When the Catholic Bishops of the United States adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in June 2002, they included a provision calling for a review of the charter in two years. An Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse (A.H.C.S.A.), established for this purpose by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has now begun this review process. This does not mean that the charter is in limbo. It remains the policy of the U.S.C.C.B. until it is replaced by a revised charter. But this is an appropriate moment to ask, to what extent has the charter accomplished what it was intended to accomplish?
Before attempting an answer, I would like to describe the situation the bishops’ conference faced in 2002 and what it was trying to do.
At the start of 2002, the crisis of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, which had been so intense in the early and mid-1990’s, seemed to have passed. Few new complaints of abuse were being brought to dioceses, and the number of clergy referred to treatment centers for this problem had dropped steeply. The bishops’ own actions had contributed to this positive outcome. By the 1990’s, virtually all dioceses had developed policies for dealing with the sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
In June 1993 the conference established the A.H.C.S.A. This review committee immediately gathered and examined those existing diocesan policies on sexual abuse. This led to a series of recommendations, which either affirmed what was already included in the policies or suggested ways to strengthen them.
Although the bishops’ conference was able to adopt the charter swiftly, speed should not be confused with acting in haste. The charter was adopted so quickly because its elements had been discussed at length by the bishops. Not only had these particulars been discussed, but many of them were already operational by June 2002. Review boards to advise bishops on abuse cases, reporting instances of abuse of minors to the designated authorities, outreach to victims, the employment of victims’ assistance coordinators, the screening of candidates for holy orders, background checks on employees—all these things were happening in dioceses around the country.
Despite this, the crisis of 2002 had its origins in real mistakes made in the past. These errors included a reliance on secrecy, where transparency was needed, and a failure to take the Catholic people into a bishop’s confidence. That failure sparked, in turn, a lack of confidence in a bishop’s decisions. By neglecting to tell the whole story ourselves, we allowed others to interpret our actions, often in the most negative light.
The reassignment to ministry of clergy who had offended and then received effective treatment was one matter on which the conference never came to a consensus during the earlier stages of the crisis. In the charter debate of 2002, it remained the most contested subject. Yet it was over the question of whether bishops were tolerating the presence in ministry of offenders who might offend again that a breach of trust was most keenly felt by the Catholic people.
Implementing the Charter
Article 8 of the charter set up an Office of Child and Youth Protection (O.C.Y.P.). Under the leadership of Kathleen McChesney, this office has provided both assistance and accountability. It offers support to the diocesan safe environment programs, to victims’ assistance coordinators and to the outreach programs that are part of the charter framework.
Perhaps the O.C.Y.P.’s greatest contribution so far has been the development of its first annual report on the implementation of the charter. Article 8 instructs the office to produce “an annual public report on the progress made in implementing the standards in this charter.” In 2003, O.C.Y.P. concluded an audit of 191 of the 195 dioceses and eparchies. The report issued on Jan. 6 of this year is now the authoritative source for the actions taken by Catholic bishops of the United States on sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. It provides the public with a comprehensive national picture of the bishops’ actions and an evaluation of each individual diocese. This first report is being supplemented by a second audit process, which is now underway.
That report found that the vast majority of dioceses were implementing all relevant aspects of the charter. Relatively few still needed to catch up with some aspects. But the audit did not find resistance to the charter’s principles and procedures.
As a result, Catholics throughout the United States can be assured that cases of abuse of minors by clergy are reported immediately to the proper public authorities. Bishops are consulting with boards—a majority of whose members are not in the employ of the diocese—on the diocesan policy for dealing with clerical sexual abuse and for advice on the handling of individual cases as well. Catholics can be certain that no bishop will transfer a priest who has offended from one ministerial assignment to another or from one diocese to another.
The charter also established the National Review Board (N.R.B.). This board was asked by the bishops to “approve the annual report of the implementation of this charter in each of our dioceses/eparchies, as well as any recommendations that emerge from this review, before the report is submitted to the president of the conference and published” (Article 9). That approval was secured in the case of the first report.
