Fifteen years ago this month, The Boston Globe published its exposé on rampant clergy sexual abuse in the U.S. Church that rocked the institution and led to a multitude of reforms, including the establishment of the national Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
Since then, settlements to victims and their families have led 12 dioceses in the United States to file for bankruptcy. More than 6,500 members of the clergy have been accused of abuse (many of them dead or already removed from ministry), and hundreds have been removed from ministry since. Similar steps have been taken in other countries.
Certain dioceses, such as the Archdiocese of New York, have taken steps to facilitate “reconciliation and compensation” with victims of clergy sexual abuse. In October of last year, the archdiocese opened an approximately four-month period offering independent review and compensation for victims who already have cases pending within the system. The victim, once satisfied with his or her compensation, then waives the right to file suit.
Given the passage of time and the efforts made toward prevention, responsiveness and accountability, the Church now faces another challenge: complacency.
In its annual report on the implementation of the Charter issued in May 2016, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops warned against “a false sense of security” that could be fostered based on the significant progress that the Church has made in combatting clergy abuse so far.
“Such complacency can lead to a minimalist approach to the Charter, which can be seen simply as a series of requirements that need to be checked-off, as opposed to an implementation that renders the Charter fully operative,” the report said. “This was evident in the fact that while every diocese has a diocesan review board, thereby complying with the Charter’s requirement, in some cases the diocesan review board rarely meets or had not met in several years. Similarly, in some dioceses background checks are done once with no follow-up rescreening after several years have passed. While all of the dioceses audited have policies in place, in some instances those policies have not been updated to reflect revisions that have been made to the Charter.”
Pope Francis, who further established a Commission for the Protection of Minors in December 2013, also has made several moves to guard against such complacency.
In his motu proprio “As a Loving Mother” issued last June, Pope Francis made it clear that bishops, too, may be held accountable if they are found to be negligent in “the exercise of his office,” particularly where cases of sexual abuse of minors are concerned. The pope also encouraged each bishops’ conference individually to establish a national day of prayer for the survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Most recently, in a letter to the world’s bishops released Jan. 2, Pope Francis reiterated his call for “zero tolerance,” asking members of the episcopacy to “renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst.”
Such measures remind us, too, that we must never become complacent when it comes to clergy sexual abuse. If you have experienced sexual abuse by a member of the clergy, or if you know someone who has, do not hesitate to contact the local authorities, as well as the diocesan victim assistance coordinator. Systems are in place to ensure thorough, unbiased investigations. As Pope Francis said, “Let us find the courage needed to take all necessary measures and to protect in every way the lives of our children, so that such crimes may never be repeated.”
Editorial Board: Greg Willits, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor-in-chief; Don Clemmer, managing editor