Preventing sexual abuse of children
No issue in my 31 years as bishop has been more troubling and disturbing to me than the issue of sexual abuse of children by clergy or, for that matter, by any person, whether connected to the church or not. It is abhorrent to me, beyond words, that any priest would harm a child or vulnerable adult, and further do so in the sacred framework of the church, abusing the trust and privilege granted to them.
As you might imagine, the recent barrage of disturbing news from several European countries with new revelations of past abuse – including much media scrutiny about the pope when he long ago served as the Archbishop of Munich, Germany – only serves to remind me once again of the work still needed to remove this scourge from the church and society.
I am not alone in this, of course. At a recent meeting of the diocesan Presbyteral Council, the priests and I discussed at some length these recent international news reports. I could hear in their words, and see in their faces, the pain, sorrow and frustration this seemingly unending issue has caused. They shared what I already knew instinctively: that many of the faithful in their parishes were angry, disheartened and dispirited not only by what has been done to the victims, not only by allegations of cover-ups, but also at what they perceive as overzealous media attention, as well as the obvious damage to the credibility and reputation of their beloved faith.
For all these reasons, then, I feel it is important to address this issue once again, to share some thoughts about the current crisis and to update you on our own diocesan-parish efforts.
I hope my words will in some way assuage any anger or sorrow you are feeling, bolster your confidence in our local initiatives to make our church environment safe and holy, and encourage you never to give up on your faith or the power of the Risen Christ to heal those who have been harmed and to help us solve this crisis.
To begin with, regarding the recently published allegations and innuendo concerning Pope Benedict XVI, nothing that I have read has shaken my conviction that the pope is a man of the highest integrity. His strong words to church leaders in several European countries, as well as his past and recent public statements, could not portray a more determined hand in mandating the church use every means and resource to deal firmly with abusers and to make the church a safe and holy environment worldwide. Our interactions with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict led before he became pope, were always helpful and responsive in these matters. You can read a number of the pope’s recent public statements and review Vatican resources intended to combat sexual abuse of minors at www.vatican.va/resources.
Secondly, though some of you will likely disagree, I feel it is not constructive to blame the news media for their coverage of this scandal in the church. Might not this notoriety help us learn from the past? Won’t it spur us to create a safer, holier environment and a church as far beyond reproach as possible? Isn’t this an opportunity to highlight what I believe is the most active organization in the nation in terms of initiatives to protect the vulnerable?
To that end, I want to update you on our own diocesan efforts to protect the young. Many of these initiatives are based on principles developed by my brother bishops and me nearly 20 years ago, when the issue of clerical abuse of minors began to be more generally known.
I believe these principles are just as helpful today as they were then:
- Respond promptly to all allegations of abuse where there is reasonable belief that abuse has occurred.
- If such an allegation is supported by sufficient evidence, remove ministerial privileges from the alleged offender promptly and refer him for appropriate medical evaluation and intervention.
- Comply with the obligations of civil law for reporting an incident and cooperating with any official investigation.
- Reach out to the victims and their families, and communicate sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being.
- Within the confines of respect for privacy of the individuals involved, deal as openly as possible with the members of the community.
To help us follow these important principles, we established in 1993 a Diocesan Review Board to offer guidance in responding to allegations. We appointed victims’ assistance coordinators who would receive complaints and organize assistance that might be helpful for victims. And we instituted policies concerning sexual abuse and harassment, and provided training to all clerics and employees in these areas. We reported contemporary allegations of abuse to the appropriate civil authorities, with the result in some instances that diocesan priests were arrested, tried and convicted.
As you know, the abuse crisis widened substantially in 2002 through the reporting of The Boston Globe and other news organizations. In response, the USCCB developed the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and Essential Norms.
Based on the Charter, and on our own desire to strengthen our efforts, the Diocese:
- Strengthened the Review Board, particularly with the addition of individuals with extensive law-enforcement experience.
- Worked to develop open, working relationships with current law enforcement officials throughout the 12-county diocese.
- Reviewed our past responses in individual cases and, when appropriate, removed offenders from public ministry.
- Strengthened our screening process for applicants seeking admission to the seminary or deacon formation program.
- Began a program of background checks, including criminal history for clerics, educators, employees and volunteers who would work with children and vulnerable adults.
- Developed Codes of Conduct, and educated clerics, educators, employees and volunteers concerning their applicability in specific settings. Those codes can be reviewed online at www.dor.org.
- Publicized contact information for our victims' assistance coordinator and offered training to all clerics, educators, employees and volunteers on the process of reporting allegations.
- Encouraged victims to report to civil authorities and to seek assistance. In addition, we have continued to report contemporary and past allegations to appropriate civil authorities.
In addition, to ensure ongoing compliance with the Charter, we have taken part in annual compliance audits conducted by the independent Gavin Group. I am proud to report that we have been found in compliance in every instance and, in many cases, commended for a particular program or approach.
It is worth noting that, since 2002, we have conducted background checks and provided training for approximately 25,000 clerics, educators, employees and volunteers through our Creating a Safe Environment program. Some 72,000 young people in our Catholic schools and religious-education programs have received prevention education.
Finally, this summer we will launch a new program called Safe and Sacred aimed at retraining our people in all diocesan organizations and entities.
Through all of these efforts, we have learned much as individuals and as a diocese about the issue of sexual abuse. We remain committed not only to preventing abuse within the church and in every corner of our diocese, but also in the secular communities of which we are a part.
The problem of sexual abuse of children is not confined to the church but exists in all of society. Most abusers, in fact, are relatives of those abused. Yet this sad fact does not relieve our priests, deacons, any pastoral ministers or diocesan employee or me from the mission of protecting children and vulnerable adults in our parishes, schools and agencies.
I pledge to you again as your bishop that we will do all we can to ensure the safety of children in our diocese. Even one case of sexual abuse of a child by a cleric would be one too many. Even one case of sexual abuse of a child in the home or at school or by anyone anywhere would be one too many.
Indeed, the headlines remain difficult.
They are hard for the victims, their families and loved ones. They are hard for me. They are hard for my brother bishops, for the pope, for our priests, for all who work for the church. And, certainly, they are hard for you.
I pray you will not lose heart.
I hope all of us, when we are dispirited by all this negative news, will keep in mind the incredible good the church does in our community and our world every single day. That good work does not, of course, heal the hurt caused by abusers. But I do hope that recalling what we are capable of as a church and as people of faith it will bolster our confidence and our faith.
Please join me in my fervent prayer that our church will indeed conquer this issue of sexual abuse -- that our church will be safer and holier for our children. I believe that our determined effort will, with God’s good grace, deliver us from this evil.
Peace to all.