|Reaction to the
Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People
Thomas Doyle, O.P., J.C.D.
1. This is the strongest, most unequivocal statement that the US Bishops or any group of bishops have made concerning sexual abuse by the clergy and the related cover-up by the bishops and other church leaders. It will be received with skepticism and doubt by many because of the bishops’ history of broken promises and empty statements.
2. The bishops of our country (and other countries) have made similar statements and promises in the past. These statements for the most part, have not been followed by consistent action. The promises have generally been empty, giving rise to the presumption that their (the promises) purpose was primarily to garner good public image for the bishops in the face of growing criticism for their actions and inactions over sexual abuse. In fact, in many documented instances, the promises were followed by actions that were totally contradictory to the content of the public statements made by bishops.
3. The true test of the US Bishops’ sincerity and the most significant and convincing sign that they are beginning to understand the horrific devastation that sexual abuse has caused for so many will not be by mere words. No matter how poetic, emotional and direct the statements may be, they are worthless without consistent and hard-hitting action. If there is no sign of compassionate outreach to victims and survivors, this Charter will be relegated to the same dustbin with past statements from the US Bishops.....the dustbin of irrelevance and uselessness. If this charter is not followed by immediate action that convinces the victims and survivors and the millions who support them, that the bishops are beginning to “get it” then the anger of the past months and years will increase and the credibility of the bishops and many clergy will never be restored In effect, the bishops’ unfortunate march backward into irrelevance will increase to a gallop
4. Historically the Catholic hierarchy has dealt with problems both big and small, with words. Statements, decrees, outlines, procedures and now charters, have been the medium of choice. These statements are often presented to the interested group or to the general public in a general, impersonal manner. In the case of sexual abuse by the clergy and related cover-up by the bishops, such a method of communicating concern and commitment is totally inadequate unless it is followed by decisive action. The bishops must cross the divide between themselves and the faithful, especially the victims and survivors, and enter into their world and begin to not simply acknowledge, but to understand their sense of emotional and spiritual devastation.
5. The bishops must understand that they have lost the trust and credibility of the victims and survivors but also of millions of others, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. They stand before people who have matured in their attitude towards the Church, its leadership and its clergy. They will no longer blindly accept without question the words of the bishops. If, as the days and months unfold, the survivors and those who support them see no action consequent to the Charter, they will demand reasons why and will accept nothing less than unequivocal truth.
6. Particular observations:
a. The overall impression is that the various boards, committees, office and procedures remain in the total control of the bishops. There must be a collaboration and inclusion of lay people is not mere token but actually shares authority and decision making power with them. If this is not part of the Bishops’ methodology then their credibility with regard to the Charter is immediately called into question. In the past they have failed miserably at policing the clerical system.
b. Article 3: Confidentiality Agreements. This statement must be clear and must state that such agreements will be entered into only at the express request of the victim/survivor.
c. Article 4: Reporting to Law enforcement. This article does not specify when the report is to be made and it must specify that such a report will be made as soon as there is a substantial allegation. If there is question about the substantial nature of the allegation, the quandary is resolved in favor of the alleged victim and the report is to be made.
d. Article 5: The Preliminary investigation. There must be no confusion about the purpose of the canonical investigation and any subsequent canonical action. This canonical procedure does not replace the civil law criminal procedure or any investigation initiated or envisioned by civil law authorities. This article must be clear on the distinction between the two areas of responsibility. It must also clarify that the canonical penalties are not a substitute for civil law penalties but are penalties imposed in addition to any civil law penalties.
e. Article 8: Office for Child and Youth Protection. The method of appointment of members must not be left solely to the General Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference. To do so immediately compromises the integrity of the office and calls into question the ability of the office members to act with complete independence and integrity. There must be some mechanism or procedure whereby lay groups can take part in the nomination and veto procedures for the membership.
f. Article 9: Review Board. For this board to have both credibility and effectiveness it must be independent of the Bishops’ Conference even though it may come into existence through an action of the conference. To ensure this the tenure of the membership should be structured in such a way that they do not have to fear termination or dismissal should their feedback be threatening or disagreeable to the bishops. In short, if the review board has evidence to state that a bishop, group of bishops or the entire bishops conference is acting irresponsibly, they must be able to do so without fear of reprisals.
