Statement by Bishop Wilton Gregory
Friday, June 14, 2002
Today the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken a profound step in a long and sorrowful journey for the entire Church.
With the approval of this Charter, Bishops agreed to bind ourselves in a mandatory charter, to protect children and minors from sexual abuse from priests and deacons; to acknowledge and reach out to victims and their families; to ensure that all priests are worthy of the trust of their people; and to ensure that Bishops are answerable and that the actions they take are transparent and consistent.
Our actions today are not a panacea. The Charter is not perfect. More work needs to be done. As the victim/survivors told us, Listening is easy. Talk is cheap. Action is priceless. That is our challenge. Ultimately, that is how we will be judged.
But let there be no doubt. This Charter, which we have bound ourselves to implement, is a solid foundation to build upon. It sets out the values, the culture and the mechanisms to end the scourge of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in America.
It is unprecedented in our history. It is rigorous in its application. It is wide in its scope. And it is mandatory, once approved by the Holy See.
It removes the secrecy and the uncertainty which has undermined the confidence and trust of the laity. It eliminates the barriers to full disclosure.
And it has teeth. As of today, this Charter binds all Bishops to a rigorous, mandatory policy to protect children and stamp out child sexual abuse by priests and deacons in every Diocese across the country.
- A strong definition of what constitutes sexual abuse, so that such an act is not merely limited to forcible acts, nor is it limited even to physical or genital contact. Nor does a discernible harmful outcome to the child have to be proven. It must, in all cases, however, comply with the civil law requirements of the state.
- The formal acknowledgement in the Charter of our mistakes and our role in allowing sexual abuse to have occurred to the extent that it has. We take responsibility for this sad situation.
- A review of the Charter in its entirety in two years by the Conference of Bishops, to determine what aspects, if any, need to be adjusted, based on experience in implementing it.
- Any allegation of sexual abuse against a minor must be turned over to the civil authorities for investigation.
- Any priest, who engages in even a single act of child sexual abuse - past, present or future- will be removed from ministry and will not receive a future assignment. Furthermore, offending priest may request dispensation from the obligations of holy orders and the loss of the clerical state; or the bishop may request dismissal from the clerical state.
- In any event, if the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state (for example, for reasons of advanced age or infirmity) has not been applied, the offender is to lead a life of prayer and penance. He will not be permitted to celebrate Mass publicly or to wear clerical garb, or to present himself publicly as a priest.
The sum total of those actions means that Bishops will not tolerate even one act of sexual abuse of a minor. There will be severe consequences for any act of sexual abuse. No free pass. No second chances. No free strike. For those who think or say that this is not zero tolerance, then they have not read it carefully. We have voted to take every step possible, as Bishops, within our canon laws and our powers, to eliminate any loophole that an abuser could try to use.
This charter says to abusive priests or deacons, If you abuse a child, you will be stripped of your ministry, forever. This charter says, you do not deserve to present yourself as a priest. This charter says, if you abuse a child, you will never
be given another chance, through our Church, to do it again. And finally, this charter says, in concert with the Holy Father, There is no place in the priesthood, or religious life, for anyone who would abuse a child.
As Catholics, we do believe in forgiveness. We do believe in the power of conversion. An abuser, who recognizes the profound harm he has committed, and who has shown remorse, can indeed be forgiven for his sins. He just doesnt get a second chance to do it again. Period.
- Every Diocese will have a review board, the majority of whose members will be lay persons, not in the employ of the diocese.
- The Review Board will assist the Diocesan Bishop to assess allegations, to make recommendations on the fitness for ministry of priests or deacons. I will also regularly review diocesan policies and procedures for dealing with sexual abuse of minors both for past cases and for the future.
Among other measures,
- Every Diocese will have a competent assistance coordinator to aid in the immediate pastoral care of persons who claim to have been sexually abused as minors by clergy or church personnel.
- The elimination of confidentiality agreements except for grave and substantial reasons brought forward by the victim/survivor.
- The creation of the Office for Child and Youth Protection at our national headquarters, which will consist of experts in the protection of minors, to assist individual dioceses in the implementation of safe environment programs. As well, the Office will assist provinces and regions in the development of appropriate mechanisms to audit adherence to policies. The Office for Child and Youth Protection will publish an annual public report on the progress made in implementing the standards in this Charter. This public report will also point out those Dioceses which may not be in compliance with the Charter requirements.
- The creation of a national Review Board, including parents, appointed by the Conference President and reporting directly to him.
- The national Review Board will oversee the work of the Protection Office.
- The Board will approve the annual report of how this Charter is implemented in each of our dioceses. It will also make recommendations to Dioceses for compliance.
- The Board will also commission a descriptive study and an historical study of the nature and scope of the problem within the Catholic Church in the United States, including statistics on perpetrators and victims.
- A few minutes ago I announced the names of several members of that National Review Board who have kindly agreed to serve. Governor Frank Keating (R-Okla.), Bob Bennett, a partner with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meager and Flom, LLP and Illinois Appellate Court Justice Anne Burke. The nucleus of the Board, in turn, will develop a fuller roster of members and present that to me as the President.
- This Charter ensures that Bishops will be consistently answerable to civil authorities through the immediate referral of allegations and the full cooperation with those civil authorities in investigations.
- Through the creation of Diocesan Review Boards, every Diocesan Bishop must engage the Board in decisions affecting assessment, issues surrounding fitness to ministry and are answerable to the Board for how they handle all aspects of sexual abuse cases within the Diocese.
- At the national level, the creation of the National Office for Child and Youth Protection and the National Review Board, Bishops must account for their actions or any failure to act or to comply with the Charter
- And, to the Catholic laity, we Bishops will be answerable to you for what we do or what we fail to do, to protect your children. Answerability begins with openness. This will be accomplished through involving the Review Boards and by the publishing of an annual report which will tell it like it is.
- This Charter removes the shroud of secrecy which has undermined your trust in us. We intend to earn back that trust by our actions.
By the overwhelming vote of 239 to 13, Bishops have sent a clear message that they are strongly behind the Charter and that they are committed to its implementation in fact and in spirit.
I am very proud of my fellow Bishops for their hard work, their openness, and their dedication to the principles of justice, fairness and compassion. The discussions, as you witnessed, were spirited, deeply felt, and honorably debated.
Finally, my heart is with our children, who are truly a gift from God and whose trust and innocence we vow to protect.
And the deep feelings remain in our hearts, for those whose lives have been so tragically affected by the sins, the crimes and the omissions, of those acting in the name of the Church. Your pain will not be forgotten and your experiences, which you have so eloquently shared with us at this Conference, will serve to guide us as we share in your journey to justice.
It is with great pride and appreciation that I introduce to you, the Chair of our new National Review Board, Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma.