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ONLY ON KRCG 13: Bishop lists top priorities - caring for victims, involving parishioners

Bishop Shawn McKnight addressed his goals for the diocese at an introduction shortly after he was ordained bishop of the Diocese of Jefferson City. (File)

Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City Bishop Shawn McKnight said Wednesday his top priorities going into his second year are caring for abuse victims and more heavily involving parishioners in decisions within the church.

On Feb. 6, 2018, McKnight was installed as the diocese's fourth bishop. He is one of the youngest bishops in the country.

From day one, McKnight said he has been committed to talking openly and honestly about the sex abuse crisis in the church. Some have called him one of the most transparent bishops they have ever encountered.

"I'll take that in a positive way," he said. "It's a nice compliment. It might mean that I'm not polished, and I don't care to be polished. I want to be true, genuine, authentic. That's what the crisis has revealed - certain in-authenticity with our leaders."

As part of the bishop's first year, he held six listening sessions - events where members of parishes across the state had the opportunity to explain their concerns with the Catholic Church and the direction it's headed.

He said going into his first session he was nervous.

"I was a little bit apprehensive not knowing what would take place," he said. "I fully expected people to be angry and they were genuine with me. That put me at ease. I was being genuine with them. I really wanted to hear what was on their heart and in their minds. They took me at their word. They trusted me and they expressed their thoughts and feelings. I respected that, and I do."

One of the six listening sessions was dedicated specifically for young adults in the church - those age 18-35. He said he was surprised to hear their responses.

"There wasn't any anger with the young adults," he said. "I was almost sad to see that this is what they kind of expect. This is the church that they've been raised in."

The transcripts from the listening sessions have been made public on the diocese's website. Names have been redacted to protect attendee's privacy.

"There was some anger, but also, I think we experienced what it means to be church," McKnight said, referencing the listening sessions. "Even in the midst of this crisis, working together."

He said these listening sessions revealed the need for systemic change, but the structure of the Catholic Church - having bishops and priests - is a historical practice. He said he does not want to hinder that, but he does think some change is necessary.

"Perhaps the way in which we pastors exercise the power and authority that we believe has been given to us by God - we have to do that better and that must include the cooperation and collaboration of the lay faithful," he said.

A significant event in his first year involved the public naming of 33 priests and religious that are credibly accused of abuse of a minor.

"I contracted an independent firm of former law enforcement officials including FBI to do a thorough review of all the files of our living clergy," he said. "From that review I surfaced these names that I knew had a record in the file of having a credible allegation against them."

After the initial release of these names, he said 18 more victims came forward and that lead the diocese to add three more names to the list. McKnight said putting it out there shows they want no secrets.

"They have a bishop who will listen and I will look into it and will take action if necessary," he said.

As for what's next, the bishop is working on a strategic plan for utilizing the laity of each parish. He said parishioners don't necessarily want democracy, but they do want to be able to provide input when it comes to big decisions in the church.

"We also need to find new ways for laity to be involved in the decision making of the church without violating our sacred tradition of having bishops and priests and parishes," he said. "It's the way in which that power and authority is exercised is what is key."

He said the strategic plan will most likely launch in the beginning of 2020. He said it is also going to bring focus back to the home - helping to nurture marriage and families within each parish.

He also added he has loved getting to know central Missouri and its diversity - from the Lake of the Ozarks to up near Iowa, from rural towns to busier cities like Columbia. He said he is looking forward to hopefully many more years.

"It's unbelievable how quickly time has gone," he said.

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