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Preventing Clerical Sex Abuse: How Are the Bishops Doing?
By Barbara Beckwith
In Dallas in 2002, the U.S. bishops initiated a comprehensive plan to stop the sexual abuse of children by priests or anyone representing the Church. Here, the chair of the National Review Board assesses their progress.


Released in March 2008, the 2007 Report on the Implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People sums up five years of accomplishments in the U.S. dioceses and eparchies to ensure that no child in a Catholic setting is ever molested again. It also points out the challenges that remain.

The Charter requires that “for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor, which is admitted or established,...the offending priest or deacon is to be permanently removed from ministry and, if warranted, dismissed from the clerical state.” When an allegation is made, he is usually put immediately on administrative leave until the facts can be established. To extend the umbrella of safety for children and young people, the Charter prescribes background checks for all who work with children in the Church and training on how to provide a safe environment. (The Charter text is available at

Since June 2007, Judge Michael R. Merz has been the chairman of the National Review Board, the 13-member lay group set up by the U.S. bishops in 2002 to monitor compliance with the Charter. Previous chairs include Gov. Frank Keating, Justice Anne Burke, Nicholas Cafardi and Dr. Patricia O’Donnell Ewers.

A graduate of Harvard College and the Harvard Law School, Judge Merz has been a trial judge for seven years for the Dayton, Ohio, Municipal Court and for 24 years for the federal court based in that city. Judge Merz has also taught at the University of Dayton School of Law and at the Ohio Judicial College since 1979.

He has served the Archdiocese of Cincinnati on its pastoral council for the past six years and has volunteered for several community organizations.

Thirty-five years ago, Judge Merz married Margot LeBreton Merz. She has a D.Min. in spiritual direction, and has taught at Catholic and Protestant seminaries, and at Catholic and public universities. She is now director of Corazon, a ministry of adult faith formation and spiritual growth. They have two children and two grandchildren.

Judge Merz, who sees this issue through the lens of a father, grandfather, judge and survivor of abuse by a Church employee, was interviewed in his courthouse office last June.

Q. What is the good news in the 2007 report on implementing the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People?

A. It showed 178 dioceses/eparchies to be in full compliance with every article of the Charter. That’s out of the 190 dioceses/ eparchies that participated. It represents a little more than a 93.6-percent compliance rate. (See sidebar for background on the Charter, audits and the work of the National Review Board.)

Q. Why are some jurisdictions still not meeting the goals of the Charter?

A. Anchorage, Baker, Baton Rouge, Boston, Denver, Galveston-Houston, Las Cruces, Rockville Centre, San Francisco, Tulsa, the Archdiocese for the Military Services and the Eparchy of St. Nicholas for Ukrainians (based in Chicago) failed to have 100 percent of those who come in contact with children in a parish, with children in Catholic schools or in religious education participate in “safe-environment” programs (Article 12).

Two archdioceses (Anchorage and Denver) had problems with the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse of minors (Article 4), but those were resolved after the audit had been done but before this report was published.

Las Cruces and San Francisco were having problems doing background checks on all their employees and volunteers (Article 13). [Galveston-Houston had a problem in this area at the time of the audit, but this was rectified before the report was published.]

Q. But there are 195 dioceses/ eparchies. Which ones chose not to participate?

A. We had 97.4 percent of the dioceses and eparchies participating. The Diocese of Lincoln (Nebraska), the Syriac eparchy (New Jersey), the Melkite eparchy of Newton (Roslindale, Massachusetts), the Chaldean eparchy in El Cajon (California) and the Ukrainian eparchy in Parma (Ohio) refused to participate in the 2007 audit process. [The eparchies, however, did participate in the study done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), based at Georgetown University.]

Q. Can anything be done to compel them to participate? Is it that the eparchies do not feel that they must respond to directives of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops since they represent Eastern Catholic Churches?

A. No, I don’t think it’s that. Audits are not cheap. Eparchies cover a lot of geographical territory, which makes the audits more expensive. The 2007 audit was accomplished by having one or two auditors on site in each diocese/eparchy, under the direction of the Gavin Group.

The Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, is a case unto itself. They don’t participate either in the audits or in providing data to CARA. Bishop Fabian Bruskewicz says he is observing the canonical norms, as he is obliged to do by the law. [Bishop Bruskewicz says that following the Charter is optional.] I suppose he thinks he is answerable to only the pope. Why would anyone insist on his personal prerogative when what we are dealing with is the protection of children? I don’t understand.

