A conversation with Bishop Francis

Talking about the sexual abuse crisis, the community and the church

By Vanessa Denha Garmo

Some might call his ordination a baptism by fire; immedi­ately following his ordination as Bishop, he had to deal with the displacement of thousands of Iraqi Christians by ISIS.

Bishop Francis was ordained on June 14, 2014 just two weeks after ISIS invaded Iraq. He is now in his fifth year as the leader of the Chal­dean Catholic Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle of Detroit. He oversees 12 churches in his Diocese, a couple of missions — one in Bos­ton and the other in Jacksonville, the Shrine at the Our Lady of the Fields Camp, the Eastern Catholic Re-evangelization Center and more than 20 priests. Currently there are nine Chaldean seminarians at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

One warm fall afternoon last month, Martin Manna, Mike Sarafa and I sat down with Bishop Francis at his office in Southfield located at the Cathedral to talk about the crisis, the community and the church.

Without wasting time, we got right into the issues.

On coverage in the Chaldean News of controversial topics

“Nothing has been mentioned to me personally from our clergy but I am guessing it’s a knee jerk reaction to some of the articles including the gay brothers, which was a huge is­sue. Their stuff on social media was horrible,” said the Bishop as he pro­ceeded to show us some of the photos which mock the Church. “I got some backlash, none from priests or semi­narians but others who asked why we gave them a platform. Fr. Matthew did call me about being quoted in the article from a homily. He felt he was not quoted properly.”

Despite our efforts to address the concerns in the following issue, we still got push back.

“That brothers article could incite some people,” said Bishop Francis. “It gave a leaning towards stupidity of be­ing able to ‘pray your way out of being gay. These pieces seem to erase all the positive stories published.”

That wasn’t the only issue that sparked controversy over the years.

“I know that something I said during a homily was elevated to an­other level during the presidential campaign when the Chaldean News ran an ad supporting Barack Obama. I never said boycott the paper. Some people took up arms.”

The publishers didn’t all agree with that endorsement which was a response to President George W. Bush’s handling of Iraq. The com­munity is split politically today. Some agree that Trump is not a “true Christian” while others agree that he is more Christian than Obama.

“George Bush Senior was pro-abortion at some point but we need to ask, who do we want as President? Do we want someone who changed for the better and in line with the Christian teachings?”

We invited clergy to respond and write any articles they wanted and use our paper as way to evangelize the faith.

“They can respond to the Chal­dean News if they like but I don’t want to speak for others,” said Bish­op Francis. “If an article triggers a discussion and the article sways a certain way and the conservative church people sway the other way, it’s going to cause a response. This was also the case with opinion pieces including the one about the professor in the seminary. That was an opinion piece but it still incited people and most especially a few seminarians.”

On the sex scandal in the global church

“These are really broken down into two issues: financial scandals and sexual scandals. With the sexual scandals these can be broken down into three areas: religious person in church such as a priest, deacon or parent volunteer who engages in a sexual act with a minor (anyone under 18 years of age); secondly, an adult sexually harassing another adult and thirdly, consensual sex among adults.”

Bishop Francis is part of the United States Conference Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and is on differ­ent committees that have addressed these issues. The Conference of Catholic Bishops is positively mov­ing forward in addressing these issues on the highest level of abuse, includ­ing bishops.

“We will be looking for ways to make sure this does not happen again,” said Bishop Francis. “We need better checks and balances.”

Not coming forward on these is­sues is also part of the discussion. “It is how many families have dealt with crisis such as molestation. They will tell the Church but they don’t want to report it to law enforcement and they don’t want to pursue charges. I am not saying it’s right. It’s the real­ity. However, the Church must move forward with allegations.”

Any issue that deals with a minor, the Church is legally required to re­port it to the law and an investiga­tion will take place. Bishop Francis said they would always comply.

As for the sex scandal by priests in the Catholic Church in the Unit­ed States an independent firm did a study on priests who were reported abusers. What was discovered was that of all the priests who molested minors, 81 percent were male and of those, about 90 percent were post pu­bescent, older than 13 years.

“It is more of a gay problem than anything else. When you have priests preying on a 16-year-old, it is an at­traction to men,” said Bishop Fran­cis. “This revealed that those who committed sexual crimes against minors were more homosexual than being pedophiles.”

The prepubescent were less than 14 percent, according to this study. “It is important to note that not all gay people are molesters but most people who did molest were homo­sexual, according to this study.” For this reason, the Vatican decided that no one with deep-seeded ho­mosexual tendencies should enter the seminary.

As for our diocese, potential seminarians are given psychologi­cal evaluations and questionnaires through the seminary. The semi­nary also wants candidates to have abstained from dating for at least two years before entering seminary. “The diocese has also put a two-year wait after high school because the vast majority of seminarians who left seminary were those who entered right after high school,” said Bishop Francis. “We want to make sure candidates are mature. Our Chaldean Seminarians attend Sacred Heart Seminary and the seminary has done a tremendous job in screening seminarian candi­dates and forming them until ordi­nation.”

On the administration of the Detroit Diocese

“We were on survival mode at the time of my ordination,” said Bishop Francis, “and, it wasn’t our survival. It was the survival of the people in Iraq and the refugee problem. We are moving into a direction where we need more structure. We are hiring a Chief Financial Officer. We are also looking at hiring a Communications and Community Outreach Person and a Director of Religious Educa­tion,” said Bishop Francis. “The church, in its growth, needs others, especially the lay, to step up in areas of evangelization and governance. There are many on the parish levels who are doing great work, and now we are looking on a diocesan level. This is where individuals or organiza­tions like E.C.R.C. can step up and take greater responsibility. As for me, I want to be a bishop. I want to do more pastoral work and get the assis­tance we need with administration.”

“I want to visit parishes,” said Bishop Francis. “I promised to visit parishes and become more active also with the nuns. I am finally able to meet with them once a month where I deliver a talk and engage in an open session. As for parishes, it is a slower process but I’m getting there sooner or later.”

In Detroit, there are more than 18 priests, which translates to approxi­mately one priest per 10,000 people. Two seminarians will be ordained in 2019 and two in 2020 and soon we will have priests who will retire. It’s a heavy workload for these priests.

On a message to the community

“Jesus is beautiful,” said Bishop Francis. “That is the message of the Church. Regardless of all its growing pains, Jesus loves you. Judas doesn’t prove that Jesus is fake. There are priests and bishops who did the un­speakable and there are popes who did the unspeakable but that does not change who Jesus is. There are count­less popes, bishops, priests, and other religious who have done and contin­ue do wonderful work. The beauty of Jesus outweighs us. Someone who struggles to do the right thing should not be lumped into a group of people who fell. I need confession every month like everyone else because I am a person who too struggles with living his faith and struggles to grow but that my struggles don’t take away who Jesus is, what He has done and what He can do for you.”