As Charter Turns 20, Trust in Bishops Slow to Return, Cardinal Says
WASHINGTON, DC — The nation’s Catholic bishops have made strides in regaining lay trust since approving a groundbreaking document in response to the clergy sex abuse crisis two decades ago, but for the Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory “the task is not done.”
“We have been through difficult times,” Gregory told Catholic News Service in an interview ahead of the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”
“With each sordid revelation (of sexual abuse or an inappropriate response from a bishop), the task becomes more difficult, the climb becomes steeper,” said the cardinal, who was bishop of Belleville, Illinois, and president of the American Conference of Catholics. Bishops at the time.
He guided the bishops through the process of drafting and approving the charter at a historic general assembly in Dallas June 13-15, 2002, months after news broke of a devastating abuse scandal. clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston and led to nationwide investigations of clergy behavior. .
The bishops overwhelmingly approved the charter in response to the escalating crisis after hours of debate and small-group and one-on-one discussions, which Gregory likened to the process that led to the reforms of the Church that emerged from the Second Vatican Council.
“It was the product of a consensus that the bishops agreed on,” he said.
The final document established minimum standards for each diocese to follow when reviewing allegations of abuse.
He also established a unique policy which saw clergy against whom allegations of abuse were founded permanently removed from the prosecution service.
The meeting allowed the bishops to hear from survivors of abuse – whom Gregory described to CNS as witnesses courageously speaking about their disturbing experiences – and to discuss the steps needed to respond to revelations that abusive priests were often moved to new parish assignments with little or no precautions to prevent abuse from recurring.
Gregory said the difficulty of restoring full trust among lay people and regaining credibility has become mired in periodic revelations that a bishop had provided “an inadequate response” to an alleged abuse.
“Certainly 20 years ago, when the charter was first promulgated and ratified, I think God’s people breathed a sigh of relief as the bishops finally took action together to resolve the issue. But… with each revelation implying that a bishop was not taking appropriate action, with each revelation that a bishop himself was engaged in this terrible criminal behavior, the progress made over the months and years has been undermined,” said the cardinal.
“Individual bishops who have been frank and honest and open with their people, they have made real progress,” he said. “But when you look at the corporate identity of the episcopate, you still have a long way to go because, again, the actions of one influence the credibility of the other.”
Calling the adoption of the charter a “pivotal moment” for the American Church, Gregory thanked the bishops, especially those who have been appointed since 2002, for ensuring that the charter continues to be followed.
“I hope this provides the proper context for people to believe that the church is honestly and frankly addressing this issue. But the charter is only one step and the implementation of the charter is the important true witness that we need,” Gregory said.
The most recent annual report examining diocese compliance with the charter was released in November by the USCCB’s Child and Youth Welfare Secretariat.
Covering the year from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, he said 195 of the 197 U.S. dioceses and eparchies participated in the audit. Auditors chose 61 entities for more detailed audits, 10 of which were conducted in person before the pandemic erupted in early 2020. The remaining 51 were conducted online. Data was also collected from 134 other dioceses and eparchies.
Of the 61 entities audited, two dioceses and two eparchies were found to be non-compliant with the charter.
As the bishops gathered in Dallas in 2002, then-Bishop Gregory called for “genuine reconciliation” and urged the bishops to engage in “sincere contrition” in response to the sin of abuse. He also urged the bishops to take steps to “make our church as safe an environment as humanly possible for our children and young people.”
The crisis, he added, has led bishops to realize the importance of “working more collaboratively with our dedicated laity, religious and clergy.”
Today, such collaboration has grown, especially through the presence of lay people on diocesan review boards and as victim assistance coordinators in dioceses, and bishops working more closely with priests. in diocesan pastoral councils, Gregory said.
“It wasn’t always an easy approach, but it happened,” he said of such a collaboration. “These are helpful, but again, they’re not an add water and mix solution to a problem that obviously has deep roots.”
At several points in the interview with CNS, Gregory acknowledged the efforts of abuse survivors who found the courage to discuss their traumatic experiences of abuse in the years since the Dallas meeting. “They are a clear catalyst for this revelation,” he said.
He also acknowledged the role of the news media in bringing clergy sexual abuse out of the shadows, saying the perseverance of journalists has contributed to greater awareness of the extent of the abuse crisis within of church and society.
“While it is dreadful to get up in the morning and read a story or see a media presentation about sordid activity, if the media had not been actively engaged, we would not have made progress. In some ways, it’s like applying antiseptic to a wound. It hurts, but it promotes healing,” he said.
Although the charter has been in place for 20 years, it did not fully address how bishops could be held accountable for improperly handling reports of abuse and Gregory said Pope Francis has always acted to reduce abuse. He pointed to the pope’s 2019 “motu proprio,” “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” (“You are the light of the world”), which revised and clarified norms and procedures to hold bishops and religious superiors accountable for the protection of aggressors around the world.
In addition, a reporting system for accepting allegations of sexual misconduct against bishops and eparchies in the United States was implemented in 2020. The Catholic Bishops’ Abuse Reporting System includes a website and a telephone number. free phone through which individuals can file reports regarding a bishop.
Gregory recalled his first visit to the Vatican as USCCB president in 2002 after the scandal broke – one of 13 he made in three years relating to the charter. “I was told it was an American problem. And then it was suggested that it was an Anglophone issue,” he said.
“Well, now he doesn’t just speak English. He speaks Polish, he speaks German, he speaks Spanish,” he said, referring to abuse crises that have emerged in other countries. “The world has come to realize much more clearly that this is an issue that has affected the church worldwide. Praise be to God, Pope Francis has provided a much more direct, active response and, I hope, effective at these problems.
He added, “So I think the Holy Father said to the universal body of bishops, you have to work on this together and you have to follow certain norms, procedures and behaviors.”
Since its adoption and subsequent Vatican approval, the charter has been revised three times, the last in 2018. Plans were for the next update to take place by 2025, but work has already begun by the Episcopal Committee for the protection of children and young people. , presided over by Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.
Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the USCCB Secretariat for Child and Youth Welfare, said work began ahead of schedule due to several events since 2018: the case of the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick; grand jury investigations into clergy abuses in several states; the “motu proprio” of Pope Francis; changes in canon law; and the three-year synodal process leading to the synod of bishops in the fall of 2023.
Gregory also expressed hope that the charter would become better known to lay people. He said he regularly hears people ask about the steps the church has taken to address clergy sexual abuse and then takes the time to explain what protocols are in place, not just to Washington but in each archdiocese, diocese and eparchy.
He also said he continues to answer questions about McCarrick, the former cardinal and archbishop of Washington. McCarrick was fired by the Vatican from the clerical state in 2019 following an investigation into accusations that he abused several children early in his more than 60-year career as a cleric and abused seminarians as bishop of New Jersey.
“There are people who are still angry, outraged, disappointed,” Gregory said, “and I have to try to assure them of my affection, of my support, of my concern (for them). I can’t undo the past… I can’t deny the past either.