7. The Status of Confirmed Sexual Abusers: priests or deacons
a. This is understandably the most visible and emotional element of the charter. By constant dwelling on this aspect in their individual and collective pre-Dallas statements, the bishops have almost isolated it as the most pressing issue. In fact, it is not the pivotal point in determining the sincerity of the institutional church’s commitment to eradicating the problem of clergy sex abuse. The real pivotal point is the personal and compassionate outreach to the victims.
b. The statements in Article 4 basically paraphrase the median penalty envisioned by Canon law for a cleric proven to be a sexual abuser in violation of canon 1395. Permanent removal from ministry amounts to a permanent suspension which can be accomplished by a bishop only by means of a tribunal/judicial process. To do so by means of an administrative act will necessitate the special permission of the Holy See. The article implies that this suspension will take place in every case wherein it is proven that a cleric has sexually abused a minor, past present or future. In dealing with past offenses then, the bishops will need a waiver from the present canonical norm of the statue of limitations.
c. Concerning laicization (commonly referred to as “defrocking”) the Charter states nothing new or radical. An offending cleric will be given the option of petitioning the Holy See for laicization with the assurance that it will be quickly granted. In some cases the bishops may decide to ask the Holy See to laicize or dismiss a cleric without his consent. This too is a process that has been followed for at least the past 5 years in this country.
d. The bishops had no authority to authorize a “zero tolerance” policy on their own. To definitively dismiss a cleric from the clerical state...i.e., to defrock or laicize him, can only be done on the diocesan level by means of a canonical trial. This is a lengthy, complex process. With a good defense attorney a convicted cleric could avoid the imposition of the most severe penalty available to the tribunal, which is dismissal from the clerical state. Thus, this avenue would be practically useless in achieving the goal of removing offending clerics from the clerical state.
e. The only other alternative for the bishops would be to request the Holy See to give them the power to laicize or defrock clerics using an administrative process. The Vatican would almost certainly not permit this because of its fear that accused priests would be denied due process or that bishops would use the process to unilaterally get rid of clerics deemed troublesome for other reasons.
f. A possible course of action for the bishops would have been a specific petition to the Holy See for a streamlined and expeditious process whereby proven abusive clerics (past or present) would be laicized by the Holy See. Such a procedure, if actually followed by bishops, would possibly have satisfied the demands and concern of victims and survivors and others. Short of this, the proposals in the Charter are nothing different than what is presently contained in the Code of Canon law.
g. The Code of Canon law (both editions, 1917 and 1983) contained explicit procedures for investigating allegations of sexual abuse, documenting such investigations, prosecuting allegations in a judicial forum, imposing punishment and providing just compensation to victims. Yet the provisions of the Code were never faithfully followed anywhere in this country. The reason they were not followed and consequently serve as no guarantee of a just solution to the problem of clergy sexual abuse, is the stark fact that they are totally controlled by the bishop. There is no such thing as a separation of powers in the Catholic church. In each diocese the offices of executive, legislator and judge are combined in the bishop. Hence, the inability for full accountability is canonically institutionalized.
8. The Status of Confirmed Sexual Abusers: bishops.
The second sentence of the preamble admits that bishops have sexually abused children and adults in the past. The day before the Dallas meeting started it was announced that two bishops had resigned because of alleged sexual abuse of members of the faithful community. Since it is entirely possible that past instances of sexual abuse by clerics who are now bishops will be uncovered in the future, it is reasonable to have expected that this aspect be taken up by the bishops.
a. In the United States at least 12 bishops have resigned because of allegations of sexual abuse in their past. What about future allegations? How will they be handled and who will handle them?
b. The Code of Canon Law shields bishops from any litigation on the local level. Canon 1401. 2 states that it is the right of the Church to adjudicate cases involving the violation of ecclesiastical laws.
c. Canon 1405, 1, 3 reserves to the pope cases of bishops that involve violation of penal laws. Sexual abuse of a minor is such a penal law (canon 1395). Canon 1405. 3 reserves to the Roman Rota all contentious cases (civil cases) involving bishops.
d. Thus it is clear from the Code that if an allegation is made against a bishop that the procedures of Art. 5 could not apply. The only power in church law competent to deal with accused bishops is the Holy See either in the person of the pope or through the Roman Rota.
