Thursday, December 11, 2008

"We Dare Not Become Complacent"

With tomorrow's release of Doubt returning the specter of sex-abuse to the headlines, the new chief of the US church's child protection efforts has turned the spotlight on the success of its post-2002 strides... while warning that much more remains to be done.

The bishops were briefed earlier this week in a letter from their freshly-installed Child and Youth Protection Chair, Rapid City's Blaise Cupich.

As I begin chairmanship of the U.S. bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, I am grateful that there are now fewer reports of credible instances of sexual abuse of children by clerics. In 2007, there were 12 credible instances of minors being abused. That's twelve instances too many. However, even with the small number in a church of 67 million people, we dare not become complacent. The effects of the sin and crime of sexual abuse by a cleric are so horrific that we need to make sure that efforts to protect young people continue.

At this time, I see two major priorities for the Church in this area.

  1. Reaching out to those who have been harmed by sexual abuse by those in service to the church.

Efforts to reach out are now part and parcel of church life and must continue to be so. We need to expand our efforts to make sure that everyone knows how to report instances of sexual abuse by a cleric or other church employee to both civil and church authorities. Enabling people to make a report has been a goal from the start. Placement of notices in church facilities, on diocesan Web sites in prominent locations and in the media has been one step to encouraging such a response, which can be otherwise daunting. Equally important, if not more so, is guaranteeing that those who contact the church with a complaint are treated compassionately and with respect. This is paramount.

  1. Prevention through Safe Environment programs in dioceses and parishes.

Since the establishment of the [Dallas] Charter in 2002, the Catholic Church has been unrelenting in its quest to be sure that the children entrusted to its care are safe. This must continue. As we outlined in the Charter, concern for child safety must be a hallmark of our schools, religious education programs, and other educational and parish activities. There is no room for mistakes in this area.

In response to the Charter mandate in 2002, dioceses and parishes set up aggressive safe environment training programs that now are the envy of all other organizations that work with children. These child protection efforts outline specific steps to be followed so that decisions on what constitutes appropriate behavior between an adult and child are not based on biases or personal interpretations. These efforts also emphasize respect for boundaries between persons and empowerment of young people to resist what makes them uncomfortable. As we already have indicated, if we are to err in establishing and enforcing policies, it must be on the side of caution.

We start now from a good place. From 2003 through 2007, when the last audit of how the Catholic Church's safe environment effort was completed, the Catholic Church in the United States

1. Trained more than 1.8 million clergy, employees, and volunteers in parishes in how to create safe environments and prevent child sexual abuse.
2. Prepared more than 5.8 million children to recognize abuse and protect themselves.
3. Ran criminal record checks on more than 1,535,000 volunteers and employees, 162,700 educators, 51,000 clerics and 4,955 candidates for ordination. This is a record of accomplishment that deserves to be widely known and expanded by our ongoing commitment.

At the start of 2009, I urge dioceses and parishes to make sure their safe environment programs are of the highest standards. I ask bishops and pastors to make sure that safe environment programs are in place in all church entities. I encourage parents to cooperate and support these efforts and to make known to church leaders their concerns and suggestions for improving and fully observing our safe environment protocols.

Statistics tell us that sexual exploitation of children is rampant in society. Darkness to Light, a national child sexual abuse prevention program, for example, reports that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. It also reports that an estimated 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse exist in America today.
Since that dark Epiphany morning in 2002 when its shockwaves began in Boston, the nation's dioceses and religious communities have paid out well in excess of a billion dollars... a figure dwarfed by the human cost on all sides, one words could never sufficiently describe.

In advance of the acclaimed Broadway play's film debut, the chair of the USCCB's Lay Review Board on abuse, Federal Judge Michael Merz, penned an op-ed for today's edition of the paper whose reporting broke open the scandals.