoral council and ministry representatives from across the diocese.
Bishop Robert J. Cunningham offered remarks at the session’s start, first addressing recent news stories about his testimony in a 2011 deposition taken as part of a lawsuit brought by a man who accused a priest of the diocese of abusing him as a child. In the deposition, Bishop Cunningham is quoted as saying “The boy is culpable” in response to a question about Confession and whether a boy abused by a priest is considered by the Church to have committed a sin. His quote drew sharp criticism.
“Obviously these past few days have been difficult for me and for you and for many people in our diocese,” the bishop said. The published excerpts of the deposition were a small part of a four-hour deposition, at the end of which he “was asked a hypothetical question,” Bishop Cunningham said. “I gave what I thought was a correct and understandable answer. Obviously, it wasn’t. I wish that I had chosen my words more carefully and explained myself more completely.”
“And so I do have to set the record straight,” he continued. “At no time have I ever indicated that a child is guilty of sexual abuse. It is always the adult. In cases, unfortunately, in our diocese, it was the priest.”
Bishop Cunningham said, “it is understandable that my choice of words gave the wrong impression. I apologize that this has caused the pain that some are feeling about me, about the Catholic Church and about our efforts to assist those who have been abused by a member of the Church.”
He underlined his firm commitment to the diocese’s Safe Environment program and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and emphasized that there is no priest in active ministry in the diocese who has a credible allegation of abuse against him.
Bishop Cunningham also spoke about ongoing work in the diocese’s strategic plan, as diocesan offices “try to move away from a dollar-driven budget to a mission-driven budget.”
The diocese has been “taking a hard look at some of our offices” over the past year in order determine how the needs of parishes can best be met through them, he said.
The Office of Family Life and the Office of Faith Formation are both in the process of connecting with parishes to assess their needs. The Offices of Vocations, Campus Ministry and Youth and Young Adult Ministry have been asked to work together more closely in providing services to young people. The decentralization of the diocese’s four Catholic high schools places boards of trustees in charge of operations and finances, while the Catholic Schools Office continues to work on areas of Catholic identity and curriculum. A parish leadership training process will work to identify and train individuals who will serve as parish life administrators and coordinators.
John Barsanti, chief operating officer of the diocese, followed Bishop Cunningham, discussing in more detail the diocesan planning process, challenges facing the diocese, and the plan to move the diocese forward. (Slides from Barsanti’s presentation can be found at syracusediocese.org/diocesan-offices/diocesan-pastoral-council).
Barsanti explained that a new planning committee has been established, composed of six pastors from across the diocese, one member of the finance council and eight chancery staff. That committee reviews departmental budget proposals and in partnership with the audit committee and finance council, makes budget recommendations for the bishop’s approval.
The Diocese of Syracuse is facing a number of challenges, Barsanti noted, chiefly the decline in active parish participation — about 3 percent each year; the decline in the number of active priests; facilities in need of repair; the parish reconfiguration process; and the management of the financial positions of parishes and the diocese.
In light of these challenges, Barsanti said, the question facing the diocese is “how do we continue evangelization as well as invest in our facilities and at the same time manage the operational side of the parish?”
A significant part of the plan is the ongoing parish reconfiguration process, he said, which is moving the diocese from 134 separate parishes to 27 pastoral care areas composed of parishes collaborating in leadership, operations and ministries. Also important are implementing best business practices, finding new efficiencies and managing finances.
Among the operational highlights offered by Barsanti: Over the last three years, total parish income has increased 6 percent to $55.8 million, driven by the increased offering program. Parish payroll and benefits have risen 3 percent to $26.5 million. Other operating expenses decreased 6 percent to $25.1 million, as diocesan assessments have decreased and properties have been sold. Program-related expenses have increased to $7.1 million.
PCA representatives talked about some of their recent communications activities. Don Nelson of St. Joseph the Worker Parish in Liverpool discussed the creation of a subgroup to formalize the PCA’s communication process, which will be rolled out in each of the area’s four parishes in the coming months. The subgroup will focus on communications related to the Mass schedule, cluster collaboration and issues that cut across all four parishes.
Mary Hallman, director of the Office of Evangelization, spoke about her office’s plans to work with parishes in the coming year, and Sister Laura Bufano, CSJ, associate director of the Office of Pastoral Planning, spoke about pastoral planning events to come, including information nights across the diocese and presentations by national speaker Dan Ebener in March. (The complete schedule will be available at syracusediocese.org/diocesan-offices/office-of-pastoral-planning.)
The next meeting of the DPC will be held in November.