July 1, 2012

The Dallas Charter, 10 years later

Cardinal George's Schedule

  1. July 1-5: Meeting of the Council of Cardinals, Rome, Italy
  2. July 6-14: Vacation
Cardinal's Crest

Last week, the National Review Board established by the 2002 “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” gave to the U.S. bishops their report on the current implementation of the provisions called for in the Charter. This report can be found on the USCCB website at: www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/child-and- youth-protection/upload/10-year-report-2012.pdf. It is an honest evaluation of the aftermath of the scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in this country. It is itself an example of the transparency promised at the time of the Charter’s creation 10 years ago.

Transparency remains a crucial component of building and maintaining trust among the Catholic faithful as well as the general public. With the decline in the number of abuse cases being reported, the Review Board laid special emphasis on developing more pastoral responses rather than being concerned primarily with legal issues when allegations are made. That has been a guiding principle in Chicago.

The 10th anniversary of the national Charter, which remains a sure point of reference in responding to the crisis in general and to each victim, is an occasion to look again at the history of the Chicago archdiocese’s handling of abuse cases. The crisis hit early in Chicago, shortly after reports of sexual abuse of minors by priests surfaced in Louisiana in the late 80s. At that time, the archdiocese examined forthrightly allegations that had surrounded a number of priests. Policies were adopted that now determine practice in every diocese. The civil authorities reviewed records of archdiocesan priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct with a minor. Information received from any source was put before a newly constituted Archdiocesan Review Board that included representative experts and also victims or family members of victims. Accused priests were restricted in their ministry and monitored in their behavior. Chicago did not have zero tolerance, the “one strike you’re out” policy that became the centerpiece of the Charter in 2002; but no one else, whether in the church or the larger society, had it either. Therapists continued to believe, well into the 1980s, that the compulsion to sexually abuse minors was treatable. The recidivism rate has changed that belief.

In 1997, when I came to Chicago as archbishop, I asked for and received a comprehensive report on what was being done here to meet this personal and institutional tragedy. A number of priests had been removed from ministry here and their cases sent to Rome for final decisions, but there were still eight known abusers who were personally monitored while still in therapy and in restricted ministry in Chicago. I had never assigned a priest I knew to be an abuser and I had not assigned these men, whose personal lives I did not know. I trusted that those charged with their supervision and the Review Board’s knowledge of the situation assured the safety of children.

The ambiguities inherent in this situation were resolved with the passage of the Charter in 2002, when zero tolerance became national policy. Before the Dallas meeting in June 2002, the Catholic Lawyers Guild of Chicago conducted over a dozen listening sessions, designed to bring out opinions and allow anger to be expressed. The conversations convinced me that, despite Chicago’s generally effective practices and despite divided opinion among the laity participating in the listening sessions, a zero tolerance policy had to be part of the new Charter. I had to be able to say to Catholics here that no priest known to have abused a child would celebrate Mass or hear confessions in the archdiocese.

It took some further conversations in Rome to bring the church’s law for removing priests from ministry into line with the U.S. Charter. The assumption of church law is that a priest is a father, not an employee. Even when a father commits a crime, he is still a father. To remove a priest permanently from ministry or from the priesthood itself required changes that were made more acceptable to Roman authorities by the Charter’s provision that accused priests should, if properly supervised, remain in their ministry until an investigation concluded that there was “reasonable cause to suspect” that the priest truly was an abuser. Last year, that provision of the Charter was altered so that a priest can now be temporarily removed from ministry when an allegation is first made, even before an investigation is complete.

All the allegations that have come to the archdiocese in my years as archbishop have been historical, reaching back 20 or more years into the past, with the exception of allegations against a once trusted and now laicized priest named Daniel McCormack. When McCormack was arrested and then set free by the police after questioning, the policies of the Charter were followed to the letter. A monitor was appointed for him and his ministry was restricted, but the archdiocesan investigation did not yield a conclusion before he was arrested a second time and, finally, admitted in court that he had abused five minor children.

Much of the reporting on the McCormick story was distorted in ways that were recognized as the full story came together. Despite its flaws, the published record remains what it is. What remains incontrovertibly true of Chicago, however, is that every allegation has been reported to the civil authorities and investigations have been conducted in cooperation with them. Ours is not a story of cover-up. The records of all credibly accused archdiocesan priests have been examined by the DCFS. There are no known abusers in ministry in Chicago. As well, no allegation has been ignored. Each allegation that has reached the office of those who judge fitness for ministry has been responded to, sometimes not as effectively as, in retrospect, it might have been; but every allegation has been taken seriously.

What is most important in the Chicago experience, I believe, is the development of our Office of Assistance Ministry. When I began going over records of cases, I noticed that the voice of the priest being accused was often recorded, but the voice of the accuser was not. The procedures in Chicago now demand that the voice of the accuser be heard by the Review Board and by those trying to resolve an accusation. Spiritual and psychological assistance is always offered; and I have met with many victims so that I can both listen and apologize to them, if they feel that such a meeting would be helpful. The healing garden next to Holy Family Church places daily before the public the archdiocese’s apology to victims and its desire and prayers for their healing. The Office of Assistance Ministry tries to follow up with many victims to prevent them from feeling abandoned.

Victims with whom I have spoken have a basic concern: that no one else will ever suffer what they suffered. That is the promise of the Dallas Charter, and it is the purpose of the Office of Assistance Ministry, of the investigative apparatus that follows up on allegations, of the work of lawyers and of the Review Board. Keeping our promise to victims motivates the vigilance of pastors, bishops, teachers, youth workers and volunteers in our many programs. All have been checked and trained. All have eyes opened and hearts moved by what we have collectively seen and learned in the past decade. The complete story has not been heard and perhaps never will be. In the end, however, history is what God remembers. God bless you.