Catholics throughout the United States are aware of the scandal of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. While the U.S. bishops have taken steps to deal with this issue during the past two decades, the recently approved Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People marks definitive action by the bishops to effectively deal with this issue.
The Charter marks a defining moment in the Catholic Church in the United States. With this Charter, the bishops are publicly, collectively stepping forward to discuss the actions and the effects of sexual abuse toward children and young people by some priests and bishops, and the way in which bishops have dealt with these crimes.
Our obligation, defined in the Charter and followed by our subsequent actions, is to protect the young and prevent sexual abuse. We apologize to those whose pain has been caused, or deepened, by our actions or lack of actions. We appeal to those who are in pain and we offer assistance for the future. With God’s help, we will rebuild the bonds of trust frayed and torn by the sins of our past.
Innocent survivors and their families have suffered terribly. In the past, secrecy has created an atmosphere that has inhibited the healing process and, in some cases, enabled sexual abusive behavior to be repeated.
Let there now be no doubt or confusion on anyone’s part: For us, your bishops, our obligation to protect children and young people and to prevent sexual abuse flows from the mission and example given to us by Jesus Christ himself, in whose name we serve.
With a firm determination to resolve this crisis, we bishops commit ourselves to a pastoral outreach to repair the breach with those who have suffered sexual abuse and with all the people of the Church. We renew our determination to provide safety and protection for children and young people in our church ministries and institutions. We pledge ourselves to act in a way that manifests our accountability to God, to his people, and to one another in this grave matter. We commit ourselves to do all we can to heal the trauma that victims/survivors and their families are suffering and the wound that the whole Church is experiencing. We acknowledge our need to be in dialogue with all Catholics, especially victims and parents, around this issue. By these actions, we want to demonstrate to the wider community that we comprehend the gravity of the sexual abuse of minors.
Here is a quick look at the new Charter for the protection of Children and Young People approved by the U.S. bishops on June 14, 2002 in Dallas, Texas (taken from Crux, June 24, 2002):
-- All dioceses will reach out to survivors of clergy sexual abuse and their families, including provision for counseling, spiritual assistance, support groups and other social services. The bishop or his representative will meet with the victim and family members.
-- Each diocese will have a “competent assistance coordinator to aid in immediate pastoral care” of survivors of clergy sexual abuse and a predominantly lay review board to assess claims and review diocesan policies and procedures.
-- No more confidentiality agreements unless the survivors of clergy sexual abuse seeks one “for grave and substantial reasons.”
-- Any allegation by one who is still a minor is to be reported to civil authorities; if the survivors of clergy sexual abuse is no longer a minor, the diocese is to cooperate with civil authorities and encourage the claimant to report the allegation to civil authorities.
-- “For even a single act of sexual abuse…of a minor – past, present of future – the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry.”
-- If the offending priest or deacon does not request removal from the clerical state, a bishop may initiate dismissal proceedings without the offender’s consent; if dismissal is not sought for reasons such as “advanced age or infirmity,” the offender is to live a life of prayer and penance and have no assignment, and he cannot wear clerical garb, publicly present himself as a priest or celebrate Mass publicly.
-- Dioceses will publish clear standards of behavior for all Church personnel who work with children.
-- Communications policy on sexual abuse issues is to be marked by “transparency and openness.”
-- The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is to form an Office for Child and Youth Protection to assist and oversee diocesan implementation of the Charter and to report annually on diocesan compliance with the Charter.
-- An independent National Review Board is to assist and monitor the new USCCB office and review its annual report before publication.
-- The USCCB Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse is to be expanded to include a bishop from each of the 14 USCCB regions.
-- All dioceses are to establish “safe environment” programs to educate children, parents, employees and others on sexual abuse prevention and detection.
-- Diocesan and parish personnel who have contact with children are to undergo background checks; all seminarians are to be screened.
-- If a cleric is moved for any reason from one diocese to another, the responsible bishop or religious superior is to notify the bishop of the new place of residence if there is anything in the cleric’s background “that would raise questions about his fitness for ministry.”
-- Bishops and religious superiors are to consult on implementing the Charter and meet periodically to coordinate their roles in the event of an allegation against a religious order priest.
-- Church authorities will cooperate with other churches and institutions in society to work against sexual abuse of minors.
-- The bishops will cooperate in a new apostolic visitation of all U.S. seminaries with “human formation for celibate chastity” as the main focus of study.
-- Sexual abuse of minors is defined in terms of church law, not civil law. A footnote to the Charter describes it as covering “contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult.”
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is available in its entirety at www.usccb.org.
Here are some frequently asked questions about the Charter (courtesy of the USCCB):
1. What is the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People?
The Charter is a comprehensive mandate to deal with sexual abuse of minors by clergy. The USCCB's Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse (AHCSA) proposed its adoption by the full body of bishops at the meeting June 13-15 in Dallas, and it was so adopted.
2. How is it comprehensive?
It recommends action in all the following matters:
-- Creating a safe environment for children and young people;
-- Healing and reconciliation of victims and survivors;
-- Prompt and effective response to allegations;
-- Cooperation with civil authorities;
-- Disciplining offenders;
-- Providing for means of accountability for the future to ensure the problem is effectively dealt with.
3. How will the Charter deal with priests who sexually abuse children?
To prevent future sexual abuse, and to put into effect the words of Pope John Paul II that ‘there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young,' the Charter requires that, a single act of abuse of a minor by a cleric, past, present or future, which has been admitted or determined, will bring about permanent removal from ministry.
4. What is the objective of the Charter in protecting children and young people?
It is our sincere purpose that with our agreement in Dallas on the Charter, we can now begin anew—with faith in the future and a renewed commitment to combat these abuses with all our collective might. Our goal is to protect all our children in all environments, so that parents will be completely confident in the participation of their children in their parish, school or in any interaction with priests or others in the Catholic Church. This approach is based on taking decisive, consistent action in an open, transparent manner.
5. How can you assure the safety of children in the future?
The Charter outlines several preventative steps to this problem. Dioceses will have a mechanism to respond to accusations of sexual abuse and a diocesan review board, a majority of whom will be lay persons not in the employ of the diocese. To assist the dioceses, a national Office for Child and Youth Protection will be established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. A national review board including parents will monitor and assist the office. In addition, a commission will be established to research how the U.S. Church has responded to this problem.
6. How does the Charter deal with reporting to civil authorities?
The Charter requires dioceses to report any cases of sexual abuse of a minor to the civil authorities and cooperate in the investigation. Dioceses will cooperate with civil authorities about reporting when the person making the allegation is no longer a minor. In every instance, dioceses will support the right of the person to make a report to civil authorities.