October 14, 2022
Today’s headlines tell the story: Children everywhere may face the tragedy of sexual abuse, and every institution that cares for them must have responsible programs in place to protect the children they serve. This year, we mark the 30th anniversary of how one institution, the Archdiocese of Chicago, stepped forward to establish comprehensive policies to address the sexual abuse of children by its priests. As one who was there as these policies were being crafted, I believe it is important to review their impact and the hard work of protecting children still going on today.
In the early 1990s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, then-archbishop of the Chicago Archdiocese, recognized that only by breaking new ground could progress be made in healing victims of abuse and holding offenders accountable. The Chicago Archdiocese’s trailblazing policies called for a review board consisting of a majority of laypeople with relevant expertise, including an abuse survivor or family member. The review board was designated as the principal adviser to the archbishop on the risk to children and fitness for ministry of any archdiocesan priest accused of sexual misconduct with a minor. The board was staffed to process and investigate allegations, and a hotline was established to receive reports. Equally important, the policies also created an assistance ministry to reach out pastorally to survivors of abuse to provide care and promote healing.
Over the past 30 years, the archdiocese has welcomed reviews of its policies by civil authorities and experts in the field. As a human institution, the archdiocese made mistakes but repeatedly demonstrated a resolve to learn from those mistakes and improve and expand its policies to reflect a growing awareness of the nature of sexual abuse and the lifelong damage it causes.
In 2002, the archdiocese’s then-decade-old policies and programs served as a model for the U.S. bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” Cardinal Francis George of Chicago led a delegation of bishops to Rome that secured the Vatican’s approval of the U.S. Charter and Essential Norms as church law. In 2003,, the archdiocese established the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, or OPCY. To this day, the OPCY improves, expands and administers programs for the screening and training of every archdiocesan employee and volunteer involved in the care of children. It has screened 253,000 employees and volunteers and has held 8,000 training sessions in which 143,000 archdiocesan employees and volunteers have received training in meeting their responsibility as mandated reporters under the law and in identifying signs of abuse or grooming behavior. It administers an annual audit to ensure compliance.
Perhaps most important, the OPCY created and still facilitates age-appropriate programs to teach children in archdiocesan schools and religious education programs to recognize, resist and report inappropriate behavior to a responsible adult. It has trained between 80,000 and 215,000 children each year in how to protect themselves from inappropriate and abusive adult behavior.
In 2002, the archdiocese undertook a records review to ensure that every allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by an archdiocesan priest had been reported to civil authorities and made its records available to then-Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine. In 2003, the archdiocese entered into written protocols with the state’s attorneys of Cook and Lake counties to ensure all allegations of sexual abuse of minors are reported. In 2006, the archdiocese entered into a joint protocol with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to report all allegations.
Also in 2006, the archdiocese published the names of all archdiocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors on its website, and in 2014, it published thousands of documents related to more than 65 such priests.
Abuse can occur wherever there are children. When children are entrusted to institutions to assist in their educational or social development, those institutions must do their best to protect them. The long-standing sexual abuse policies of the Archdiocese of Chicago represent a sincere and good faith effort to deal with the societal problem of sexual abuse of minors.
Today, these policies are administered by people of goodwill who work every day to safeguard children. They have been reaffirmed by the highest level of archdiocese leadership, Cardinal Blase Cupich, who views this work as a critical ministry. Always mindful of the horrific damage caused by the sexual abuse of children, all of us sincerely hope we have made a difference in reducing the risk of child sexual abuse, healing survivors and offering a policy framework to any institution that cares for children.
We are firm in the belief that protecting these children is the responsibility of us all.
John O’Malley is a retired lawyer who serves as special counsel to the Archdiocese of Chicago on abuse-related matters after serving as its director of legal services for 22 years.
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