It’s the summer of 2002. Ginny Hoehne is sitting in a hotel lobby in Charleston, South Carolina,
her family milling about nearby, waiting for the police. Having their car stolen was not on the vacation itinerary.

Now all they can do is wait. And watch the hotel TV, which airs a meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops in Dallas regarding the Church’s sex-abuse scandal. Ever since the Boston Globe
published its expansive investigative report into the matter in January, the media coverage has been seemingly nonstop. By now for most people, a passing glance would suffice, but
Hoehne’s eyes remain fixed on the screen.

Hope Come and Gone

Hoehne’s son David was twelve when he was sexually assaulted by his parish priest in the early 1980s. Their house was just across the parking lot from the church in Fort Loramie, Ohio, and the family shared a neighborly rapport with the priests. “Unfortunately, our son was taken advantage of because of that,” she says.

She and her husband, Larry, didn’t learn of the abuse until more than a decade later, however, when David came to them in 1995. Their son’s secret then became their own, as David begged his parents to stay silent. “He was just so emotionally fragile that there wasn’t too much we could do,” Hoehne recalls.

In March 2002, David was ready to go public. He wrote a letter to then-Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk and the district attorney, outlining what had happened. The priest admitted to the abuse and was permanently removed from ministry, according to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

Three months later, the Hoehnes watched as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The Dallas Charter, as it is commonly referred to, provides guidelines and instructions for bishops to follow in cases of clergy sex abuse of minors. And for the moment, Hoehne was filled with hope that “these men actually meant what they said.”

The feeling was fleeting. After a meeting with Archbishop Pilarczyk in July, which Hoehne described as “standoffish and cold,” the Supreme Court of Ohio struck down David’s case against the archdiocese for having prior knowledge, citing he had filed the suit outside of the state’s statute of limitations. All hope was gone.

Burden Released

Peter Isely was also watching the Charter meeting unfold, not on TV, but from the sidewalk outside the bishops’ Dallas hotel. Like the Hoehnes, he had a vested interest: He, too, is a survivor.

Growing up in a devout Catholic family, Isely envisioned maybe becoming a priest himself. While at St. Lawrence, a seminary high school in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, he
was assaulted by a priest from age thirteen to seventeen. Like David Hoehne, it took him more than a decade to publicly acknowledge it.

And publicly he did. After reading an opinion piece by Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in November 1992, in which the archbishop stated too much attention was being given to a priest sex-abuse case, Isely could stay silent no longer. His open-letter response to Archbishop Weakland ran on page 1 of the newspaper the following Sunday. In it, he shared his story, calling on the need for correction not only of offending priests, but also of the entire culture that allows such abuse to occur.

Since then, Isely has remained in the public eye. A cofounder of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), he now serves as its Midwest director in Milwaukee. Isely can be seen around the country, joining in protests, giving speeches, and meeting with bishops, cardinals, and priests. He did all three in Dallas, and like the Hoehnes, he was initially hopeful at what he saw.

“When we went into Dallas, those of us who were survivors and all of us who have worked on this saw it as an unprecedented opportunity,” he says.

Although the Boston Globe report brought the clergy sex-abuse crisis into the limelight, many laypeople and those of the Church were aware of the situation before 2002. “This had really been twenty-five years of struggling with this,” Isely says. “So by the time the meeting happened, I thought that there’s so much information coming out now about the abuse. . . . [It was] a huge relief as a survivor, because it’s no longer depending on you and your story and your witness and testimony. It no longer matters if someone believes you or not, because now these are the words of the bishops and the officials themselves,” he says of the Charter. “That was an enormous relief for a lot of us and an enormous validation.”

Memories Reclaimed

Janet Clark only gave a passing glance to the Dallas coverage. At the time, it held little meaning. Although she was sexually assaulted by a priest in Cedar Falls, Iowa, at age twenty, the only way she could survive that 1979 event was to forget.

The repressed memories didn’t return for twenty-seven years, until she began to write a novel, Blind Faith, in 2006, in which the main character was sexually abused by a priest and later became an abuser himself. As Clark wrote, she remembered, and “I finally got to the point where I wanted to know,” she says.

Clark pursued legal claims against the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Through the process, she discovered her perpetrator showed a pattern of abuse as he went in and out of treatment centers. Had she gone to the Church first, she believes she would have never known the truth. “The hierarchy knows all about these situations,” she says, but “they really don’t care.”

Actions Speak Louder

The Charter marked almost two decades of the Church’s acknowledgment of the abuse allegations (see sidebar). For many survivors, and their friends and family, however, it is not enough. Action needs to replace words, many say.

“The Charter is a weak document,” says Kristine Ward, chair of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition, based in Dayton, Ohio. “It needs more than pretty words. It should never have taken the white heat of media publicity to get any kind of action out of the bishops. They knew much, much earlier [than 2002], and in the privacy of their offices and their chapels they had plenty of time to address this situation. They should have been as horrified as Catholics were when they found out this was happening.”

