CS file photo
CS file photo

Pope Francis has called for a meeting of the world’s bishops in February to address globally the problem of child sexual abuse.  In doing so, our Holy Father has reaffirmed his “conviction that everything possible must be done to rid the Church of the scourge of sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those abused.”  (Letter concerning the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, February 2, 2015)

Here in the United States, bishops confronted this issue in a robust and meaningful debate in 2002, and the resulting agreement was the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, entitled A Promise to Protect – A Pledge to Heal.  In December of that same year bishops and lay professionals worked together to obtain the canonical authority to implement the essential norms and thereby officially institute the protections of the Dallas Charter.

Now more than 18 years later we see the ongoing results.  The Archdiocese of Washington vigorously implements stringent child protection policies, offers pastoral support to abuse survivors and has no priest in active ministry who has ever faced a credible accusation of child sexual abuse. This continues the archdiocesan policy established in 1986 as one of the first such programs in the country, and the archdiocese has strengthened and updated its child protection efforts since then. That policy includes cooperation with law enforcement, with all credible abuse allegations reported to civil authorities and alleged offenders immediately removed from ministry.

The Archdiocese of Washington’s first priority is preventing abuse from happening. The Archdiocese invests an average of $350,000 annually to support the protection of children. To that end, it has conducted more than 110,000 background checks to ensure that clergy, employees and volunteers who work with children are suitable for such positions. Over the years more than a quarter million children in our schools and religious education classes have received age appropriate education on safe environment. They learn how to recognize adult behavior that is inappropriate, and how to communicate this and protect themselves.  

Directing this effort is an executive director of Child and Youth Protection and Safe Environment, as well as a Child Protection Advisory Board led by lay professionals with expert credentials in child sexual abuse from the therapeutic and criminal perspective, as well as a survivor of clergy abuse who ensure that the voice of those so insidiously damaged by this grave crime is heard and addressed.

While the Archdiocese of Washington was in the vanguard more than 30 years ago in establishing strong child-protection policies and programs, today Catholic diocese across the country have similar, strong child protection efforts. Many exceed the child-protection efforts of other private and public institutions that educate or care for young people. Yet in the past few months – particularly with the issuance of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical abuse of children, the initiation across the country of at least a dozen state grand jury investigations, as well as other potential federal inquiries – the Catholic Church’s commitment, effort, and success in protecting our most vulnerable have been misrepresented … unreported … dismissed.

As the Church tries to move forward in its mission of hope – it must unwaveringly undertake an important step: promoting the truth of its work and the results it has accomplished for the protection of children since the Dallas Charter in 2002. The Church must acknowledge and grieve the historical errors and the pain that abusive clergy have brought and for which the Church and her faithful are suffering and continue to seek forgiveness. At the same time, however, the Church and we, the faithful, in spite of the onslaught of negative coverage and criticism and the media’s unwillingness to report the whole story, must make the effort to share that complete story: there is no safer place for a child than our Catholic parishes or schools.

Integral to this story, as well, is how the Catholic Church reached this point – the lessons learned, the difficult, sometimes painful changes required – and is now moving forward to continue to serve and protect those entrusted to our care.  Church leadership, joined by the faithful, is working toward increased transparency that ensures accountability for bishops, while also continuing the ongoing rigorous and unfailing protection of children and the zero tolerance demanded for both clergy and laity in the post-Dallas Charter times of the past 16 years.

The Archdiocese of Washington has implemented the strictest child protection policies and has demanded adherence to the most exacting standards under the law. As a result, it has had virtually no cases of clergy child sexual abuse since the Charter in 2002. In those rare instances when such crimes have been committed, the Archdiocese has promptly removed and reported violators while upholding its commitment to meeting, healing, and supporting survivors. 

Getting this message heard and understood, however, is challenging. The Catholic Church is confronting an environment that focuses exclusively on the past. While the horrid acts by clergy 30, 40, even 50 or 70 years ago should not be overlooked or forgotten, this focus effectively silences the Church’s collective voice and obscures from public view the great progress that has been achieved.  

At the conclusion of the Synod of Bishops in late October, Pope Francis note that the “Great Accuser in this moment is accusing us strongly, and this accusation becomes persecution” to damage the Church.  Pope Francis implored us urgently to confront such evil forces and in “this moment to defend our mother” the Church. 

To do this, we must proclaim the facts. The post-Dallas Charter progress of the past 16 years must be shared, not only with the faithful, but by the faithful. Catholic media must be enlisted to communicate this truth when other media outlets insist nothing more than the reassertion of history – of a time from which the Church emerged and left behind – and in which other institutions remain. 

The Archdiocese of Washington published a list of all priests in our history whom we know to have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse.  No priest who has ever been credibly accused of child sexual abuse is in active ministry in Washington. We are committed to and have created safe environments for our children.

Many dioceses have done the same, with similar results. Yet this reality – this time and current environment in which we serve – is not part of the discussion.  All the faithful, including bishops, should take consequential steps to correct the false narrative that is being imposed upon us.

The Church has the ability to deliver a powerful message of truth.  She can announce, in a meaningful way, the effective implementation of the Dallas Charter and declare that the Church is a leader in child protection.  The Church can declare that, in the rare instances currently when the horror of abuse occurs, perpetrators are immediately removed, reported to civil authorities and banned from ministry.  Let us, as a Church, take the urgent steps needed to make this information available both as individual dioceses and nationally.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops should demonstrate that our Church’s “Promise to Protect and Pledge to Heal” was a consequential promise kept and effectively upheld.

This action must be undertaken with urgency to ensure that the voice of the Church and the commitment to service of those entrusted to her care is recognized and acknowledged. In the absence of such action, the narrative of the past – the emphasis on history – will continue to dominate, and will empower the efforts to diminish the Church’s voices in the ongoing conversation of healing and hope. 

Our Holy Father Pope Francis has pledged “that we will follow the path of truth wherever it may lead.”  As we all renew our commitment to the protection of children, let the truth of what we have done and the resoluteness of our undertaking become a meaningful component of the conversation.