The charter also instructed the N.R.B. to commission two studies, and the board has overseen the successful completion of the first. This is a study “of the nature and scope of the problem” of abuse of minors by clergy within the Catholic Church in the United States. This very important statistical survey of the years between 1950 and 2002, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, is already recognized as a significant contribution. Moreover, it also aids the bishops’ own understanding of the problem and thus their ability to deal with it effectively.
Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the bishops’ commitment to implementing the charter is their removal from active ministry of clergy for whom accusations of sexual abuse of minors have been proved or admitted and also of clergy for whom proof of abusive behavior is still pending.
As I indicated, in the charter debate of 2002, the most difficult issue was the one on which consensus was never reached in the previous decade of discussion—the reassignment of clergy who had offended but who had received successful treatment. Without Article 5, which called for the dismissal of a cleric for even a single act of abuse, the charter could well have been approved even more quickly. If it covered only future acts of abuse, that also might have shortened the debate. A policy stating that every future act of abuse would bring with it removal from ministry and possibly dismissal from the clerical state would simply mean that we were implementing what canon law already provides for.
But the proposal to make removal retroactive as well caused bishops to ask about the priests who had owned up to their misconduct, cooperated in treatment and had served faithfully since. Was a bishop to break faith with them? There was also the question of whether or not the church was now about to say that this is a case of the one unforgivable sin. And since the U.S. bishops have opposed “one-size-fits-all” penalities in secular criminal law, some asked whether they were adopting such a penalty for this misconduct, which included the gravest violation of another person and what seemed to be less grave offenses against others.
A Moral, Pastoral and Legal Issue
As important as these perspectives are, this matter had to be looked at not only canonically but also from the moral and pastoral perspectives.
The attitudes of many concerned groups have to be considered. First are the victims. Many more of them have been coming forward for the first time after many years. Clearly there was no statute of limitations on their suffering. Parents also have a right to expect that their children will be safe in the company of any cleric. The attitude of civil authorities, many of whom have launched investigations or legislative initiatives, had to be taken into account. Lastly, there was a risk that the general public might begin to perceive the priesthood itself as a safe haven for criminal behavior.
For more than a decade, many bishops tried to retain in ministry offenders who, after state-of-the-art in-patient treatment, seemed sure not to reoffend. While this was sometimes done with public disclosure of the priest’s past misconduct, too often it was not. This left bishops open to the charge that all they were doing was transferring priests from parish to parish. In truth, these priests were often reassigned only after professional treatment and careful consideration of whether or not it was safe for them to serve. But an image was created of a hierarchy and a priesthood that saw themselves above the law.
Although we categorically reject the contention that bishops acted outside or above the law, we bishops have now been asking ourselves whether we had mistakenly thought we had the skills and resources necessary to assure that an offender would not reoffend.
We were not, however, declaring that there is an unforgivable sin. We remain committed to contributing to the rehabilitation of offenders. Every sin can be forgiven, but sin also has consequences. In this case, one consequence is that an offending cleric cannot remain in ministry or, in some cases, even the priesthood.
The John Jay Study
The information from the John Jay study is significant here. While each case has to be judged on its own merits, this study points out important characteristics of the offenders and their behavior. It helps us in considering how to deal with the problem overall. Three points are worth noting.
First, the problem has shown itself to be more pervasive than we thought. For the period surveyed, 1950 through 2002, the study found that there were over 4,000 priests accused and over 10,000 victims. Clearly bishops need to exercise the utmost vigilance to make sure that this never happens again.
Second, relatively few clerics committed only the most minor acts of abuse. The study shows that the behaviors reported by the dioceses usually fall well within anyone’s definition of sexual abuse.
Third, while some have emphasized the study’s finding that the majority of accused clerics (56 percent) allegedly abused a single victim, it would be a mistake to equate this with a single instance of abusive behavior. In fact, in most cases, the abuse consisted of a pattern of sexual acts occurring over weeks, months or, in some cases, years.
The “one-size-fits-all” criticism reflects a different question from the one we bishops had to ask ourselves—a question not about the degree of punishment deserved by a particular act of abuse but whether a cleric with a proven or admitted act of sexual abuse can and should function in ministry.
