Even those critical of the Catholic Church’s past responses to clergy sexual abuse agree that the way it handles present-day abuse allegations has improved since establishment of a nationwide program to protect children.
In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops created the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which established norms for responding to abuse allegations and for creating safe-environment programs in dioceses throughout the country.
Since that time, the USCCB has required all bishops to remove from ministry any priests found to have committed abuse. Policies are in place in dioceses nationwide for reporting abuse to civil authorities, conducting background checks of employees and volunteers, and training adult employees and volunteers on how to identify and prevent abuse.
The program has won over some critics of the church’s past responses to sexual abuse.
“I think the church has done a wonderful job in its safe environment program in creating an environment going forward where there is professional training of everyone who is involved with the church,” said Francis Piderit, a member of the leadership team of Voice of the Faithful New York, the Archdiocese of New York’s affiliate of the lay group that has been critical of the church’s historical attempts to respond to abuse.
Piderit said that since the 2002 adoption of the charter and related safe-environment programs, the Catholic Church has become a model for other faiths, which are now beginning to create similar training initiatives.
Locally, the Diocese of Rochester has trained 23,000 adults in how to prevent sexual abuse. Age-appropriate parish-level and Catholic school safe-environment training also is available for young people..
“(I)n response to our terrible, painful experience — and I would never want to minimize in any way the horror of that — out of that tragedy there come some very good things that the church at the local level and the national level has done,” observed Bishop Matthew H. Clark.
According to the USCCB, which is observing April as Child Abuse Prevention Month, more than 1.8 million clergy, employees and volunteers across the nation were trained between 2003 and 2007 in how to create safe environments and prevent child sexual abuse. More than 5.6 million children have been taught how to recognize abuse and how to protect themselves. Background checks have been performed on 1.5 million volunteers and employees, 164,000 educators, 51,000 clerics and 4,955 candidates for ordination.
Jack Balinsky, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Rochester, said that the Rochester Diocese has long been on the forefront of efforts to reach out to abuse victims.
“This didn’t become a national public issue until 2002, and our bishop in 1993 wrote a letter to be read in all the parishes saying that if anybody feels they have been victimized please come forward, and we have been aggressively trying to say to victims that help is available,” Balinsky said.
In 1993, the diocese instituted sexual-misconduct workshops for all employees, created an advisory board to counsel Bishop Clark on sexual-abuse allegations and appointed victims’ advocates. Balinsky said the diocese has been in dialogue with a number of victims, and has provided support and some settlements. Aid to victims has included psychological counseling, pastoral outreach and other forms of help.
“Most often folks approach us not looking for publicity, but looking for assistance, and they are looking that we take measures so that such things are not repeated,” Bishop Clark said. “And we try to the very best of our ability to do that.”
In New York state, the Catholic Church has spent or committed more than $21 million to help prevent sexual abuse of minors in the future and to help adults who as minors were abused by clergy. Nearly $13 million has been provided in direct assistance to victims who were abused decades before the allegations were brought forward, according to the New York State Catholic Conference.
The Catholic conference has said it supports new state legislation that would make background checks mandatory for all public and private employees who work with children, expand the laws to require reporting of child abuse to include clergy and others, and extend statutes of limitations on criminal charges for other sex offenses.
Bishop Clark said the church’s abuse-prevention efforts and advocacy on local and national levels will ultimately keep kids safe.
“It’s the kind of work which if joined by all the entities who work with children in similar fashion, it will yield a much better world tomorrow,” he said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Victims of abuse should always report to the civil authorities. To report a case of possible sexual abuse, and to receive help and guidance from the Diocese of Rochester, victims are encouraged to call Barbara Pedeville, the diocesan victims’ assistance coordinator, at 585-328-3228, ext. 1215, or 1-800-388-7177, ext. 1215, or e-mail email@example.com.