Church praised for proactive response on abuse but warned of complacency

IMAGE: CNS photo/Peter Finney Jr, Clarion Herald

By Peter Finney Jr.

groundbreaking steps the U.S. Catholic Church has taken to prevent the sexual
abuse of minors in the past 16 years, a potential “complacency” in following
safety protocols could pose a challenge to those hard-won advances.

Francesco Cesareo, chairman of
the National Review Board, shared that view with diocesan safe environment and
victims’ assistance coordinators attending the Child and Youth Protection
Catholic Leadership Conference in New Orleans.

The 13-member lay board advises
the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on safe environment protocols for
children in Catholic parishes, schools and organizations.

In his talk June 6, Cesareo that
because a large percentage of abuse claims deal with incidents that happened
many years and even decades ago, the issue may appear now to be less urgent.

“The church has responded very
concretely to this question and very proactively, but one of the issues now is
that because it is now historical — you have newly ordained priests who were
children when this broke out — the urgency of it is not there,” he said. “You
have bishops who are new. They weren’t there in 2002. The urgency is not

Cesareo, who is president of
Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, said he was pleased the church
has shifted its conversation about sexual abuse of minors “from a legalistic
approach to a more pastoral approach, which is very helpful in the process of
healing and reconciliation and also in getting the church to understand the
real pain that victims have felt and have experienced through the abuse.”

But, he said, because the church
has done such a good job dealing with sexual abuse in the past 16 years, “there
is this notion that this is a problem in the past, ‘we’ve dealt with it, we
don’t have to put as much attention on it, we have the policies in place.'”

“That’s where the complacency
comes in,” Cesareo said. “It’s like a hospital. You have the protocols in place
and then suddenly someone dies in the operating room. All the protocols were
followed, so why did this happen?

“We need to create a culture whereby
the church is doing the same thing. Why did this happen? How do we prevent it?
How do we strengthen what we’re already doing? That’s where the complacency
issue is becoming problematic.”

Cesareo cited encouraging
statistics from the most recent audit of how individual dioceses are performing
under the U.S. bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young
People”: outreach and support was provided to 1,905 victims/survivors;
training on abuse prevention and safe environment was provided to more than 4.1
million children and more than 56,000 priests, deacons and candidates for
ordination; and background checks have been administered to 97 to 99 percent of
all adults serving in ministry with children.

“That’s no small feat,” Cesareo
told the conference. “Yet, we are not finished. We can never be finished.”

While some dioceses are going
“above and beyond” the charter’s guidelines, Cesareo said, “a number have
fallen into a pattern of complacency regarding victim/survivor assistance and
child protection efforts.”

He said some dioceses had not
completed background checks in a timely fashion and some had kept poor records,
“which could potentially lead to unscreened individuals interacting with

Cesareo said accurate parish and
school audits are vital in assessing compliance with the charter and also with
diocesan policies. He suggested that individual diocesan review boards, which
are called on to evaluate allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, should meet
regularly — at least annually and ideally four times a year — even if no
allegations have come forward.

Bishops can learn a lot by
meeting regularly with the experts on the local review boards, Cesareo said.

“It is the belief of the
(National Review Board) that diocesan review boards mitigate the risk that
allegations will be mishandled and that possible offenders remain in ministry,”
Cesareo said.

No other organization in the
U.S. has done a better job than the Catholic Church has in setting up
safeguards to protect children, he said.

“Absolutely and without any
doubt, even though we don’t get the credit,” Cesareo said. “That is clarified,
No. 1, by the charter; No. 2, by the audit process that’s in place; No. 3, by
the policies and procedures that are in place. All the background checks, all
the training that has taken place. There’s no other organization that’s doing
what we’re doing.

“Catholics in the pew should
feel very confident that their children are safe in our schools and in our
parishes, that the church is doing everything it can to ensure that kind of
culture of safety and healing and that we are being proactive and not
forgetting that this has to be always at the forefront of everything we do
within the church.”

The 13th annual conference, held
June 3-6, drew more than 150 people from across the U.S. working in areas of
safe environment, victims’ assistance and pastoral care.

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Finney is executive editor/general
manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

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