Archdiocese’s Abuse-prevention Efforts Date Back to 1990s
By Michelle Martin
October 11, 2018
One thing that has become clear since the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy made headlines again this summer is that many people don’t know the steps the church is already taking to prevent abuse, and to investigate allegations when they arise.
The Archdiocese of Chicago was ahead of most other dioceses when the scandal broke in Boston in 2002, said Mayra Flores, safe environment coordinator for the archdiocese.
The archdiocese had put many measures in place under Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in the 1990s, including the creation of a review board with a majority of laypeople to review all allegations against priests and a ministry to assist victims of clerical sexual abuse.
“What stood out in Cardinal Bernardin’s vision was the outreach to victims,” Flores said. “He saw a need to say, ‘I’m sorry this happened to you. How can we help with your healing journey?’”
Since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops passed the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and adopted its accompanying Essential Norms, the archdiocese has added programs designed to ensure a safe environment for children, a “prayer and penance program” to supervise and create accountability for priests withdrawn from ministry and annual audits to make sure parishes and schools are meeting their obligations.
All of those functions fall under the umbrella of the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, said Mary Jane Doerr, director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth.
“It’s one office that is responsible for the implementation of everything in the charter,” Doerr said. “From Article 1 to Article 17, you don’t have gaps.”
That means, for example, that there is one database for every employee and volunteer who have completed safe environment training through the Virtus program and have completed all the background checks necessary for their positions, and, if necessary, training as mandated reporters of suspected child abuse.
It also means that someone from the Office of Assistance Ministry, which offers pastoral care, support and resources to victim-survivors of clerical sexual abuse, accompanies Leah McCluskey, director of the Office of Child Abuse Investigations and Review, whenever she meets with victim-survivors.
As soon as an allegation comes in, Doerr said, the office also checks to see if the accused perpetrator is in compliance with all the training and background checks required.
While the archdiocese has seen a decline in the number of current cases, there is a spike in the number of older cases that are reported every time clergy sex abuse is in the news. People sometimes also come forward to report abuse that happened to them or that they may have witnessed years ago after undergoing Virtus training, Doerr said.
“Getting allegations is not a bad thing,” Doerr said. “We want to know.”
When someone contacts the office with an allegation, they begin with McCluskey, a licensed social worker. In their initial conversations, McCluskey explains the investigation process and tries to determine if the victim-survivor was abused as a child or an adult, whether it happened in the archdiocese or was perpetrated by a priest or deacon in the archdiocese, and, if so, whether the priest or deacon is still alive and in ministry.
No matter what, McCluskey said, she reports the allegation to the appropriate state’s attorney’s office, and advises victim-survivors on how they can make their own report to civil authorities.
Then, if she determines that the priest or deacon in question is under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Chicago, she proceeds with the investigation. If not, she notifies the appropriate diocese or religious community, as well as telling the victim-survivor whom they should contact.
“We get reports of abuse that took place outside the archdiocese,” she said. “It’s not someone else’s responsibility to figure out whom they should be talking to. Nine times out of 10, they’ll say it took them multiple attempts to make that initial phone call, so we don’t want to make this any harder for them.”
If the abuse happened in the archdiocese, and the alleged abuser is an archdiocesan priest, McCluskey and Thomas Thayeril, director of the Office of Assistance Ministry, meet with the victim-survivor. Many meetings take place in the OPCY offices, which are not in the pastoral center, but McCluskey and Thayeril also travel — sometimes out of state — to meet with victim-survivors if they cannot or do not want to come to OPCY.
Those interviews are recorded, with the victim-survivors’ permission, and after they are transcribed, a copy is sent to the victim-survivor so she or he can make any corrections or clarifications.
“Sometimes if a person has been thinking about this incident, more details come to them,” McCluskey said. “Maybe they remember a color of a car, or a particular scent. Sometimes there are things they can’t talk about, but they can put them in writing.”
If the accused is alive and still in ministry, she will also meet with the person to get a response, and send the report to the Independent Review Board, which advises the archbishop on allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors. The board is not involved if the accused priest or deacon has died, because he does not pose an ongoing threat, or if he has been laicized, because the archdiocese no longer has authority over him.
“The review board basically is looking at two things: the safety of children and fitness for ministry,” McCluskey said.
The board is composed of six laypeople — a parent, an attorney, a parish pastoral council member, a social worker, a child psychiatrist and a victim-survivor or parent of a victim-survivor — and three clerics, including at least one priest and one permanent deacon. There are also two at-large members, who can be either lay or ordained.
After the initial review, the board makes a recommendation to the archbishop as to whether the allegation warrants temporary removal from ministry and further investigation. During that phase, McCluskey said, her office might be asked to gather more information or speak to additional people to help the board determine if there is “reasonable cause to suspect” that the abuse happened.
That bar is intentionally much lower than the standard of proof in either a criminal or civil court case, she said.
The process can take time, and it doesn’t start until any civil or criminal investigations have ended so as not to interfere with those procedures. However, the board can recommend that the archbishop make an interim decision to suspend a priest or deacon from ministry as soon as they learn that he is being investigated for sexual abuse, McCluskey said.
“He can ask someone to step aside,” McCluskey said.
Flores said many victim-survivors who come forward say they need to know what the archdiocese is doing to prevent the abuse that happened to them from happening to anyone else.
The archdiocese requires Virtus training, a criminal background check and a signed agreement to abide by the code of conduct for all employees and volunteers. Those who work with children also must pass a child abuse and neglect screening process with the Department of Children and Family Services. Clergy, school staff and volunteers such as catechists and youth ministers must complete training as mandated reporters of suspected child abuse, and school personnel also must pass a fingerprint check.
“We want parents to know that everybody who interacts with your child is going to be Virtus-trained, that we have a group of adults with the same training, the same vocabulary, who know what they should be looking for, what they should report,” Flores said.
Children in Catholic schools and religious education also get safe environment training, which aims to teach them how to speak up if something makes them uncomfortable.
“We want to teach them that they have a right to be respected, they have a right to be safe, they have a right to report,” Flores said. “They have a right to say no.”