Pastoral and moral considerations played an important role in making our determination. For example, is sexual abuse of a minor viewed by the public as so serious a crime that bishops will be unable to assign these clerics to normal parochial positions? Does the diocese have the means to supervise the behavior of these clerics at all times to assure that they never have unsupervised contact with youth? If the diocese were to reassign a man, how should it go about this?
This last question raises significant concerns. Reassignment without disclosure caused great damage to the public perception of how seriously the bishops were dealing with this problem. Indeed, a main reason for the collapse of trust by parishioners was the fear that there might be clerics serving in their parishes who had abused a child. Since for the most part, parishioners (and perhaps the pastor) did not know whether such clergy were assigned to their parish, they might be in any parish. The reputation of the whole priesthood and, possibly, of each priest could be affected by uncertainty about whether priests who have offended are being returned to ministry.
Weighing on the bishops more heavily than issues of reputation or credibility has been the safety of young people. The reassignment of even one priest who then harms another child is utterly unacceptable.
To keep children safe and to restore trust and confidence, it became necessary to remove all offenders. Thus everyone could be sure that no cleric with a proven or admitted charge of abuse was serving in public ministry. To consider reassignment now would require a commitment to disclosure of the cleric’s misconduct as a sine qua non to avoid compromising the security of young people and destroying the trust we are dedicated to rebuilding.
Even disclosure does not provide a simple solution to the reassignment dilemma. Besides raising the possibility that it may make it difficult to assign the cleric, there is the question of what constitutes “disclosure.” Is it to the professional staff, or the parish council, or the whole parish? If the latter, considering that new people regularly move into a parish, how often is disclosure to be made? Once a year?
Past mistakes have limited the bishops’ flexibility today. The crisis arose, in part, from a serious discrepancy in the way these cases had been handled from diocese to diocese. How are we to be confident that poor choices by a few dioceses in the future may not once again become a burden to all? Does not this concern require a commitment to a clear and unanimous approach for which the bishops will hold one another mutually accountable?
Despite its own qualms about the bluntness of this so-called “zero-tolerance” policy, the National Review Board concluded in its Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States that “for the immediate future,” this policy “is essential to the restoration of the trust of the laity in the leadership of the church, provided that it is appropriately applied” (p. 58).
Loss of faculties to minister and even dismissal from the clerical state are not the same as losing one’s life or liberty. And while ordination does confer certain rights and privileges, it is a gift of God and his church for the service of others. The church has always been ready to act, if the ability to serve is significantly impaired in some way and the common good of the church is jeopardized.
A just process must be followed in deprivation of ministry or dismissal. When guilt or innocence is yet to be determined, the law must protect the rights of the accused. We believe that the “Essential Norms,” revised in consultation with and approved by the Holy See, provide this protection. Currently the bishops are cooperating with the Holy See to see to it that the cases of clerics with accusations of abuse from past years are dealt with justly and as speedily as is consistent with justice. But when guilt has been proven or admitted, the obligation to protect the community must become paramount.
Lastly, when we bishops criticize secular society for adopting a “one-size-fits-all” approach, we are talking about a system of law that has a wide variety of alternatives—numerous lengths of sentences, suspended sentences, probation, community service and all the rest of the panoply that secular law has developed so that the punishment can fit the crime. Bishops do not have such a wide range of options.
While there has been much attention paid to the issue of accused clergy, it is essential to keep in mind the charter’s overall and ultimate purpose, which is the protection of children and youth. Bishops are fully committed to dealing with the problems that remain from past abuse by helping to heal the injured and dealing justly with the accused. But the charter aims to prevent abuse in the first place by taking the steps necessary to do so.
To return to my opening question, the charter has accomplished much of what it was intended to accomplish. The N.R.B. report mentioned earlier, while not treating either the charter or the “Essential Norms” as perfect documents, states that it is the board’s “most urgent hope...that the bishops zealously enforce and adhere to the Charter and the ‘Essential Norms,’ which then can serve as a beacon for the church in other countries, for other churches and ecclesial communities, and for secular organizations” (pp. 10-11).
The charter has made a difference in every diocese in this country. This can be said on the basis not of anecdotes gathered here and there but of facts verified by a national audit.
That, in itself, is an accomplishment of the charter.