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