WASHINGTON (June 4, 2002) – The U.S. Catholic Bishops will consider a draft "Charter" containing "a series of steps aimed at the protection of children and young people" in church ministries and institutions, said St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Bishops' Conference.
He presented the document, entitled "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," at a briefing here.
The draft has been in preparation since early March. It is the work of the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Archbishop Flynn said the Ad Hoc Committee believes that the "steps are necessary to restore the calm and peace of the Church in this grave matter."
The draft Charter will be voted on at the meeting of the full body of Catholic bishops to be held in Dallas, Texas, June 13-15. It will be subject to the Conference's usual process of amendment before and during the meeting and could emerge "substantially revised."
Archbishop Flynn pointed out that the bishops' meeting was now devoted solely to protecting children and young people and preventing sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
With regard to future acts of sexual abuse, the draft Charter says that "even a single act of abuse of a minor will bring about a request for laicization, even without the consent of the cleric."
Laicization is the church process by which a man is removed from the priesthood.
Archbishop Flynn said, "Our foremost goal is to protect children and young people. One essential way to do that is to say clearly, `if you abuse, you are out of the priesthood.'
"The Committee sees this as the standard given by our Holy Father," Archbishop Flynn added, referring to the statement by Pope John Paul II last April, speaking to the U.S. cardinals and officers of the bishops' Conference, that "there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young."
Laicization will also be sought for priests who have been diagnosed as pedophiles or who have committed multiple acts of sexual abuse.
The draft Charter also calls for establishing an "Office for Child and Youth Protection" at the bishops' national headquarters.
This Office will assist individual dioceses "in the implementation of safe environment programs." It will also make an annual public report "on the progress made in implementing the standards" of the Charter.
The Office will be "assisted and monitored" by a Review Board which is to include parents. The Board is to approve the annual report on the implementation of the Charter.
Archbishop Flynn said that the Office and Board will provide both assistance to dioceses and also a means of accountability to make sure that the Charter is properly implemented.
"This is a large step forward from what we did during the last decade," Archbishop Flynn said. "We established good principles then, but we didn't provide for a way to be accountable to our people and to one another nationally for what is so clearly a national -- even international -- problem."
The draft Charter also states that "dioceses will report any accusation of sexual abuse of a person who is a minor to the proper authorities and cooperate in their investigation."
It adds that "dioceses will cooperate with proper authorities about reporting when the person is no longer a minor. In every instance, dioceses will advise and support a person's right to make a report to proper authorities."
Archbishop Flynn noted that the reporting issue was among the most emotional, and also least understood, issues in the current controversy about the Church's response to sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
"I do not think that many people fully understand that reporting does not necessarily result in prosecution. Far from it," Archbishop Flynn said. "However, the Ad Hoc Committee fully agrees that when it comes to investigating civil crimes, the investigation should be left to the proper law enforcement authorities."
Archbishop Flynn also described the long debate the Committee had about past offenders.
"We are deeply sympathetic to feelings of victims/survivors who have experienced years of suffering due to sexual abuse," Archbishop Flynn said. "But treatment – and the power of Christian conversion -- has made a difference in some cases."
"However, ministry that involves contact with children or young people will always be out of the question," he pointed out.
The possibility for ministry or a non-ministerial status without laicization envisioned in the Charter applies only to a cleric who is not a pedophile and who has not has not had multiple victims.
"The diocesan review board would have to make an evaluation and recommendation to the bishop, and the victim/survivor would have to contribute to that evaluation," Archbishop Flynn said.
If the cleric were to be retained in ministry, his situation would have to be disclosed to those with whom he would live or serve.
Archbishop Flynn said that the Ad Hoc Committee was "well aware that many strongly believe that there should be no such provision.
"However," he continued, " in the feedback that we received, there appeared to be a large enough minority of bishops, expert observers and people in the pew who wanted some flexibility that we felt this possibility had to go the full body.
"I think this will be the most closely debated item at our meeting," he added.
Among the other proposals in the draft Charter are:
- "Each diocese is to develop [such] an outreach to every person who has been the victim of sexual abuse by anyone acting in the name of the Church, whether the abuse was recent or many years in the past."