One of the Charter’s most basic flaws, according to Ward, is its lack of accountability for bishops. “It includes no penalties for bishops who do not comply with it,” she says. Although the Charter mandates that all bishops report allegations of sex abuse in all instances, “there is nothing that talks about discipline” if they don’t.

External accountability was addressed in the Charter in the form of diocesan review boards and annual audits, but the bishops still hold too much power in these areas, say Ward and Isely. The auditors of each diocese are only able to work with information the bishop discloses to them, so “there is no way for the people on the audit committee to know if they are getting all of the information,” says Ward. “And that seems a bit disingenuous.”

Although the Charter called for each diocese to form a review board that required layperson participation, it did not provide guidelines for its particular setup. Therefore, each bishop establishes his board and its proceedings as he sees fit. He decides which cases the board will review and with what information. “That’s been the problem,” says Isely. “It actually reinforces the bishop’s authority in this regard to make this determination.”

Isely says with this authority, in some cases the bishops have simply retired offending priests rather than sending them through the review process. “They don’t let us know who they are,” he says of the perpetrators. “They’re removed from ministry, but we don’t know it.”

Timed Removal

The USCCB adopted a “zero tolerance” approach to abuse: any priest or deacon found guilty for one act of abuse is removed from ministry immediately. For Isely, this change in Church law represented a significant step forward. “That was an unprecedented and historic change,” he says. “It’s very hard to change any institution, much less the Roman Catholic Church, and yet the one group that has succeeded in some way in doing it is survivors. I think that’s an amazing testimony to their endurance and their love and concern for this not happening to any other children.”

Isely was encouraged by the step, but he says the Church now needs to lengthen its stride. Even though an offending priest or deacon is removed from ministry, according to canon law, he still remains a priest: once validly ordained, a priest’s ordination never becomes invalid.

Isely has a problem with that. “Being removed from the public ministry is not sufficient in my mind,” he says. “If it’s confirmed it happened, you’re removed from the priesthood. Period.”

A priest or deacon’s removal from ministry, according to Church law, is valid only if a provable offense is brought to the attention of Church authorities before the victim’s twenty-eighth birthday. Anything from a victim after that age, and the Church’s statute of limitations applies, and the priest cannot be dismissed or judicially penalized for a provable offense. Further, each state has its own statute of limitations those who have been abused must abide by.

Ward, too, has a problem with that. “One of the main things that’s been learned in the crisis is how long it takes for a survivor to get to a place in his or her life where they will become public,” she says. “That can take until their forties, fifties . . . eighties. The length of time for which a survivor can come forward needs to be extended.”

Clark knows. It took her more than twenty years to come to terms with her abuse. “We need to get rid of the statute of limitations completely . . . for it often takes years for a child to feel safe enough to tell someone, and by then it’s too late to hold the offender accountable,” she says in her blog “Break the Silence.”

Ward emphasizes that this is not a financial matter. “There is a tendency to say it is all about money, and it is not,” she says. “Survivors are the first to tell you that they are the ones who went to bishops and said, ‘We just want this to stop; we don’t want this to happen to another child.’ But that didn’t stop it. And the only recourse then to make it public or to get the perpetrator’s name known so other children would be protected was to sue.”

Faith Betrayed

Fighting a public struggle is not the only battle survivors face. For many, an internal conflict of faith also wages on. Survivors “struggle mightily with their faith,” says Isely. “That’s a major element.”

For Clark, the abuse was too much for her Catholic faith to overcome. She now belongs to a Lutheran church in Rock Island, Illinois, with her husband. “The Church betrayed me,” she says. “I left my Catholic identity.”

David Hoehne also left the Catholic Church. Now living in Melbourne, Florida, he and his wife, Brenda, belong to a nondenominational church. “It’s very uplifting, and it’s where he needs to be now, with a joy-filled service,” says Ginny Hoehne, who herself remains in the faith. “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” she says, though she admits she doesn’t attend Mass regularly anymore. “I just can’t abide by the hypocrisy that is going on.”

And though she feels “the institution betrayed me, I am a more spiritual person now than I was back then,” she says. “It’s the institution, not the spirit of God, that I have let go of.”

“Even when victims are angry, you can hear their deep attachment to their spiritual homeland,” says Isely, including himself in the statement. “Many of us came from the most devout and loyal Catholic parents and families. That was given to me as a child before I even understood most of it. This truth was given to me, and I can’t betray it.”

Somehow, in this truth, Isely is able to commiserate with the bishops. “I think with the bishops, when I think the kindest about them, what they’re trying to do is that they are very concerned with altering anything within the structure and system, because they feel they might be altering the very mission and essence of what Christ left for them. And so it’s not just tinkering around with rules for them. I understand that. They’re trying to preserve a certain understanding and structuring of authority, which has resulted, I believe, in widespread and systematic abuse of children. They’re trying to preserve that, and yet deal with it, solve it. And that’s a really difficult thing to do.”

