Most Rev. John Vlazny Archbishop Emeritus of Portland
We American bishops held our spring assembly in Atlanta earlier this month. That meeting marked the tenth anniversary of the approval by the American bishops in Dallas of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. When we bishops from the Pacific Northwest walked into our meeting room for a regional discussion, we found a bulletin from Atlanta’s “Voice of the Faithful,” telling us that, “the Charter to Protect Children and Young People is still fundamentally flawed.” VOF stated that the reforms were “not significant,” bishops still don’t welcome people who speak the truth about abuse, and there has been no cooperation with the recommendations from the bishops’ own National Review Board.
On the other hand, during the Atlanta meeting all bishops received a ten-year progress report on the Charter from our own National Review Board. In the report the members stated, “Ten years later, there has been striking improvement in the church’s response to and treatment of victims. Children are safer now because of the creation of safe environments and action has been taken to permanently remove offenders from ministry. Yet, much work still needs to be done.” The NRB reminded the bishops that we should never let our guard down. Vigilance should never be taken for granted, or worse, watered down.
Over the past ten years, more than 15,000 victims have come forward in Catholic dioceses across the USA to tell their secret about the abuse they suffered in childhood. The John Jay Study of the Nature and Scope of the Abuse reported that incidents of abuse began to rise in the 60s, peaked in the 70s and declined sharply in the 80s. Even the most recent reports tend to fall into that same pattern. In other words, most of the abuse is past history, but victims back then are still hurting. We can never presume that similar mistakes won’t be made again in the future.
Prior to the Dallas Charter, some 25 dioceses had Victim Assistance Coordinators. Now all 195 dioceses have them. Cathy Shannon does that work for our archdiocese. She assists me in responding to those who make allegations, with her primary work focused on promoting healing and reconciliation. Strictly legal responses of the past did nothing to help victims nor the church. Allegations must be dealt with compassionate care. It’s not only the best solution to our own problem but the right thing to do.
Policies and procedures to carry out the Charter have been implemented across our nation. Back in 2002 approximately 77 dioceses had such policies. Now all 195 dioceses do. Codes of Conduct are in place for clergy, employees and volunteers. This is true here in the Catholic Church of western Oregon. Every review board, including our own, has the responsibility of advising the bishop on whether or not a cleric accused of sexual abuse should be reinstated or permanently removed from ministry. Our board consists of professional lay persons and one cleric. Confidential settlement agreements for victims have been abolished except when requested by the victim.
The NRB reported that the most important advance for the church in the last decade is the practice of the complete cooperation with legal authorities. We are required to report all allegations of sexual abuse of minors to public authorities and to cooperate in their investigations. This sometimes slows down our own investigations, but we follow the lead of the civil government. Dioceses also set a policy for implementing the church requirement of conducting preliminary investigations promptly after an allegation is made and to have a competent person responsible for conducting such a preliminary investigation. Dioceses are open and transparent now with parish and other church communities regarding any diocesan priest who is an alleged abuser. Furthermore, and this is probably the greatest bone of contention, for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor – whenever it occurred, whether admitted or established after an appropriate process in accord with church law - the offending cleric is permanently removed from ministry and, if warranted, dismissed from the clerical state. All pertinent information is given to the diocesan review board for a recommendation to the bishop.
All dioceses, including our own, have written codes of conduct for clergy and church employees and volunteer who have contact with children. These serve as guidelines for adult behavior with our children and can help anyone determine if a behavior is appropriate. Every year all of us who serve children must participate in online training provided by Praesidium. As a result there is greater clarity around procedures beyond sexual behavior, those that are called “boundary violations.” These behaviors cross the line of integrity and professional responsibility. They include such things as improper touching, excessive tickling, dirty jokes and the like.
Catholic people are angry that sexual abuse by clerics occurred. But they are also angry that bishops allowed the abusive behavior to continue. Many of the people think that abuse by clergy is occurring in high levels and still being covered up by bishops, but the NRB suggests that there is solid evidence to the contrary. We know from experience that when a report of sexual abuse is not quickly reported, more harm can be done to children and certainly great harm comes to the church.
In order to insure the accountability of these procedures, an independent audit is mandated for every diocese. Such audits have taken place since 2003. Our archdiocese has been found in compliance every time, but good recommendations have been given to us which have helped us improve our performance. The NRB went on to recommend that parishes be included in the audits to determine whether diocesan policies and procedures are being implemented “where it really counts – in the parishes.”
In looking to the future, the church is working hard to create safe environments for all our children. These are created by training clerics, employees and volunteers who work with children to understand the nature and scope of child sexual abuse and how to prevent it. Across this nation dioceses have trained and conducted background checks on 60,190 clerics and candidates for ordination, 159,689 educators, 249,133 employees and 1.8 million volunteers. We have trained 94 percent of the 5.1 million students attending Catholic schools or parish religious education programs. Parents are given the option to opt out, a decision I consider unwise but necessarily allowable. Annually $20 million dollars is spent on safe environment programs across this nation.
Here in the Archdiocese of Portland we take the mandates of the Charter seriously. I am grateful to all who have assisted in the implementation of the Charter. I pray that one day the scandal which resulted from the terrible abuse of children will indeed be history. But for now, we work assiduously and compassionately for a better tomorrow in the service of God’s people.