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Clergy Sex-abuse Crisis: What's Coming?

In his presidential address to the U.S. bishops at their annual meeting last November in Washington, D.C., Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, spoke of the importance of communio, a communion in Christ, within the Church.

“Nothing,” he said, “has damaged the communio of our local Churches—and indeed of the whole Church in the United States—more than the crisis of the sexual abuse of minors.”

This month we head into the third year of dealing with the current phase of this crisis. During that time, report after report about the crisis has led some Catholics to start turning a deaf ear to the issue.

In fact, following this magazine’s June 2003 special issue on the crisis, we received a number of letters imploring us to move beyond the clergy sex-abuse issue.

But we can’t. Not now, not yet. This issue is too important, there is still much work to be done and we—as members of the Church community—all have an important role to play in helping the Church to work toward healing.

Bishop Gregory echoed that sentiment in his address: “If the scourge of sexual abuse is to be effectively eliminated, then the energy of the whole Church needs to be directed to this end. Bishops, clergy, religious and laity must together make this goal a common purpose of our communion in faith.”

On the Horizon

When the U.S. bishops met in Dallas to draft the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in June 2002, they pledged to take certain concrete steps to confront the issue of clergy sex abuse. During the next two months, we will begin to witness some of the fruits of those promises. Three major studies called for in the Charter will be released.

The first study scheduled to be released is the report of the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, headed by Kathleen McChesney, on the audits it has conducted in order to determine the degree of compliance by each diocese or eparchy with the Charter.

The Charter called for each diocese to implement a number of procedures and practices, such as the establishment of a lay review board. The report, which is slated to be released on January 6, will assess how well each diocese has implemented those procedures.

Then in late February, the National Review Board (NRB) will release the “nature and scope” study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

This study is designed to show the extent of clergy sex abuse by Catholic priests and deacons within the United States from 1950 through 2002.

An accompanying report by the Review Board—Part I of the “causes and context of the current crisis” study—will help flesh out the numbers of the John Jay study. The Board’s report will be based on their own work, including 57 interviews they conducted with cardinals, bishops, priests, victims, psychologists, civil authorities, attorneys and numerous other individuals.

Part II of the “causes and context” study—the epidemiological dimension of the study—will also get under way this spring with the Review Board preparing a Request for Proposal for this research.

Justice Anne Burke, who is serving as interim chair of the National Review Board, told the bishops in November that the Board “is thoroughly convinced that the remaining study, the ‘causes and context’ research, is essential so that we can understand the underlying causes for the current crisis within the Catholic Church in the United States.”

Work Still to Be Done

While those upcoming reports and studies are significant steps forward in dealing with this crisis, and they will certainly grab the headlines and people’s attention, we must also remember that there are issues that still need to be addressed and others that are ongoing.

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, head of the bishops’ ad hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, outlined some of those issues at the bishops’ meeting last November. He highlighted the establishment of a national database of offending clergy, ongoing outreach to victims, the implementation of the Essential Norms by religious orders of men and an evaluation of the Charter to begin early this year.

Doing Our Part for Communio

If we have learned anything from this crisis, it is that we have to stay alert and be vigilant. That means we must ask questions, stay informed, seek the truth and demand answers. It is our responsibility as part of the Church community.

Bishop Gregory has said the Church has “turned the corner” in dealing with the sex-abuse crisis. He is also very aware, however, that there’s still a long way to go.

“We’re not at the finish line, but we certainly have made significant progress,” Bishop Gregory said at a press conference last November. “Turning the corner does not mean crossing the finish line.”

This spring, as the clergy sex-abuse scandal once again grabs the headlines, we will be reminded of that. That line will only be crossed in time—and in communio.—S.H.B.

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