"I Don't Believe ... Catholics Can Trust the Bishops to Protect Their Children," Expert Says

By Teresa Boeckel
York Daily Record
August 27, 2018

As the Roman Catholic Church grapples with the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report detailing widespread clergy sexual abuse, it faces a critical question: What can be done to protect children?

The Diocese of Harrisburg has detailed a lengthy list of steps it's taking, such as:

Reporting every allegation of child sexual abuse to law enforcement for investigation

Conducting multiple background checks on all employees and volunteers

Teaching students how to stay safe through age-appropriate child abuse awareness programs.

It's part of the Youth Protection Program, which is built upon the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Youth and Young People. That charter was developed in 2002 to address child sexual abuse and prevention.

The Harrisburg diocese underwent an intensive, on-site audit last year as part of a nationwide audit, said Joseph Aponick, director of communications for the diocese. The independent agency found it to be in compliance.

Some experts, however, say that more needs to be done to address the problem. More oversight is needed, and lay people need to take a more active role in the church.

Hold bishops accountable

"We have known, and we have been asking for years that the bishops who covered up be held accountable," said Donna B. Doucette, executive director of the Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization of faithful Catholics that formed because of the sexual abuse crisis.

C. Colt Anderson, a church historian and theologian at Fordham University, said he was one of the first scholars to write about the sex abuse scandal in 2002, and the changes that needed to happen did not.

The 2002 charter required "zero tolerance" for priests, but it had no provision for the bishops, Anderson said. He and others wrote about the problem.

"...this is not going to be resolved unless actually you hold bishops accountable," he said.

Bishops, under church law, have wide powers to dispense with recommendations from lay panels, and they can decide whether to pursue a matter, he said.

Bishops who have covered up abuse have been revealed over the years, Doucette said, but "we are certainly aware that others have been doing it; others have done it; it's going on probably even today."

Any bishop who covered up the crimes should resign immediately, she said. Any priest, who is still serving and has a credible claim against him, has to be removed from ministry. The priest should not be allowed to be reassigned to a home for the elderly, for example.

"I don't believe at this point Catholics can trust the bishops to protect their children," Anderson said, adding that it would include religious superiors, too. "So I believe that what Catholics ought to do is go to the civil authorities first -- always."

He thinks Catholics have to use the criminal justice system, because Canon Law has no provision to make them accountable. Changes to church law would have to come from the Vatican, and there has been "plenty of time" to do that.

Lay Catholics and reformed-minded priests also should go to state legislators to make sure the laws have real penalties for those who conspire to cover up the sexual abuse of a minor. That's a way to hold the bishops accountable, Anderson said.

Outside review boards needed

It's also essential that a lay-led review board be instituted for each diocese to investigate allegations, Doucette said. Cases should go directly to the board without any vetting or screening on the clerical side, and the bishop should follow through with whatever the board's decision is, such as removal of a priest.

The review board would need support so that a proper investigation can be done.

In addition, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops cannot police itself, and there should be a lay board outside of the assembly that investigates and holds bishops accountable, Doucette said.

In the 11th century, the church faced a scandal with priests abusing children and adolescents and using confession as a means to place it under the seal, Anderson said.

Saint Peter Damian wrote that it was an illicit use of the seal of confession. He argued that privileges and power aren't inherent in the bishops offices, and if they misused their power, lay people should work with others in the church to take away the things that they are using illegitimately, Anderson said.

Damian, the official doctor of reform in the Catholic church, argued that when superiors allow whoever is under their authority to act badly, they are just as guilty and they should be punished publicly and more stringently to show the church is serious about what it says.

The basic principal that he laid out "shows everyone else that no you are not going to let people in power evade justice," Anderson said, adding that years ago, the church had processes in place that do not exist anymore.

In the early middle ages, there was a synod where any charges against the priests and bishops could be brought forward in public. They would be adjudicated by the metropolitan bishop, who would be like the archbishop, he said. If a problem existed with the process, it could be appealed to Rome.

The church needs to re-think its process, Anderson said.

Getting past the isolation of clericalism

Lay people historically have given the priests and the bishops a pass, Doucette said. Parishioners need to step up and take positions in councils at the parish and diocesen level.

"They need to exercise what few rights lay people have under Canon Law, and they need to do it well," she said.

Gaps exist in the church among bishops, priests and parishioners, and there shouldn't be. "We are all people of God."

She said that there are many priests who make an effort to bridge the gap, but many of them don't end up becoming bishops.

Parishioners need to be asking questions of priests and bishop about what they are doing to address issues. Lay persons also can insist upon changes, she said.

A parishioner takes the chalice from a priest during communion at 'Mass of Forgiveness' at Saint Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg on Friday, August 17, 2018. The mass was part the Church's 'on-going need for repentance and healing,' according to the Diocese of Harrisburg's website. (Photo: Ty Lohr, York Daily Record)

Change the statute of limitations

Some have been calling for the elimination of the statute of limitations for prosecuting child sex abusers.

Dr. Jaime Romo, president of the Child-Friendly Faith Project, is one of them. For him, the abuse he suffered from a monsignor priest resurfaced 30 years later. One of the triggers was the scandal in the Boston diocese.

"There's no statute of limitation on murder," he said. "Some people would call this 'soul murder.'"

It's very common for people not to re-connect with their own experiences that have been repressed for many years -- or re-connect in a way that they want to do something with it, he said.

The laws protect the ongoing abuse, he said. When people do bring their experiences forward, that's one avenue they want to make it public to help make changes.

Steps taken to protect children

Aponick, of the Diocese of Harrisburg, outlined additional efforts that the diocese is taking:

Anyone with even one proven allegation of abuse is barred permanently from ministry or employment.

Every allegation is reported to the local district attorney's office.

The diocese has a Victims Assistance Coordinator for survivors and families to help with the healing process.

All employees and volunteers undergo multiple background certifications. Abusers are not eligible for hire and volunteering.

All clergy, employees and volunteers must complete a state-approved online training program on how to recognize and report child abuse.

Students receive age-appropriate instruction on how to stay safe.

ID badges are given to those who complete the requirement of the Diocesan Youth Protection Program.

The diocese executes a prudent and prompt inquiry and reporting of each accusation. If law enforcement declines to act, the diocese contracts with professional investigators -- not clergy or employees -- to conduct a thorough and independent investigation.

The diocese openly communicates with everyone involved and supports due process.

The diocese complies with national standards for youth protection and undergoes an annual, independent audit.

Anyone who suspects that a child is being abused can call the Pennsylvania Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-932-0313.

If the suspected abuse involves a church official, employee or volunteer, people are asked to call the Diocesan hotline at 1-800-626-1608 or send an email to:








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