The Aftermath: the Church Responds

By Rachel Martin
NPR [United States]
January 11, 2007

In the wake of the national furor that followed revelations of clergy abuse and attempts at a cover-up in the Boston Archdiocese, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops enacted changes to its national policies designed to address the crisis. The so-called Dallas Charter was adopted in June 2002 and included a range of new rules. Here, an overview of the Church's response and the results so far.

Issue: Assistance for Victims

Church Response: Establish counseling offices for victims of sexual abuse and their families.

Result: Many major dioceses have opened counseling offices that serve victims of clergy sexual abuse. Others have initiated special ministries within dioceses and parishes to help victims and congregations.

Issue: Rules and Procedures for Reporting Sex Abuse by Clergy

Church Response: Establish a victims' assistance coordinator in every diocese to field abuse complaints. Ensure that the necessary church officials are made aware of all complaints, and that local authorities are contacted if necessary.

Result: According to the U.S. Bishops Conference, virtually all dioceses have created this position. Some coordinators are full time, some are part time, some are laity, some are clergy, and many hold other positions within the church. The effectiveness of this and other reporting procedures has been hard to measure.

Issue: Transparency

Church Response: Dioceses are no longer allowed to enter into secret settlement deals that give victims money in exchange for their silence. Each diocese is encouraged to establish a review board, made up of laypeople, to examine instances of sexual abuse by a cleric.

Result: Every diocese has created a lay review board. The church says settlements are kept secret only when a victim requests a confidentiality agreement. There is a major suit pending in Wisconsin against all the U.S. bishops, asking them to release the names of thousands of priests who have admitted abuse or who have been found guilty of abuse.

Issue: Accountability

Church Response: Establish a National Review Board that oversees an annual audit of compliance with the Church's sex-abuse policies among Catholic dioceses in the United States. The national board is tasked with examining the broader issues related to clergy sex abuse, including national policy issues, studies and recommendations to the body of bishops.

Result: Since 2003, audits have been conducted every year for the 195 dioceses in the United States, but only on a voluntary basis. In 2005, two dioceses opted out of the audit program with no explanation. In 2006, the only dioceses audited were 11 that requested an audit and the 18 that were found non-compliant in 2005. Church officials say the system is now moving from a primarily on-site audit system to one that relies on more self-audits by individual dioceses.

Issue: Prevention

Church Response: Establish a nationwide "Safe Environment Program" aimed at educating children and their families about sexual abuse, and training volunteers and clergy who work with children. Also, clergy now undergo tighter background checks, and Catholic seminaries require more rigorous screening procedures.

Result: Roughly 6 million children have been educated through "Safe Environment" programs in dioceses and parishes around the country. Background checks for clergy are supposed to be more in-depth than before 2002 and go back further in time. But these criminal checks for priests are not required, and the frequency and depth of the checks vary from diocese to diocese. There is still no church policy or strategy to deal with admitted or convicted clergy predators who have been removed from their posts and released into society. And there are no specific U.S. Catholic Church guidelines in place to address the transfer of priests across international borders.

Issue: Lessons Learned

Church Response: Commission John Jay College in New York to conduct a multimillion-dollar, two-part study on the sex-abuse crisis.

Result: The first part of the study, on the nature and scope of the crisis, was released in 2004. The second part of the report, on the causes and consequences of the crisis, is expected to be released in 2009. The Dallas Charter is expected to be reviewed in 2010.

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