In my letter which accompanied this report to Cardinal Francis George, the president of the bishops’ conference, I said that Bishop Bruskewicz’s refusal to participate, “though undoubtedly within an ordinary’s canonical power, scandalizes the faithful.”


Fewer Incidents Being Reported

Q. CARA is charged with collecting information on new allegations of sexual abuse of minors and the clergy against whom those allegations were made. Does that show any trends?

A. I think it does give some indication of trends. New reports of allegations of sexual abuse continue to fall within the curve that emerged in the “Nature and Scope” study that was completed in 2004. Incidents peaked in the 1970s and early ’80s, and then there’s been a sharp drop-off. We need to find out why that happened.

Q. Was it the seminary training they had?

A. The preponderance of offenders reported in the “Nature and Scope” study are priests who were trained before Vatican II. Nobody coming out of the seminary immediately began abusing. There’s a lapse time for everybody. And we’ve got to figure out why.

That is why it is really important to do a serious social-science study of the pattern, instead of accepting people’s off-the-cuff explanations, like suggesting that the sexual revolution hit Catholic priests the same as everyone else, but 10 years later. Or suggesting this all could have been avoided if Catholic priests were allowed to marry. Or suggesting gay priests be eliminated. None of these things will explain the data we now have.

Q. Is that the reason for the upcoming “Causes and Context” study?

A. Yes, that’s precisely what we’re studying. The “Causes and Context” study is ongoing, but needs more funding. The bishops pledged a million dollars for this study, and have already released, I think, $400,000. There are other sources from which we are trying to raise the money. We’ve made applications to several federal agencies that would ordinarily fund studies of this kind, like the Centers for Disease Control. And we have made some requests to various foundations and individuals who are known to contribute to Catholic causes. So at present we are not expecting to have to go back to the bishops for more money.

Q. Is the goal of 100-percent compliance with providing safe-environment programs to all children and everyone who comes in contact with them possible?

A. First, there’s the difficulty of the sheer number of individuals in each category who need to receive safe-environment training. Second, they move around. People change parishes. People enroll their kids in religious education and then pull them out. Or they go one week and not the next week. If they are not there when the training is done, how do you keep track of that? To me, it’s a wonder that, with as mobile as our population is, pastors can keep decent records of those who have been baptized and have made their First Communion.

Think about a diocese with lots of Hispanic immigrants, some of whom may be here illegally. The public library here in Dayton, when I was on the board, had a big Spanish section, but couldn’t get people to take out library cards because they were afraid the police will get into the library records.

Let me say something about background checks, too. We think right now that approximately 20 percent of the active priests in this country are foreign-born. Doing background checks on them is not easy. Sometimes countries don’t keep the kind of criminal records we do. People from different cultures may have different attitudes about whether sexual conduct with a 15-year-old is appropriate or not.

Occasionally, some layperson will write in complaining that he’s been an usher for 50 years and nobody ever raised questions about his integrity before. And the answer is that just last year in Diocese Y an usher of 50 years was caught with his hand in the pants of some kid in religious ed classes. Just because 99 percent of the folks who have been ushers for 50 years are fantastic Catholics doesn’t mean that there is no need to check.

Q. What evidence exists that safe-environment programs are effective?

A. We have good anecdotal evidence. We had one case last year where first-grade kids who had just finished a safe-environment training program were out in the park for recess. A couple of them said to the teacher, “That guy over there looks funny.” It turns out that he was on the F.B.I.’s “10 Most Wanted” list as a sex offender.

I believe, however, we need to do some serious scientific study of the effectiveness of these programs. Once we’ve got the “Causes and Context” study fully funded, that will be our next research goal. We’ve had some preliminary discussions with top experts in the country about designing an effectiveness study.

The Catholic Medical Association recently denounced safe-environment training as ineffective. I found their study disappointing. All they did was a literature review of programs in public schools in the 1980s. We had offered to collaborate with them, but they were not interested in collaboration. Their review of the literature was highly selective. If you want to find out whether a program works, you test kids before they take the program and then you test kids after and you see if there is a change in their awareness and you see over time what the changes in reporting are.

