The U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse has proposed a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People for consideration by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their meeting in Dallas on June 13-15. The committee, chaired by Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, of St. Paul-Minneapolis, had to deal with a complicated issue in a difficult environment, and it has done a remarkable job.
The charter is to be commended for placing concern for the victims first. Not only does it express the bishops’ great sorrow and profound regret for the damage caused by the sexual abuse by priests; it also says, We are profoundly sorry for the times when we have deepened its pain by what we have done or by what we have failed to do.... We apologize to them [the victims] and offer our help for the future.
The charter states that dioceses will reach out to victims/survivors and their families, and communicate sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being. They will offer counseling, support groups and other services chosen by the victim. The diocesan bishop will offer to meet with them, to listen to their concerns, and to share the profound sense of solidarity and concern’ expressed by our Holy Father.
Mechanisms to respond promptly to any allegation are also required, including review boards (with a majority of lay members) that will assess allegations and review diocesan policies and procedures. The charter forbids confidentiality agreements except when the victim insists for grave and substantial reasons. Within the confines of respect for privacy of the individuals involved, dioceses are to deal as openly as possible with the community, especially parish communities directly affected.
Any accusation of sexual abuse of a minor will be reported to the proper authorities, and the diocese will cooperate in their investigation. When the person is no longer a minor, the diocese will cooperate with proper authorities about reporting. In every instance, dioceses will advise and support a person’s right to make a report. When the investigation of a complaint against a cleric so indicates, the alleged offender is to be relieved of his ministerial duties and referred for appropriate medical evaluation, so long as it does not interfere with the investigation by civil authorities.
The committee is also proposing a strict policy for dealing with abusive priests. Effective immediately, even a single act of abuse of a minor will bring about a request for laicization, even without the consent of the cleric. Regarding acts of sexual abuse of a minor committed prior to this date, if the cleric is a pedophile, or if he has committed more than one act of sexual abuse of a minor, there will be a request for the cleric’s laicization, even without his consent if necessary.
Some in the church may find the standard for past abusers overly strict. Others will complain that the bishops have watered down one strike and you’re out to two strikes and you’re out for past offenses. The exception (one act against a minor) is very narrow, so narrow that it is hard to imagine that more than a handful of priests will qualify. Nor is the priest automatically returned to ministry. After treatment, his ministerial status must be considered by the diocesan review board, with an opportunity for input from the victim. He must cooperate in aftercare, fulfill any criminal penalty required of him, be regularly monitored and evaluated and be willing to accept public disclosure of his condition. If the judgment is that the one-time offender is not suitable for ministry, then he can celebrate Mass only privately, may not wear clerical attire, will not be listed as a priest of the diocese and must agree to restricted living arrangements.
The charter also calls for clear and well-publicized standards on sexual abuse, harassment and other forms of misconduct. Dioceses will use the resources of law enforcement to evaluate the background of all personnel. To assist in the consistent application of the charter’s provisions, the bishops will establish a national office that will help regions develop mechanisms to audit adherence to policies. This office will produce an annual public report on the progress made by dioceses in implementing the charter’s standards. This will hold the bishops’ feet to the fire of public opinion and ensure compliance.
This is a tough charter, which some bishops and priests may have a hard time accepting. Its requirements for reporting to civil authorities, public disclosure and forced laicization go beyond what some Roman authorities have proposed. To convince Rome to allow this charter to be binding on all bishops will require strong arguments from a united episcopacy. On the other hand, most of the charter can be implemented voluntarily without delay by the bishops in their own dioceses. If this happens, the first chapter of this ugly story will finally be closed and the bishops can begin rebuilding confidence by opening other aspects of the church to lay involvement, transparency and accountability.