ATLANTA –– While the Catholic Church has taken major steps in addressing allegations of clergy sexual abuse, it must continue to be vigilant in assuring that victims and their families will receive the attention and care they deserve, said the chairman of the National Review Board.
In a report marking the 10th anniversary of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” Al J. Notzon III told the U.S. bishops June 13 at their spring meeting that transparency remains a crucial component of building and maintaining credibility among the Catholic faithful as well as the general public.
He credited the country’s bishops for developing more pastoral responses, rather than being concerned primarily with legal issues when allegations are made.
“In the long run, the strictly legal response caused more pain, did more damage and cost more money,” Notzon said. “The lesson learned by the church is clear: We must treat those making allegations of sexual abuse with compassion and care. It is not only the best solution, but the right thing to do and an integral part of the church’s spiritual mission.”
The charter was part of the U.S. bishops’ response to the clergy abuse scandal that was a major concern when they met in Dallas in 2002.
Notzon also commended the bishops for readily reporting abuse allegations to law enforcement authorities for investigation, a requirement of the charter. He cautioned that the bishops must continue to do so.
“When one bishop fails to do so, the whole church suffers,” he said.
Despite the successes, Notzon said the church’s credibility continues to suffer because many Catholics and the broader community not only believe clergy sexual abuse remains at a high level but also think that local bishops continue to cover up the problem by not reporting allegations of abuse to local authorities.
“This suggests a trust problem and must be met with scrupulous adherence to the charter,” he said. “The truth is the dioceses and eparchies are still receiving reports of sexual abuse of minors and most are being reported to civil authorities as required by law. Those few cases that are not reported quickly become news.
“The harm that could be done to children and a distant second, the negative publicity that results, should serve as a reminder to all to follow canon law, diocesan policy and state law.”
Notzon also noted that all 195 U.S. dioceses and eparchies have victim assistance coordinators whereas in 2002 when the abuse scandal came to light, only about 25 dioceses and eparchies had someone in place to work with victims.
Since the charter was adopted, nearly all dioceses and eparchies have undergone an annual audit by private agencies hired by the USCCB to determine how well they comply with the 17 areas of the document. The compliance rate has increased steadily over the last decade, Notzon said.
In 2011, all but one diocese was found to be in compliance with the charter; the issue for that one diocese was its review board had not met in two years. However, two dioceses — Baker, Ore., and Lincoln, Neb. — and six eparchies refused to participate in the audits, as they had in past years, and were found to be noncompliant.
Notzon said he hoped to meet with leaders of the dioceses and eparchies refusing to undergo the audits to learn about their concerns.
Under canon law, dioceses and eparchies cannot be required to participate in the audit, but it is strongly recommended.
“The question of the consequences for those who do not follow the charter is still unanswered,” he said. “The National Review Board asks each bishop to continue to take seriously the harm done to the church and to the faithful when these requirements are not met.”
The charter also required that safe environment programs be adopted by dioceses, parishes, Catholic schools and nonprofit organizations.
Notzon said $20 million is spent annually on such programs and that during the last decade dioceses have conducted background checks on 60,190 clerics and candidates for ordination, 159,689 educators, 249,133 employees and 1.8 million volunteers. In addition, 94 percent of the country’s 5.1 million students currently enrolled in Catholic schools and parish school of religion classes have undergone awareness training, he said.
Challenges still remain, Notzon explained. He warned against “complacency or charter drift, that is, thinking 10 years of action is enough and programs and vigilance can be taken for granted or worse, watered down.”
He also said that greater collaboration is needed between religious orders and individual dioceses and eparchies when a report of alleged abuse received against a religious-order priest goes unreported to the local bishop. Under canon law, disciplinary actions against religious-order clergy who have been accused of abuse are handled by the superior of the order.
“Ten years is too long for there still to be incidents where dioceses and eparchies are not informed of religious-order priest offenders living in the diocese until it is too late,” he said. The National Review Board recommends dialogue between the bishops and religious superiors within the diocese on a yearly basis to address these issues.”
Notzon also presented a series of recommendations stemming from “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” undertaken by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The study, which examined the reasons for clergy sexual abuse, was commissioned by the lay-led National Review Board and not by the bishops.
Among the review board’s recommendations are:
- That dioceses and eparchies address situational factors that can contribute to the possibility of abuse. Such factors include job stress, social isolation and decreased contact with peers.
- Developing a system of clergy evaluation similar to those in other professions.
- Continuing safe environment training of all parish staff, volunteers, teachers and anyone ministering to children.
- Continuously improving the annual audit process within dioceses to ensure strong cooperation between the auditing firm and parishes.
- Including child pornography as reasons for disciplining clergy under diocesan abuse policies and procedures.
- Sharing at least annually diocesan policies and procedures with parishioners so that they understand the protections in place.