Here's how the Catholic Church is trying to reform after years of clergy abuse scandals

By Deena Yellin
Bergen Record via
November 16, 2020

Archbishop of Washington Theodore McCarrick, left, is seen with Pope John Paul II in Newark, in October of 1995. McCarrick was named cardinal by Pope John Paul II during the Sunday Angelus address at the Vatican Jan. 21, 2001.
Photo by Arturo Mari

Pope Francis
Photo by Gregorio Borgia

[with video]

The Catholic Church is still reckoning with the legacy of alleged abusers like Theodore McCarrick and the culture of silence that let the former cardinal rise to prominence.

But that culture has also been transformed after years of painful revelations.

The church still faces hundreds of lawsuits and an incalculable loss of trust. But it's also made progress through reforms adopted by Pope Francis and his predecessors, experts said last week after the Vatican released a 449-page report that documented decades of indifference to McCarrick's reported misdeeds.

Local churches now require background checks and training for priests, volunteers and other staff members who work with children. Dioceses have been ordered to quickly report allegations to local authorities, a sea change from the days when McCarrick ascended through the Catholic hierarchy in New York and New Jersey despite the accusations against him.

"In the past, if a seminarian complained about a superior, his career would be finished," said the Rev. Desmond Rossi, an associate pastor in Albany, New York, who says McCarrick touched him inappropriately during a 1988 meeting when he was a seminarian and McCarrick was Archbishop of Newark.

"The Holy Father has sent the message that we need to be transparent," Rossi said. 

While allegations of abuse appear to be soaring, with dozens of new lawsuits filed in New Jersey alone this year, that's largely because of new laws that have extended the statute of limitations for accusations from decades earlier. 

"The bulk of the clergy sex abuse cases were [from] the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s," said Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. "There was a definite decline starting in the mid-'80s that continues to today,"

Half of alleged offenses reported last year occurred in 1975 or earlier, according to an annual report on child safety prepared by CARA and other Catholic groups. Another 45% involved activity between 1975 and 1999; 5% occurred after 2000, according to the audit. 

Still, the report warned against "complacency" in the U.S. church. "We continue to see the failure to publish reporting procedures in the various languages in which the liturgy is celebrated; poor recordkeeping of background checks; dysfunctional Diocesan Review Boards [and a] lack of a formal monitoring plan for priests who have been removed from ministry," it said.

The McCarrick report, released after a two-year investigation, found that a host of bishops, cardinals and popes largely dismissed allegations that the ex-cardinal had sexually harassed seminary students over the years. McCarrick, who rose to become Archbishop of Washington, D.C., was finally defrocked by Pope Francis last year, becoming the first cardinal to be expelled from the clergy as punishment for allegedly abusing children.

Despite the report, abuse victims and advocates argue that not enough has changed in a clerical culture that gives priests sweeping power and deference within their communities. 

"The problem has not been solved," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of, a Massachusetts nonprofit that tracks such cases. "There are other McCarricks out there that have yet to be uncovered." 

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston-based attorney who has filed hundreds of clergy abuse lawsuits, said the church hasn't implemented "substantive mandatory programs which have been reviewed by a truly independent agency or victims."  

Meaningful change has come only due to outside pressure "by courageous victims, advocates and the media," he said. "Because of those public discussions, adults now realize that they have to protect their children when in the care and custody of Catholic priests."

Mandatory investigations

But Stephen White, executive director of the Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America in Washington, said he has seen marked progress in the way cases are handled since McCarrick's days. 

"The complete lack of interest in real investigation demonstrated by numerous bishops and prelates is something that has changed," he said. "Now it's mandatory that when an allegation comes in, it goes to the authorities no matter what." 

White credited the Dallas Charter of 2002, a set of procedures adopted by U.S. bishops that require accusations involving a minor to be reported to civil authorities.

"There's an increasing recognition that taking your friends' word for it isn't good enough," he said. "The old boys' network" has fallen apart. 

Pope Francis, who has sought to remove the shroud of secrecy from clergy abuse cases, has introduced changes to make it easier for church leaders to cooperate with law enforcement and ensure that religious leaders are held accountable for abuse, said David Pierre Jr., a Massachusetts author who writes about the clergy abuse crisis in the church. 

Francis convened bishops and cardinals from around the world last year for a four-day summit in Vatican Cityto acknowledge the clergy abuse problem and hear testimony from victims. The Vatican subsequently established procedures for dioceses to report allegations of abuse and to investigate accusations against bishops.

Closer to home, New Jersey's five Roman Catholic dioceses in early 2019 released the names of dozens of priests who were "credibly accused" of abusing children over a span of decades. They also established safety policies to deter abuse, including a requirement for background checks and special training for staff working with children.

The dioceses also created an independently administered Victim Compensation Program, which provided payments to abuse survivors who agreed to forgo litigation. As of Oct. 18, It had received 692 claims and made settlement offers totaling $41.8 million. 

The Metuchen Diocese, where McCarrick was bishop from 1982 until 1986, has established new protocols for all clergy, employees and volunteers who deal with children and a reporting structure that requires church officials to immediately notify law enforcement of any allegations, said spokeswoman Tara Smith.  

The Newark Archdiocese last year released Forward in Faith Together, outlining steps it's taken since entering into an agreement with the New Jersey attorney general and county prosecutors in 2002, as well as future plans. The archdiocese cited the completion of hundreds of training programs and thousands of background checks, which are updated every five years.

The archdiocese also provides spiritual support and resources to those who have experienced abuse, and a victims assistance coordinator helps connect people with qualified therapists. Similar measures have been adopted by dioceses around the nation. 

Halting progress

Still, the progress has been halting at times, and some advocates remain skeptical.

An investigation by the Associated Press last year found that the independent review boards established by dioceses to assess abuse allegations have often failed in their mission. The panels in many cases shielded accused priests and operated in secrecy, the AP reported. It found several cases in which complaints were rejected by the boards and later validated by secular authorities. 

In July, the Newark Archdiocese announced that it had amended its policy to make survivors ineligible for subsidized counseling if they sue the church or accept a settlement from the compensation fund. A spokeswoman said the subsidies were never intended to last "in perpetuity" and noted that other dioceses have similar polices, but victims' rights groups said the church was playing hardball to discourage lawsuits.

Robert Hoatson, a former priest who now advocates for abuse victims, said the attempts to restore credibility have been inadequate. New guidelines, he said, "are worthless, because nobody holds the bishop accountable for implementing them."



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