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Is the Bishops' Response Adequate?

“From this day forward no one known to have sexually abused a child will work in the Catholic Church in the United States,” promised Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), after the bishops approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People by a vote of 239-13.

The June 13-15 meeting in Dallas of the Catholic bishops was unprecedented in its exclusive focus: responding collectively to what’s being called “Roman-collar crime,” the recent spate of charges and admissions of sexual abuse by priests and bishops, many of them involving youngsters.

The meeting was also unique in the pressure-cooker atmosphere created by the presence of so much media and the hurting and angry victim/survivors, especially those from SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).

In his opening address Bishop Gregory called the current situation “a very grave crisis, perhaps the gravest” the Catholic Church in the United States has ever faced. It is not about a lack of faith in God, he said, but “a profound loss of confidence by the faithful in our leadership as shepherds.”

He confessed the bishops’ guilt: “Both ‘what we have done’ and ‘what we have failed to do’ contributed to the sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy and Church personnel.”

After this forthright admission, the bishops humbly listened to lay experts before deciding what to do.

Charter Stronger Than Draft

This led the bishops in the amendment process to strengthen the thrust of the charter. They brought it much closer to the “zero-tolerance” policy that victims and many other U.S. Catholics wanted.

The charter says, “Where sexual abuse by a priest or a deacon is admitted or established after an appropriate investigation in accord with canon law...: Diocesan/eparchial policy will provide that for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor—past, present or future—the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry.” The bishop will suspend him and may initiate the laicization process, even without the priest’s consent.

The only exception will be old or infirm offenders, who can no longer minister publicly or present themselves as priests.

Does the charter go far enough? I believe it does. It provides for zero secrecy and keeps a clear focus on protecting children.

The charter commits bishops to do the following:

• emphasize compassion/outreach for victims and their families (Article 1);

• report all allegations of sexual abuse of minors to public authorities and cooperate in the civil investigation (Article 4); and

• set up review boards with a majority of laypeople to assess allegations and report to the bishop on fitness for ministry (Article 2). (See “The Church in the News,” p. 8, for more details.)

The charter goes into effect immediately. The canonical norms, which give the charter its “teeth,” were passed by a vote of 229-5 but still need the Holy See’s approval.

Charter Is Not Perfect

But the charter is weak in a number of ways. Its definition of sexual abuse, hidden in a footnote, is overly broad, as Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., from Fordham University, pointed out.

Another weakness is lack of emphasis on due process for the accused. The charter says, “When the accusation has proved to be unfounded, every possible step will be taken to restore the good name of the priest or deacon.” That is practically impossible now.

Furthermore, the one-strike-and-you’re-out policy may discourage any priest from voluntarily reporting an incident and seeking treatment.

Most importantly, the charter fails to provide penalties for bishops who violate this policy about reassigning abusive priests. The threat of publicity may not be enough deterrent. Only the pope can remove a bishop.

Fallout from this policy means that priests who once molested children, worked to rehabilitate themselves and never sinned again in this area in 20 or 30 years are now permanently out of ministry. Since January, more than 200 U.S. priests have been suspended or retired because of past actions—in a time of priest shortage already.

Many of the charter’s weaknesses were occasioned by all the media attention, which encouraged the simple solution and quick fix. On the other hand, it was the media’s diligence that was responsible for pushing this issue forward.

Overall, the charter is good policy because it is better to err on the side of protecting the young.

Still to Be Done

In the future, the charter’s principles need to be extended to religious order priests, brothers and sisters.

Serious, open reflection by the whole Church is needed on the larger issues like homosexuality in the priesthood, celibacy, seminaries and priestly formation, ordination of married men and women, recalling married priests to ministry and the role of the laity.

Parents still need to educate themselves about abuse, warn their children and listen to them when they say something doesn’t seem right about Father Doe (or their soccer coach or Uncle John). Sin is not going to be eradicated by any Church policy.—B.B.

The texts of the charter and norms awaiting the Holy See’s approval are available at www.usccb.org.


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