20 years of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, October 19, 2022

20 years of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People

Twenty years ago, in October 2002, Cardinal Francis George led a delegation of five U.S. bishops to the Vatican to plead the case for approval of the measures the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had voted on in Dallas four months earlier in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Nelly Bonilla, interim director of the archdiocese’s Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, reads a letter from Cardinal Cupich at the end of the 11th Annual Hope and Healing Mass on Oct. 15, 2022 at St. Gertrude Parish, 6200 N. Glenwood Ave. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Jim Richter, a victim-survivor, gives his testimony at the end of the Hope and Healing Mass Oct. 15, 2022. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Mayra Flores, the archdiocese’s assistance ministry director and safe environment coordinator, distributes gifts to new Virtus trainers who were blessed by Cardinal Francis George during a Mass on Sept. 15, 2012. The Mass marked the 10th anniversary of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The Healing Garden for victims and survivors of clerical sexual abuse is located on the grounds of Church of the Holy Family Church, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road. The garden, dedicated in 2011, was created as a place of prayer and healing for victim-survivors of clerical sexual abuse, their families and the greater Catholic Church. The idea of the garden came from victim survivors, priests and Office for the Protection of Children and Youth staff members. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Victim-survivor Michael Hoffman waves a pinwheel at the end of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s annual Prevent Child Abuse Prayer Service and Pinwheel Planting on April 7, 2017, at the Healing Garden at Church of the Holy Family, 1080 W. Roosevelt Road. Students from Catholic schools also participated in the planting. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
The website for Virtus Online, the web-based training program for staff and volunteers about the issue of child sexual abuse. (Screen grab)

Twenty years ago, in October 2002, Cardinal Francis George led a delegation of five U.S. bishops to the Vatican to plead the case for approval of the measures the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had voted on in Dallas four months earlier in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The 17-point document called for assisting and accompanying victim-survivors of clergy sexual abuse of minors; removing priests and deacons with an admitted or established allegation from ministry and creating safe environment programs to better screen those who work with children, including priests and deacons, as well as training adults and children to identify situations where abuse can take place and to respond to abuse when it happens.

The charter also requires dioceses to report allegations of such abuse to public authorities, and to be transparent and accountable in their policies for responding to clerical sexual abuse of minors and in the implementation of those policies.

But the Dallas Charter did not mark the first time the Archdiocese of Chicago worked to address the crime and sin of clergy abusing minors, according to John O’Malley, now special counsel to the Archdiocese of Chicago.

“The diocese adopted its policies in 1992, fully 10 years before 2002,” O’Malley said. “The diocese really was way out ahead in attempting to address this issue.”

That commitment has not changed.

“This year marks the 30th year of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s commitment to policies that prevent clergy sexual abuse, help heal all affected and hold those responsible accountable,” said Cardinal Cupich in a statement. “As archbishop, my commitment to victim-survivors is unwavering. Their courage is our inspiration as we continue the work begun decades ago.” 

O’Malley was working with the ethics board that oversees attorneys in Illinois in 1992 when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin created a special commission to create policies and procedures to address the clerical sexual abuse of children, and O’Malley was one of many people who offered their advice. Cardinal Bernardin started the effort in response to the case of Father Robert Mayer, who had been accused and then returned to ministry when psychologists said it would be safe to do so, after which he abused more children.

O’Malley then came to work for the archdiocese, serving as director of legal services from 1992 to 2014.

One of the commission’s main recommendations, made in June 1992, was the creation of an independent review board, similar to the group that investigated allegations of unethical actions by lawyers, made up of mostly laypeople, O’Malley said.

On Sept. 15, 1992, Cardinal Bernardin announced the new policies, including a review board, but also including the creation of a ministry to assist victim-survivors of clergy sex abuse, something that hadn’t been envisioned in the commission’s recommendations, O’Malley said.

“Cardinal Bernardin didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that we were a church and wanted to reach out to people who were abused,” he said.

It was the first victim assistance ministry in the United States, and such outreach to victim-survivors and their families became the first article of USCCB charter created a decade later.

Once the policies and procedures were in place, Cardinal Bernardin placed a copy of them on every bishop’s desk at the November 1992 bishops conference meeting. Not all the bishops were pleased, O’Malley said, but more dioceses began establishing their own polices, and the following year, the USCCB issued five principles for handing clerical sexual abuse of children, including removing offenders from ministry, cooperating with public authorities and being transparent with the public while respecting the privacy of victims.

“After that, even more dioceses established policies, and most of them sourced our policies as a model,” O’Malley said.

So when the Boston Globe published its investigative series on the way the Archdiocese of Boston handled allegations in early 2002 and set off a national crisis, the USCCB used the policies that had been in place in the Archdiocese of Chicago since 1992 as a starting point for many of its new policies, he said.

“It’s fair to say that our policies influenced them,” O’Malley said.

The charter and its accompanying “essential norms” did include provisions that were not in place in the Archdiocese of Chicago, including a requirement that clerics with even one admitted or established allegation against them be permanently barred from church ministry. That requirement raised flags at the Vatican, because of concerns about due process for priests in cases where the canonical statute of limitations had expired.

“It was Cardinal George who convinced Rome to make it the law of the church,” O’Malley said, in part by waiving the canonical statute of limitations in such cases. “That wasn’t easy.”

When the charter went into effect, it added to the Archdiocese of Chicago’s efforts, said Mayra Flores, the archdiocese’s assistance ministry director and safe environment coordinator. For example, as a result of the charter, the archdiocese brought together the review board, which responds to allegations; the victim assistance ministry, which accompanies victim-survivors; and safe environment programs from background checks and screening to training for staff, volunteers and children, under the newly established Office for the Protection of Children and Youth.

