Church Has Led Way in Dealing with Sex Abuse Issue

By Robert P. Lockwood
Pittsburgh Catholic [United States]
January 12, 2006


The Catholic Church has done more perhaps than any other entity in this state and in this country in the previous 20 years to address the tragedy of sexual abuse. In fact, despite intense media scrutiny, most abuse cases that have received the widest notoriety are based on allegations of abuse 20, 30, 40 and even 50 years ago.

One rarely discussed fact in the issue of clergy sexual abuse is that because of actions taken by church leadership, such incidents of abuse have virtually disappeared since the early 1990s. Nationwide, there have been only a handful of accusations of abuse after 1993. Even when the Archdiocese of Boston was aggressively pursued by both the attorney general and local media in 2002, not one case of abuse could be found after 1993.

Many Catholic dioceses had written, enforced policies in place well before much of the country paid attention at all to the issue of the sexual abuse of children. While public schools were still quietly allowing abusers to move from one school system to the next, many Catholic dioceses had already adopted as policy that one substantiated, credible allegation of abuse meant removal from active ministry in parishes.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh has had written policies in place since 1985 for dealing with clergy sexual abuse of minors. Since the very beginning of his administration in 1988, Bishop Donald Wuerl established policies to ensure, in the words of Pope John Paul II, that "there is no place in the priesthood for those who would harm the young." Those policies and practices have been regularly and rigorously refined, updated and expanded to reflect best practices and recommendations as determined by those closely involved with this issue.

The diocese has long been committed by policy to removing from ministry any priest, deacon or person who represented the church and would harm a child, and has been committed to working closely with victims and their families to provide counseling and reconciliation where possible.

In 1992, the bishops of the United States presented five foundational principles for every diocese to follow in dealing with this issue. These principles were:

• Respond promptly to all allegations of abuse where there is reasonable belief that abuse has occurred.

• If such an allegation is supported by sufficient evidence, relieve the alleged offender promptly of his ministerial duties and refer him for appropriate medical evaluation and intervention.

• Comply with the obligations of civil law as regards reporting of the incident and cooperating with the investigation.

• Reach out to the victims and their families and communicate sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being.

• Within the confines of respect for privacy of the individuals involved, deal as openly as possible with the members of the community.

By 1994, the Catholic bishops of the United States had collectively put together national guidelines in a document called "Restoring Trust." These guidelines were based on the best practices that had been adopted in many dioceses, which reflected those five principles. "Restoring Trust" also recommended practices and policies that would become the basis for the "Charter for Protection of Children and Young People," approved by the U.S. bishops in June 2002.

Along with the accompanying "Essential Norms," the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" committed every Catholic diocese in the United States to the following actions: an independent review board to be established to review allegations of sexual abuse among clergy; that a victim assistance coordinator be in place to assist victims and their families; that background investigations be conducted on church employees and volunteers who work with children; and that the diocesan sexual abuse policies be published and readily available.

The "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" also called for dioceses to promote healing and reconciliation with victims of abuse and guarantee an effective response to allegations of the abuse of minors. Combined with the "Essential Norms," the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" reflected the best practices already in place in many dioceses.

Regular audits by an outside, professional and independent audit team - most being former FBI agents - were mandated for dioceses throughout the country to ensure compliance with the charter.

In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, a full-time victim assistance coordinator has been in place since 1993. Outreach programs, in-service for clergy and those dealing directly with the young, a diocesan review board and public communication policies were in place long before the charter required them.

At the same time, no priest or deacon who abused a minor had been knowingly transferred to another parochial assignment in the diocese, and it has been the clear, known and published policy of the diocese well before the charter that such clergy would be removed from parochial ministry.

The diocese requires documents that attest that any priest or deacon coming here from another diocese has never been involved in sexual misconduct with a minor.

Prior to 2002, the diocese strongly recommended to those making allegations of sexual abuse of a minor to report such allegations to civil authorities. Since 2002, the diocese itself reports all allegations of victims to civil authorities.

Bishop Wuerl has met personally with victims and their families since 1988 and continues to do so today. The diocese has offered outside counseling services and has recommended support groups and social service assistance to victims and their families well before such policies were mandated in 2002.

The diocesan review board, which includes parents of victims, has been in place since 1989. With a majority not employed by the diocese, the review board advises the bishop on all allegations of sexual misconduct and suitability for ministry.

Clearly, the Catholic Church has been responding to the issue of the abuse of minors for many years.

Today, a zero-tolerance policy, even without civil authorities determining if the offense can be prosecutable, means permanent removal from ministry for one offense; full reporting of any complaints to civil authorities; mandated child protection policies; screening and clearances for any who have contact with the young; and programs to detect potential abuse for anyone involved in ministry to children. All of the above provisions are subject to outside audit for compliance.

Protection of young people and all the faithful is the primary concern of the diocese in this area. Well before the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," the diocese has been committed to responding promptly to allegations of abuse, cooperating fully with civil authorities, reaching out to victims and families for healing and reconciliation, educating clergy, being open to the public, and ensuring the accountability of procedures dealing with abuse.


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