Editorial: Protecting Our Children
April 20, 2016
Earlier this week, the Washington Post criticized our Holy Father, Pope Francis – and by extension the Catholic Church – for having “fallen short of his own promise: to come fully to terms with decades of child sex abuse by clergymen and the institutional cover granted to them by bishops and cardinals.”
It is clear that the scourge of child sex abuse has touched every segment of society. It has occurred within the Church – for which we continually express our sorrow and contrition – it has also occurred in public schools, juvenile detention facilities and youth groups, and it affects people of all backgrounds, occupations, and faiths. In fact, the Post itself highlights the breadth of this society-wide problem in its own reporting on this issue, which you can read here. Without minimizing or deflecting from the responsibility of Church authorities for what happened in the Church, it is likewise essential that we realize the full scope of this plague in our communities and of the failures in addressing this evil throughout society.
In the face of the destructive crime of sexual abuse, which robs children of their innocence and can leave behind substantial emotional and spiritual scars, the priority of us all must be to do everything we can to prevent it and help survivors to heal. The Church – and specifically the Archdiocese of Washington – has for many years been resolute and worked hard to institute safeguards, to deal openly and decisively in rooting out perpetrators, to help survivors to heal, and also to foster reassurance that our churches and schools offer a safe and secure environment. Just as important, the pro-active steps the archdiocese has taken can guide the rest of society as it considers how to address this darkness.
Since 1986, fifteen years before the extent of the child abuse scandal came to light, the archdiocese has had a comprehensive child protection policy. Under this policy overseen by the Office of Child and Youth Protection, seminarians, clergy, teachers, other employees and volunteers who work with children undergo comprehensive criminal background checks and are required to be trained in child protection. The children in our schools and programs receive safe-environment lessons to learn to recognize inappropriate behavior and teach them what to do if someone acts inappropriately toward them.
Assistance is always offered to any victim of sexual abuse. These victims are treated with respect and with compassion. The archdiocese pays for counseling or therapy of their choice, which is provided without regard to legal obligation and irrespective of whether the person has proved his or her allegation. The archdiocese has never denied assistance to a victim on the basis that the statute of limitations bars his or her claim, and we never will.
In the archdiocese, all suspected allegations of abuse must be reported immediately to civil authorities. By cooperating in criminal investigations, the archdiocese has facilitated the criminal prosecution of those who have abused children in the archdiocese’s care, and we will continue to do so.
A Child Protection Advisory Board of lay experts, including at least one victim-survivor, monitors the archdiocese’s efforts and publishes reports of any allegations received. In addition to the Board’s oversight, third-party auditors also review the archdiocese’s implementation of its policy, and have found the archdiocese to be in full compliance every year with archdiocesan policies and the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. You can read the charter here.
Unfortunately, some do not seem interested in reporting on these extensive efforts that have produced real progress and safety for children in the Archdiocese of Washington. Instead, it seems that the Post is intent on singling out and demonizing again the Catholic Church in a way that only leaves the wrongs of others in the dark.
Proposals such as the bill in Maryland that the Post refers to seem well-intended at first, but a closer look reveals they aren’t really about protecting children or addressing the broad societal issue of child abuse. Maryland’s bill would have essentially applied only to claims against private institutions like the Catholic Church to allow for large monetary damages in civil cases involving decades-old allegations. Public schools, meanwhile, would be exempt from such financial risk since victims of alleged abuse at those institutions typically only have a window of only a few months to seek civil damages.
Furthermore, while many claims of child sex abuse are meritorious, some are not. A lengthy or non-existent statute of limitations opens the door to specious claims, harming the ability of an innocent person who is accused to defend him- or herself. As a result of unreasonable delay, witnesses and/or evidence may have been lost or no longer available. This does not serve either claimant or accused.
Our society as a whole should engage in an effort to protect children from this scourge of child abuse because it is a societal problem. The best way to do this is not by singling out the Catholic Church for scorn and potential monetary damages, turning a blind eye to abuse in public institutions by advocating legislative measures that shield local governments from that financial risk. Instead, the most effective and meaningful way to address child abuse would be by enacting comprehensive child protection programs as the Catholic Church has done, and by educating children and adults about the universal nature of this evil and how we can work together to prevent it from happening.
Such proactive steps would offer a true path to healing and justice for our society and our people who have been wounded by child abuse, rather than attempting to solve the problem through unfair legislative remedies.