Flores, who in 1992 was the administrative assistant for the review board, remembers the transition as extraordinarily busy.

“When the Boston Globe scandal happened, all these victims came out who had thought they had been the only one,” Flores said. “Everyone came to the Archdiocese of Chicago because we had those policies in place because of Cardinal Bernardin.”

She credits victim-survivors who spoke to the bishops in Dallas with the charter’s emphasis on safe environment provisions.

“At the Dallas meeting, there were victims there who spoke directly to bishops about how meeting with the bishops is important to their healing, and that they wanted to be sure that going forward, this wouldn’t happen again,” Flores said. “It was their courage to say, ‘Don’t let this happen again.’ Out of that came the code of conduct, the screening, the training for children and for adults.”

Jan Slattery, the first director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, came on board in 2003.

“Going back, my first charge was to implement a code of conduct and put in place background checks,” Slattery said, then bring together the review board and assistance ministry, and begin the process of training adults and children on how to create and maintain a safe environment.

At the same time, the archdiocese was also receiving more allegations of past abuse and removing previously accused priests from ministry.

“We removed 18 priests in 2002,” said Slattery, who retired about six years ago. “Thank God for the staff that I had. It was very busy, and it never stopped.”

At the same time, the archdiocese turned over the records of all clergy who had been credibly accused of child sexual abuse to the state’s attorneys’ offices, O’Malley said.

Most of the existing archdiocesan structure was in place in 2006, when Michael Hoffman reported the abuse he had suffered as a child to the archdiocese. His report was spurred by a news report he read about his abuser — his former pastor — and other boys he had harmed. That priest was Robert Mayer, the one whose case gave Cardinal Bernardin the impetus to put the original policies in place.

Hoffman, now chairman of the archdiocese’s Hope and Healing Committee, said he is mostly happy with the response he got from the archdiocese.

“I came forward in 2006 and the way in which my story was received and handled was positively impacted by the charter,” Hoffman said. “I’m still receiving services from the Office of Assistance Ministry 16 years in. That’s important. That accompaniment is there, and that accompaniment requires steadfast commitment by Cardinal George and now by Cardinal Cupich. People think there are no victims here — they came forward, they received a settlement and they’re gone, they leave the church — but that’s not always the case. There are a lot of us still here.”

Additionally, the archdiocese created the Healing Garden for those affected by sexual abuse, and every year it holds a “Hope and Healing Mass” for victims and survivors. This year’s Mass was Oct. 15.

An annual outreach to survivors, not necessarily a Mass, is required by the charter, but, Hoffman said, it’s important that victim-survivors are included in the planning of the archdiocese’s Mass.

Hoffman also applauds the work the church has done to safeguard children.

“From an outsider looking in, here in the church of Chicago, they do implement the best practices of child safety,” said Hoffman, who went through safe environment training to volunteer as a coach when his children were in school. “I’ve been through it. I can personally witness that they don’t skirt the issue. They handle the subject about as well as you can in a three-hour meeting.”

Now his oldest child is coaching and had to do the training.

“I wasn’t protected as a child and it affected me deeply,” Hoffman said. “Now the next generation is getting trained in child protection. For me, I could crumble to the ground and cry. That’s how beautiful it is.”

The training teaches children what to do when something makes them uncomfortable, and teaches adults to recognize situations where abuse could happen and how to respond when a child tells them something has occurred.

“Now, children were getting permission to say, ‘No, that makes me uncomfortable,’ to anyone,” Flores said. “Adults were trained to notice, ‘I’m being groomed so that the perpetrator can get access to kids,’ or ‘This teacher, this catechist, is behaving this way with kids and I don’t think it’s good.’ It taught the adult community what grooming is so they’re better equipped to respond.”

The archdiocese has also gone beyond the requirements of the charter and norms when it comes to transparency, O’Malley said, publishing a list of clergy with substantiated allegations in 2006, updating the list regularly and adding related information in 2014.

The list expanded again this month, with the inclusion of priests with at least two allegations who were deceased when allegations were received and religious order and extern priests who were once engaged in ministry for the Archdiocese of Chicago, and who had allegations of sexual abuse of a minor substantiated by their home diocese or order. (See related story on page 8.)

Just having policies and procedures in place is not a panacea, O’Malley said, noting that the church is a human institution and subject to human failures. But having them in place, and being very public about them, has helped change behavior both inside and outside the church.

“The policies were known, were published and attested to the fact that the church was not going to tolerate this kind of behavior and was going to act responsibly to protect children,” O’Malley said. “That in itself had an effect. That had an impact on behavior. At the same time, society was learning more about sexual abuse of minors and was not acting in a way that was unconscious about sex abuse. It just became a more public issue, which in itself was a deterrent.

“The charter and the norms were the national Catholic Church taking a stand on the issue. That visibility led to the knowledge that it was OK for people to come forward.”

Flores said the charter showed that the church was committed to caring for children.

“When the archdiocese was confronted with this in 1992, they didn’t say, ‘We’re going to close schools, close religious ed, we’re going to close youth ministry,’” she said. “They said, ‘This is how we’re going to conduct ourselves, this is how we’re going to do things, this is what we’re committed to.’”

OPCY remains committed to continue and improve its efforts, Flores said. 

“What has gotten better is that we’re more vigilant without being paranoid,” she said. “We see this as a mission-driven ministry, not only as a response to a crisis.”

Hoffman agreed that the work of safeguarding children and accompanying victim-survivors will never be done.

“We can always do more,” he said, noting that the charter itself has been updated three times. “Best practices in child safety, that has improved, and that has to always be on the radar. … Children are protected when adults talk about child safety wherever children are. It always needs to be addressed.”


  • clergy sexual abuse

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