- "Dioceses will have a competent assistance coordinator to aid in the immediate pastoral care of persons who claim to have been sexually abused by clergy or other church personnel."
- "Dioceses will also have a review board, the majority of whom will be lay persons not in the employ of the diocese. This board will assess allegations, regularly review diocesan policies and procedures for dealing with sexual abuse of minors, and advise the bishop on the offender's fitness for ministry."
- "Dioceses will not enter into confidentiality agreements except for grave and substantial reasons brought forward by the victim."
- "A commission will be established by the President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to research how the Church in the United States responded to the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy."
- "Dioceses are to establish `safe environment' programs."
- "Dioceses are to evaluate the background of all diocesan and parish personnel who have contact with children and young people … In addition, they will employ adequate screening and evaluative techniques in deciding the fitness of candidates for ordination (cf. Program of Priestly Formation, #513)."
- "When a cleric is proposed for a new assignment, transfer, or residence in another diocese, or proposed for ministry in an activity of a religious institute, the sending bishop or major superior will forward, and the receiving bishop or major superior will review, before assignment, an accurate and complete description of the cleric's record including whether there is anything in the background or service of the cleric that would raise questions about his fitness for ministry."
In a "preamble" to the Charter, the draft says that the Catholic Church "is experiencing a crisis without precedent in our times."
The draft expresses the bishops' "great sorrow and most profound regret for what the Catholic people have had to endure" due to "the sexual abuse of children and young people by some priests and bishops and ways in which these crimes and sins were too often dealt with by bishops."
Referring to the damage caused by sexual abuse, the draft says that the bishops are "profoundly sorry for the times when we have deepened its pain by what we have done or by what we have failed to do."
It contains an apology from the bishops to the victims of sexual abuse by clergy saying that "in such a matter, healing and reconciliation seem almost beyond human capacity. We dare to speak of these things only because of the hope, inspired by the Lord, that `for God, all things are possible' (Mt. 19.26)."
The draft states that "the loss of trust" caused by sexual abuse of a child or young person by a priest "becomes even more tragic when its consequence is a loss of the faith," which it is the bishops' "sacred duty to foster."
The draft quotes the words of Pope John Paul II that sexual abuse of young people is "by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God" (Address to the Cardinals of the United States and Conference Officers, April 23, 2002).
In the draft, the bishops say, "Let there now be no doubt or confusion on anyone's part: For us, your bishops, our obligation to protect children and young people and to prevent sexual abuse flows from the mission and example given to us by Jesus Christ himself, in whose name we serve."
In a conclusion, the draft notes that while other issues have been raised in connection with the sexual abuse crisis, the Charter focused "specifically on the painful issue at hand.
"However," it continues, the bishops "wish to affirm our concern especially with regard to issues related to effective consultation of the laity and the participation of God's people in decision-making that affects their well-being."
The draft states that "sexual abuse of young people is not a problem inherent in the priesthood nor are priests the only ones guilty of it."
It points out that "the vast majority of our priests are faithful in their ministry and happy in their vocation. Their people are enormously appreciative of the ministry provided by their priests."
"In the midst of trial, this remains a cause for rejoicing," the draft adds.
On behalf of the bishops, the draft expresses "regret that any of our decisions have obscured the good work of our priests for which their people hold them in such respect."
The draft Charter concludes with a series of "pledges" by the bishops:
- "We pledge most solemnly to one another and to you, God's people, that we will work to our utmost for the protection of children and youth.
- "We pledge that we will devote to this goal the resources and personnel necessary to accomplish it.
- "We pledge that we will do our best to ordain to the priesthood and put into positions of trust only those who share this commitment to protecting children and youth.
- "We pledge that we will work toward healing and reconciliation with those sexually abused by clerics.
Citing the words of St. Paul, "where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more" (Rm. 5.20), the draft Charter concludes, "This is faith's message. With this faith, we are confident that we will not be conquered by evil but overcome evil with good (Cf. Rm. 12.21)."
Also released with the Charter was a series of norms which contain the elements which may require canonical approval.