e. Articles 1 and 2 refer to persons who claim to have been sexually abused by anyone acting in the name of the church. Does this include bishops? Will a diocese, a metropolitan archbishop, the Apostolic Nuncio or some official of the Vatican provide pastoral care and compassionate outreach to persons who have been victimized by bishops?
f. Art. 5 begins with a quote from the pope: “There is no place in the priesthood....for those who would harm the young.” There are cases in the US and throughout the world of bishops and even cardinals harming the young and adults through sexual abuse. Did the pope intend to include bishops in his statement. If not, then we have hear another glaring example of the clericalism that has thus far protected those in episcopal orders from answering for their offenses.
g. In speaking of ecclesiastical crimes most generally focus on the violation of canon 1395 which refers to sexual abuse. However there is another canon that is very pertinent and one which clearly applies to the various kinds of spiritual abuse that has been inflicted on those who have initially been sexually abused. That canon deals with abuse of power:
“C. 1389. 1. One who abuses ecclesiastical power or function is to be punished in accord with the seriousness of the act or omission not excluding deprivation from office unless a penalty for such abuse has already been established by law or a precept.
2. One who through culpable negligence illegitimately places or omits an act of ecclesiastical power, ministry or function which damages another person is to be punished by a just penalty.
h. Is not the failure to act upon reports of sexual abuse by a priest a violation of the abuse? What about permitting diocesan attorneys to use tactics that further demean and re-victimize victims? Is not the imposition of threats and other forms of intimidation upon victims so as to discourage them from pursing allegations against priests a clear abuse of episcopal power? Would anyone ever have any hope of pursuing such a case? I would hesitate to respond with a resounding NO because I even wonder if certain powers in the Vatican might jump at such a chance to teach offending hierarchs a lessen and thus reduce the chances of a further deterioration of the already decrepit image of the Catholic episcopacy.
i. The omission of any mention of how to deal with offending bishops is but another aspect of the Charter that compromises any possibility that it will be a serious step in the process of rebuilding episcopal credbility.
8. The Charter is concerned with the protection of children and young people. Yet the majority of those actually sexually abused or harassed by Catholic clerics are adult women. Although society rightly considers child sexual abuse to be horrific beyond compare and rightfully so, this is no excuse for the bishops to have ignored the issue of sexual abuse of women. This issue demands as much attention as the sexual abuse of children and young adolescents. Sexual abuse no matter what the age of the victim, is devastating with life-long consequences. To even entertain the erroneous belief that adult women somehow are partially responsible when they are sexually abused is infuriating to victims and holds the bishops or anyone who purports such an idea up to ridicule.
9. The bishops did not address the issue of their own responsibility for the cover-ups. Mention was made by Bishop Gregory in his otherwise outstanding statements. Yet the body of bishops failed to honestly confront the most vital aspect of the crisis. The actions of the bishops are what have engendered the anger and even fury of the victims, survivors and others, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. This issue must be dealt with in an open and honest forum participated in by not only bishops, but victims , laity and other concerned clerics. This single issue is the one that is pivotal for the bishops credibility. It is the reason for the lack of trust and its resolution will be the single most important aspect if the bishops ever expect to be presumed credible.
10. The Charter should have included a section specifically devoted to the demeaning and destructive hard-ball tactics employed by diocesan and insurance lawyers. The bishops should have pledged some form of reparation for this gross re-victimization of so many survivors. They should also have pledged an immediate end to such tactics.
11. The Bishops, in the Charter or elsewhere, should have addressed the gross misrepresentation of this problem by certain Vatican officials, bishops and cardinals in other countries and in certain unofficial Vatican publications. To address such outlandish characterizations of this problem would in no way deny anyone’s freedom of expression. To have failed to do so significantly adds to the re-victimization and humiliation of the victims and survivors. The statements by certain Latin American cardinals and bishops as well as certain Vatican officials, are self-serving, clericalist and totally devoid of any semblance of compassion or concern for the victims.
12. The restoration of the bishops credibility and trust is secondary in importance to the healing of the victims and survivors. This will only begin when the bishops and other clerical leaders of the Catholic church move beyond words and begin to consistently act in a manner that convinces the victims, the survivors, their supporters and people everywhere that they truly are concerned not with their power and position but with the emotional and spiritual well-being of those who have been horrendously harmed by clergy sexual abuse.
June 16, 2002
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