During the coming year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will conduct its second review of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People to determine whether the document, which has been the guide for preventing abuse of minors by Catholic clergy since 2002, should remain in effect. The bishops may choose to modify the charter, as they did in 2005, or archive it, deeming it a useful but no longer relevant manual that has served its purpose.
The bishops should ask themselves three key questions to help them decide the future of the charter. The answers to these questions will likely help to clarify the reasons for retaining the charter and to motivate the bishops to make improvements that would make the charter an even better plan for dealing with a crisis that is far from over.
1. Has the charter been effective in meeting its goals of reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of future acts of abuse?
Within the first year after the bishops made their historic commitments to protect and heal, nearly every diocese and eparchy in the United States had initiated, if not completed, charter-mandated programs to deal with cases of sexual abuse. These programs have now improved to the point that several have become models for other religious and youth-serving organizations; and their accomplishments, as measured by statistics, are impressive. By early 2009 more than 1.9 million members of the clergy, employees and volunteers in parishes had been trained to prevent sexual abuse of children, and over 5.5 million children had learned how to recognize abuse and ask for help in potentially abusive situations. Background checks were completed on nearly 1.9 million adult laypeople and clergy in order to prevent pedophiles from gaining access to children through church activities. The most important preventive steps were, of course, the pastoral outreach extended to thousands of victims and their families, and the establishment of lay review boards to provide perspective and expert recommendations to the bishops.
These statistics represent an unprecedented attempt by church leaders to meet their stated goals, but until the effectiveness of these programs is demonstrated, many will wonder whether the establishment of the programs has been worth the diversion of time and resources from other ministries. Over $113 million and countless work hours were spent on the church’s child protection efforts between 2004 and 2008. While there is every reason to believe that these programs achieved their goals, no research has been conducted to evaluate the programs’ effectiveness. This research is desperately needed now to enable the bishops to make informed decisions about the content of the charter and to combine good shepherding with good stewardship. (The data I cite in this article can be found in the 2008 Annual Report on the Implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, U.S.C.C.B., Washington, D.C., May 2009.)
2. Does the number of current and past reports of abuse indicate that the problem of sexual abuse of children no longer exists in the Catholic Church?
The number of new allegations involving victims who were still under 18 years of age when the allegations were made appears to be diminishing, dropping from a high of 22 in 2004 to a low of 4 in 2007. Although many victims wait years before reporting sexual abuse, there is no indication that large numbers of incidents have occurred in recent years that have not yet been reported. On the other hand, the number of reports of “historical cases,” that is, allegations of abuse that occurred in previous years, is significant. The number of reports decreased from 1,083 in 2004 to 796 in 2008, but most of those incidents took place between 1965 and 1974. Still, as long as there are any allegations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy, past or present, the problem exists and the charter is relevant.
3. What is the likelihood that without the charter, bishops and priests will revert to their old methods of dealing with allegations of abuse?
It is difficult, even risky, to speculate on what actions a bishop or priest might take relative to a future allegation of sexual abuse. Even after the charter took effect, a few bishops and religious superiors did not follow the charter’s guidelines when they received new reports of abuse. Those few but notorious incidents reinforced the perception of many Catholics that the clergy could not yet be trusted to put the needs of children first. Nevertheless, even if every church leader were to handle every allegation properly from now on, this is not the time to “throw out the playbook.”
The underlying principles of the charter are strong, and it is reasonable to assume that an evaluation of the effectiveness of its programs would reveal that they have been successful in making children and vulnerable adults safer in church environments. This year’s mandated review of the charter also presents an opportunity for the bishops to consider additions that will make it a more comprehensive and useful abuse-prevention tool. Additions might include: identifying acceptable ways of dealing with clergy who have been removed from public ministry; extending the audit process to parishes, schools and religious communities; and providing more specific guidance on transparency and communication with the laity.
Much has been done to prevent the abuse of children in Catholic environments in the seven years since Pope John Paul II declared “there is no room in the priesthood for those who would harm the young” and the charter was approved. The charter’s mandates caused bishops to extend their outreach to victims, to create an awareness of the problem of sexual abuse of minors among responsible adults, to reject potential employees and volunteers who were not suitable to work with children and to remove dangerous predators from the priesthood.
Nonetheless, the stain of the sexual abuse scandal has so deeply permeated the fabric of the Catholic Church that, even as it appears to fade, it will never be totally eliminated. As the bishops conduct their review, surely they will recognize that the charter is a promise to the faithful that ought never to be broken.