Dr. David Finkelhor of New Hampshire reviewed some of the more recent studies for us [the National Review Board]. One conclusion he reached was that safe-environment training may not prevent the first incident of abuse, but it teaches kids to call abuse by its right name and it gets them to report a first instance. Then we’ll have an intervention in the abuse career of the perpetrator and get him off the street, rather than having repetition after repetition.

Q. If you compare the money spent on safe-environment training to other costs like legal fees and settlements, it’s like 2.2 percent. Isn’t that a good investment?

A. Right. And if you were confident that the money spent on settlements was able to heal the survivors, it would be worth it. But now we’re getting the testimony of lots of survivors who had gotten million-dollar-plus settlements who say that money doesn’t provide healing. Money may pay for counselors and psychologists, but, of itself, it doesn’t heal.

We’ve had a lot of survivors say that they would take less money if they could just get either the perpetrator or the bishop who put him in that position to say, “I made a mistake.”

Q. Since 2004 the number of credible allegations of sexual abuse and victims has gone down each year, but the number of offenders has gone up by five percent. Is this progress?

A. Sure. Part of the phenomenon of reporting sexual abuse is that the victim learns that it is O.K. to report it. There’s no secret about that. I myself am a survivor of Church abuse—not by a cleric but by a Church employee. I had never spoken publicly about it until this entire crisis started breaking in early 2002. This is not something everybody talks about even if they are not greatly traumatized. Now it’s O.K. to talk about it.

Q. Should the fact that 82 percent of the victims who have reported abuse were male and 18 percent were female send up a red flag about homosexuality as being part of this whole issue?

A. Whether the flag is red or not, it’s a data point that definitely has to be considered. It is a different pattern from society at large. Typically, we know from victimization studies about child abuse outside the Church, in society at large, that girls are more likely to be abused than boys and, in addition, that boys underreport abuse. The fact that we have such a high percentage of abuse of males is definitely something that needs explanation.

In the “Causes and Context” study, we hope to figure out the extent to which this is opportunity, the extent it is sexual orientation. When we were kids, it would have been more likely our parents would have let me, a boy, go for a weekend on a camping trip with a priest they knew, than you, a girl. That’s likely to be some piece of the explanation.

Q. Are there other things which make the pattern of abuse in the Church different?

A. This is not classic pedophilia in many ways, although there’s some of that. A few of the abusers have abused lots and lots of little kids. Almost 50 percent of the offenders that we know about offended only once—or at least we know about only one offense they committed. And the bulk of the offenses are against 10- to 14-year-olds. Most true pedophiles prefer their victims younger than that.

Q. Will all these lawsuits and settlements end sometime soon?

A. Yes. My understanding is that virtually all of the California cases have been settled that were opened after the window of opportunity was extended to older cases. Now if New York, Ohio or any other states would extend the window, then we might have a whole new round of litigation. The Charter ought to help limit future liability as well.

Q. Is a new Church growing out of this mess?

A. I think we are making good progress. I am very encouraged in a couple of places. There are reformers saying, “We ought to watch bishops more carefully.” An important step in the right direction is serious lay involvement in the Church. The diocesan financial councilors should have been taken more seriously. Nobody in the Vatican has told the U.S. bishops, “We don’t want any more of that National Review Board—get rid of those people.” That’s a good sign.

Transparency in the Church has to be learned as a way of life. That is part of what Teresa [Kettelkamp, the executive director of the bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection] meant in her cover letter to this report when she spoke about incorporating the Charter and its articles into the daily fabric of the Church.

There’s a conflict now between calls for transparency and people bemoaning the loss of privacy. It is hard to know exactly where we’ll come out on that.

Q. Nearly eight million priests, deacons, teachers and school employees, volunteers and others have received training on how to protect children in the United States during the last five years. That’s an impressive achievement. But does this account for the “issue fatigue” people are experiencing?

A. Undoubtedly.

Q. Ms. Kettelkamp also referred to the problem of issue fatigue. Why should people keep paying attention to this issue when in some cases it’s cost them their parishes?

A. Parents need to stay alert to the risks of child sexual abuse. As citizens, we can’t have juries going back to the idea that “It’s just sex.”

But there’s no way one could maintain the red-hot heat that happened between January and June in 2002. That’s not healthy, either. I don’t think we’re seeing issue fatigue resulting from people trying to comply with the Charter. We continue to have high levels of compliance.