Conversation Started

Difficult, yes; impossible, no, says Hoehne, who thinks the Church needs to wipe the slate clean before change can occur. “They need to make a complete turnaround,” she says. “There’s going to have to be major changes and reconstruction. [They] keep putting icing on this cake, and the cake is getting moldier and moldier. [They’re] going to have to discard all of this and start anew. I really feel that is going to have to happen.”

Yet, according to Isely, “What we can do is try everything we can to create systems within the structure that is there right now. I still think reforms can go on—they have to—but there’s enough there now that came out of Dallas that I think you can see the results of the last ten years: how many priests have been arrested and convicted, how many of these documents have come out. There’s been enough within the Dallas Charter that has allowed for some extremely important things to occur.”

And it’s up to the laity to ensure things continue to occur, says Ward. “Catholics need to really come to grips with what has happened here,” she says. “They need to be vigilant. They need to have real accountability in their parishes and in their dioceses. And if they aren’t, they become complicit
in what is happening and in the continued suffering of survivors. It’s through the courage of survivors that we know that this happened.”

“Take the blinders off, please,” says Clark. “Don’t have blind faith. Question authority. Speak the truth.”

“That’s what we need,” adds Hoehne: “thinking Catholics.”

The sex-abuse crisis is not over. Further investigations have revealed it is a worldwide problem, and the Church continues to meet and form measures to address the situation. “That we’re now talking about this as a global issue, that is a huge success,” says Isely; “that there’s a conversation about the Vatican and how authority is structured around this and what is happening. So at least that’s being talked about now; that’s where the conversation is. Even getting it there is something of a miracle.”

It’s been more than fifteen years in the making for Isely, but in many ways, he sees his work as only just beginning. “The conversations can’t stop. In fact, in many ways, they’re just getting started,” he says. “Change doesn’t come easily, or fast. But each conversation, each meeting is a step in the right direction.

“I’ll tell people I’ve been at this at least fifteen years, and we’ve made more progress in fifteen years than fifteen centuries. That’s true. Every year feels like a century. But at least we’re having the right conversation now.”

A conversation that likely won’t stop anytime soon.

A Charter Report Card

The Charter is a collection of four general promises to the public. Each promise includes specific actions for U.S. bishops to follow. An annual public report compiled from audits of each diocese documents their compliance with the promises, or lack thereof.

In her book Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012, Kathleen L. McChesney, a former FBI executive who served as the first executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection for the U.S. bishops, grades the bishops on the effectiveness of their actions. Here is an excerpt:

Promise #1
To promote healin
and reconciliation with victims/survivors of sexual abuse of minors
Bishops’ Grade: B

Many bishops have put forth substantial effort in terms of pastoral outreach, reporting allegations of abuse, establishing lay review boards, setting standards of ministerial behavior, and developing open and transparent means of communication, says McChesney. Others still need work.

Promise #2
To guarantee an effective response to allegations of sexual abuse of minors
Bishops’ Grade: C+

According to McChesney, the bishops’ removal of priests has not beenas visible as it could be, though they have finally recognized that placing an allegation in the hands of a professional investigator is the best way to objectively examine a case.

Promise #3
To ensure the accountability of our procedures
Bishops’ Grade: B

To guide them on best practices and policies in preventing abuse, McChesney says the bishops wisely created the National Review Board and the Office of Child and Youth Protection (now the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection), which oversees the annual Charter compliance audits of every diocese.

Promise #4
To protect the faithful in the future
Bishops’ Grade: A

The bishops have had the most success here, McChesney believes, through the creation of safe-environment programs, background evaluations, and procedures for transferring/relocating priests.

For the full report card, refer to Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012 (see review; excerpted with permission).

 

The Church’s Response

The journey to the Dallas Charter was almost two decades long. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recognized the sexual-abuse crisis brewing in the 1980s. In 1984, it first focused on the issue by conducting research into the problem, which led some dioceses to develop policies on how to handle abuse cases. As new cases came to light, the bishops continued to discuss solutions. Action came in November 1992, when they recommended guidelines known as the “Five Action Principles.”

In June 1993, the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse was established to take proactive, consistent measures in addressing the problem. The committee issued a three-part public report, “Restoring Trust,” between November 1994 and 1996, in which it outlined treatment centers, addressed care and concern for victims, and provided research on various subjects related to abuse. The committee also provided educational opportunities for the bishops and researched ways for dealing with priest offenders.

Building on the “Five Action Principles,” the Ad Hoc Committee drafted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and a companion document, Essential Norms, which the bishops hurriedly passed in June 2002 and sent to the Vatican for approval.

Touted by some as the Church’s comprehensive response to the sex-abuse crisis, it has received mixed reviews from others.