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Abuse Crisis: Why It's Not Yet Over


An Ongoing Issue
Where the Laity Comes In
Openness Is Required

On July 5, Judge John W. Potter approved a settlement between the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, and over 100 victim-survivors of clergy sex abuse. The diocese has secured $40 million for the settlement fund and is working to recover another $80 million from insurance companies.

A month earlier, former Covington priest and convicted sexual abuser Earl Bierman died in prison. In reading the coverage of both stories, I realized that, while both of these events represented milestones in a sense, neither will bring closure to the victims. Recovery from sexual abuse is a lifelong journey.

Three years ago, when the clergy sex-abuse crisis became big news nationally, the coverage seemed to be everywhere. We here at St. Anthony Messenger devoted our entire June 2003 issue to the crisis. But as is often the case, after a while interest began to fade. We began to hear from our readers: “Enough already. Let’s just move on.”

And I must confess, there have been times when I have wanted to scream, “Enough already!” I have wanted to say that myself, as a writer who reports on the issue in this magazine’s “Church in the News” column every month, as a mom who can’t stand to hear of one more child being hurt and as a parishioner who gets tired of seeing my parish— with four of its past priests accused of sex abuse—on the nightly news.

But each time I begin to feel that way, I remind myself that for so many victims, this story never goes away—won’t go away. And as much as I’d like to act as if this never happened, I can’t. It did, and those who were hurt will continue to hurt for a long time to come.


An Ongoing Issue

Over the past three years, the U.S. bishops have also learned that recovery from this crisis is going to be a long and painful process. In fact, during their June 16-18 annual spring meeting in Chicago, clergy sex abuse was again a major topic of discussion. At that meeting, the bishops took some important steps toward realizing that this crisis isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

The bishops voted to adopt revisions of both the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the related Essential Norms, which carry the force of Church law. They also made the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse a standing committee, renaming it the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People.

They passed a “Statement of Episcopal Commitment,” which is a mutual pledge to help one another fully implement the Charter and Norms.

And the bishops promised to provide up to $1 million of their own reserve funds to help finance a study on the causes and contexts of clergy sex abuse. The study, called for by the Charter, will cost between $2 and $5 million. It is expected to be the largest study ever conducted on the issue of sex abuse of minors by clergy. The bishops and the National Review Board also conducted a confidential national online study earlier this year asking sex-abuse victims for their input on how the Church can better prevent sexual abuse of minors and how best to respond to those who have been abused. The survey is part of the Response and Prevention Project. As of this writing, the survey’s results were scheduled to be posted online ( by late summer.

But despite all these steps forward, there continues to be room for improvement. For instance, neither the Charter nor the Norms nor the “Statement of Episcopal Commitment” were passed unanimously. I can’t begin to speculate why, but I do know that a unanimous vote would have sent a powerful message.

And when the latest round of audits by the National Review Board was released in February, seven dioceses were not yet in full compliance with the Charter. The Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, chose not to take part in the 2004 audits, saying that the audits were “voluntary” and not required by Church law.

So while I say kudos to the bishops for continuing to move forward on a very painful and challenging issue, I also say, keep going. There’s still a long way to go.

Archbishop Harry Flynn, head of the bishops’ committee on sex abuse, acknowledged this need when asked about complaints from victims’ groups that the Church still wasn’t doing enough. “Look about you. See what has happened in the past three years and see what is going to happen in the next three,” he said. He also added that for some victims’ groups, “no matter what we did or said, it would not be satisfactory.”

Where the Laity Comes In

That’s where we can help. This is an opportunity for Catholics to put their faith into action. But first we have to care. No more “Enough already.” No more “Let’s just move on.”

So why should we still care? There are a lot of reasons. We should care because there are still victims who have not come forward and there are victim-survivors who are hurting and struggling to go on with their lives with the memory of their abuse. We should care because, while it may help them to move forward, no monetary settlement is going to erase the pain of the abuse these individuals have suffered. We should care because “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). For those reasons, and more, that’s why we should care. —S.H.B.

The revised Charter, Essential Norms and “Statement of Episcopal Commitment” are available at

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