The Charter is up for renewal in 2010. I’ll start being concerned about issue fatigue if revisions to the Charter weaken it, if we start seeing push-back like, “Well, we don’t need to do the audits so frequently” or “I’m not going to do safe-environment training anymore because I don’t believe it’s effective.” Then I’ll be really concerned.

Q. How has serving on the National Review Board affected your faith?

A. Well, I suppose I have met a much broader spectrum of practicing Catholics than I would have associated with in my parish here in Dayton. When you see people who have been so badly hurt by folks acting in the name of the Church, it’s a trial, it’s a test. It’s not ever pleasant work and it challenges your loyalty to the institution. But it doesn’t challenge my faith.

I’m a cradle Catholic and my family, on my father’s side, has been Catholic forever. So it is hard for me to separate my faith and the institution of the Church.

I don’t know of any other board member who has said, “Well, this really shakes my faith in God.” But nearly everyone I’ve worked with on the National Review Board has felt that this issue challenged their sense of the purity of the Church.

It’s just tough work. It’s not so much that we’ve had much interaction with abusing priests, but we’ve seen some of the cover-up stuff that is really unbelievable. You also see an awful lot of pain on the part of bishops who thought they were getting good advice and doing the right thing. And in retrospect you have to ask them, “How could you have thought that?” And many of them are saying to themselves, “How could we have thought that?” So it’s live-and-learn in a sense, but learn at what a price. What a price!

Q. How do you respond when victims and their families express their anger at you?

A. Well, I think the most important response is to listen. The anger that survivors or their supporters have is a healthy response to what they’ve suffered. Heaven knows it’s healthier than depression or self-destructive behavior, and so you listen. And you keep on listening because each survivor’s got a different piece of anger. He’s got his or her own anger to get out. So you listen. That’s the first, second and third thing you do: listen. And you hope that, when folks are ready to move beyond anger to healing, you’ve got some decent response to make to them.

Q. Are you getting the cooperation from the bishops that you expected?

A. You have to distinguish between the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an organization and the bishops as ordinaries and pastors. Some of them are more cooperative and collaborative than others. But the bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People has become more collaborative in the last couple of years, I think. I’ve got a great relationship with Cardinal Francis George [the president of the conference]. I’ve got his cell phone number and he’s got mine. When something comes up, we can call one another.

Q. Did Pope Benedict’s meeting, when he visited Washington, D.C., in April, with five people who were abused change anything?

A. It has changed things, I hope. I haven’t tested this empirically—I wouldn’t know how to—but I hope it has changed the perception of some in the survivor community that the Vatican just doesn’t get it. I don’t see how any bishop could say he doesn’t have time to meet with survivors. You know if the pope’s got time, any bishop ought to have time. It was the best support on the issue that we have had. The pope came here and actually devoted more of his visit to that issue than to any other thing. That was tremendously important.

Nicholas P. Cafardi, former chair of the National Review Board, tells the pre-2002 story in his recent book, Before Dallas: The U.S. Bishops’ Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse of Children (Paulist Press).

January 2002
Scandal becomes national after 10,000 pages of court documents in lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Boston are published.

April 2002
U.S. cardinals and USCCB officials meet with Vatican officials regarding sexual abuse of minors by clergy.

June 2002
Meeting in Dallas, the U.S. bishops approve the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and Essential Norms. They establish the National Review Board and a USCCB secretariat to monitor compliance with the Charter and issue an annual report. The bishops call for several studies.

December 2002
Kathleen McChesney is named to head the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection.

Spring 2003
Essential Norms are confirmed by the Holy See.

January 2004
First diocesan audit findings are released.

February 2004
John Jay College of Criminal Justice releases its “Nature and Scope” study.

December 2004
Dioceses and eparchies pay $93,364,172 in settlements.

December 2005
Dioceses and eparchies pay $386,010,171 in settlements.

June 2006
Charter and Norms are reconfirmed. Bishops pledge to spend up to $1 million on the second study (“Causes and Context”).

December 2006
Dioceses and eparchies pay $220,099,188 in settlements.

December 2007
Dioceses and eparchies pay $420,385,135 in settlements.

December 2007
The Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, the National Review Board and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issue their five-year report (, which is published in March 2008.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice projects completion of the “Causes and Context” study.

The seven articles in St. Anthony Messenger’s June 2003 special issue, “Crisis in the Church: Our Search for Healing,” remain available on this web site.

Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of this magazine. In 2002 she covered the bishops’ meeting in Dallas, which adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. This and related documents are available at

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