Cardinal Cupich contributes to international child safety symposium

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Archdiocese of Chicago has been a leader in preventing clerical sexual abuse of minors and reaching out to victims, Cardinal Cupich said in an online presentation that was part of the Symposium on Faith and Flourishing: Strategies for Preventing and Healing Child Sexual Abuse, hosted by Harvard University’s Human Flourishing program.

The April 8-10 symposium featured recorded talks and opportunities for the 1,800 participants to join real-time online discussions.

Cardinal Cupich’s talk, made available April 9, was part of a panel of talks on “The Role of Faith and Faith Leaders in Preventing and Healing Child Sexual Abuse.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago’s work on preventing clerical sexual abuse of minors goes back at least to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin in the early 1990s, Cardinal Cupich said.

Cardinal Bernardin convened a lay commission in 1991 to review procedures for preventing and responding to clerical sexual abuse, Cardinal Cupich said, and the following year adopted a set of policies and procedures that would later largely become the basis of the 2002 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

“In 1992, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin presented those policies and procedures to the bishops at their annual meeting,” Cardinal Cupich said. “The response was decidedly mixed.”

If all of the dioceses of the United States had adopted the policies — including having a majority-lay review board and outreach to victims — “How many children might have been spared?” Cardinal Cupich said.

The archdiocese’s Office for the Protection of Children and Youth now includes child abuse investigation and review and monitoring of priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of children.

It also includes the Safe Environment Office, which since 2003 has trained more than 270,000 adults to recognize situations that might put children at risk. The office also is in charge of ensuring that all archdiocesan schools and religious education programs provide age-appropriate training to children every year.

“We know that most abuse occurs in the home or at the hands of a family member or friend,” Cardinal Cupich said. “Parishes and schools are required to provide training to youth about how to recognize or respond to grooming or abuse, no matter where or by whom it occurs. It instills in them the knowledge that they have the right to be safe, and if they don’t feel safe, they have the right to report that to a trusted adult.”

The Office of Assistance Ministry, which was the first of its kind in the United States, reaches out to anyone who reports that they were sexually abused by clergy during their childhoods.

That office is housed in a former home, away from parish or archdiocesan offices to avoid painful triggers for victim-survivors, the cardinal said, and it allows victim-survivors to get mental health care from staff or other licensed professionals.

“This offer is made no matter when the abuse occurred, whether the offender is dead or alive, whether it was an archdiocesan or order priest,” Cardinal Cupich said. “They take all the time needed to listen to and to hear the child within the adult before them.”

In a different presentation, Thomas Tharayil, director of the archdiocesan Office of Assistance Ministry, shared videos of victim-survivors telling their own stories of healing as well as segments from the May 2020 “Pinwheels for Prevention” prayer service, which is usually held in the archdiocese in April, Child  Abuse Prevention Month.

“We need to ask victim-survivors what they need and want from the church on their journey of healing,” Tharayil said. “When the church decides what they need, it is missing an opportunity for healing together.”

The cardinal said his understanding of the issue became more personal when he was bishop of a small, rural diocese, and a local businessman came to him and shared his story.

“I asked what he wanted,” Cardinal Cupich said. “He wanted to confront the priest, to lay the burden at his feet, because he had been carrying it for too long.”

The priest did not deny the abuse, and after informing the police and the Holy See, Cardinal Cupich visited the man’s former parish, informed the congregation and removed the former pastor’s picture from the church vestibule. He informed the other parishes where the pastor served and invited other victims to come forward.

“It was a moment of great pain,” Cardinal Cupich said. “That survivor’s courage forced me to be an adult in a way I had never experienced to that point. That encounter convinced me there should be no place in the church for leaders who abuse their power.”

The need to listen to victim-survivors of violence was also emphasized by Rabbi Diana Gerson, associate executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis.

Gerson told the story of being approached by a woman who was a victim of domestic violence when she was working with her first congregation after being ordained, and having to learn how to do that and what resources were available.

“People in our communities are in need of being heard, in need of being seen,” Gerson said. “We need to create a sacred space that allows people to tell their truth. To be seen. To be heard. We have to believe the victims and survivors. We have to know that what they’re telling us is the tip of the iceberg.

“We need to hold abusers accountable for their actions. We don’t victim-blame. We need to create a safe, healing space within our communities and we refer them to resources. It’s so important that we do all four of these things. If we leave one, we leave someone feeling disconnected.”

Cardinal Cupich said that if the church  is to remain true to its mission, it must meet its obligation to minister to victim-survivors and to prevent future abuse.

“We cannot provide pastoral care for our people, especially our children and their families, if they do not trust us,” he said. “Zero tolerance when it comes to harming children and full accountability are universal non-negotiables. They must be lived values. They must be values that permeate the very air we breathe as a church.”


  • child abuse prevention
  • clergy sexual abuse

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