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Pope Francis, U.S. Bishops Continue Working to Combat Sex Abuse

The Vatican report, which outlined how ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick rose through the church’s ranks, is a milestone, said a leading expert on sex abuse prevention. McCarrick is pictured outside the White House in 2005. (Photo: CNS/Bob Roller)

WINDSOR TERRACE — Pope Francis and U.S. bishops have worked hard to combat clergy sex abuse, according to officials who said the church has made a serious effort to put the victims first even if it means publicly exposing ugly facts about crimes.

“There has been a major shift toward the rights of victims,” said Deacon Bernard Nojadera, executive director for the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “In the 1950s and 1960s, the idea was to avoid scandal. Now, the idea is to put the victim first. Part of this is having the church be open and transparent.”

In the wake of the revelations in the Vatican’s report on ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, renewed attention is being paid to the tragedy of sex abuse within the church.

The report, released on Nov. 10, outlined how McCarrick was able to rise in the Catholic Church and eventually take the high profile post as archbishop of Washington D.C. despite rumors of sexual misconduct. He was able to move up because of his network of contacts within the church hierarchy and because of the lack of serious investigations into his behavior, the report found.

In June of 2018, the Vatican suspended McCarrick after an investigation by the Archdiocese of New York found a credible charge that he had sexually abused a teenager. He resigned from the College of Cardinals. On February 2019 he was laicized. Laicization means that he lost the legal status of being a cleric.

“The McCarrick report was a milestone. It was a case study of what went wrong but also in what the church did right,” Deacon Nojadera told The Tablet. “It will be used as a template as we move forward.”

According to officials, even before the McCarrick report’s release, church leaders were taking necessary steps.

In 2019, Pope Francis held a summit at the Vatican with bishops, called the Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church, which yielded a 21-point plan to combat clergy sex abuse.

The plan included new procedures to investigate abuse allegations, informing law enforcement about abuse incidents, offering support to victims, requiring members of the clergy guilty of abuse to leave the ministry, and requiring men wishing to become priests to undergo psychological evaluations.

“We sense the weight of the pastoral and ecclesial responsibility that obliges us to discuss together, in a synodal, frank, and in-depth manner, how to confront this evil afflicting the church and humanity,” Pope Francis said at the time.

In 2002, the USCCB held its annual meeting and developed a plan for combating clergy sex abuse. Out of that came the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a multi-faceted document containing recommendations that “was a roadmap for the dioceses,” according to Deacon Nojadera.

The recommendations included:

  • establishing review boards composed of laity and clergy to look into allegations
  • outlining a process of documenting allegations
  • setting up victim assistance coordinators
  • putting in place safe environment coordinators
  • requiring background checks on those working with children, and requiring sex abuse awareness training for workers

The charter has since been updated three times — in 2005, 2011, and 2018. “The charter is a living document,” Deacon Nojadera said.

The Diocese of Brooklyn has a “no tolerance” policy. Members of the clergy credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor are permanently removed from ministry.

The diocese also instituted the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program and has reached financial settlements with hundreds of victims. Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio has met personally with abuse victims to listen to their stories first hand. The bishop also celebrates a Mass of Hope and Healing each year.

The diocese’s efforts include the Victim Assistance Ministry through which independently licensed therapists and support groups help victims.

The diocese conducts initial and ongoing background checks of all employees and volunteers and requires them to complete sex abuse awareness training. The training is required for clergy, teachers, parish and school employees, catechists, and volunteers working directly with children.