Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Child Protection and Professional Standards

This month’s Rector’s Conference was on Child Protection and Professional Standards.  It is a difficult, but essential topic for seminaries to address in every year of formation, just as each of us must pray for victims and work for justice.  I began by praying the USCCB Prayer for Healing of the Victims of Abuse.

God of endless love,
ever caring, ever strong,
always present, always just:
You gave your only Son
to save us by the blood of his cross.

Gentle Jesus, shepherd of peace,
join to your own suffering
the pain of all who have been hurt
in body, mind, and spirit
by those who betrayed the trust placed in them.

Hear our cries as we agonize
over the harm done to our brothers and sisters.
Breathe wisdom into our prayers,
soothe restless hearts with hope,
steady shaken spirits with faith:
Show us the way to justice and wholeness,
enlightened by truth and enfolded in your mercy.

Holy Spirit, comforter of hearts,
heal your people’s wounds
and transform our brokenness.
Grant us courage and wisdom, humility and grace,
so that we may act with justice
and find peace in you.
We ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

They were little and he was big.  They were a kid and he was a priest.  They were ashamed and he told them not to tell.  They were frightened, violated and all alone.

The sexual abuse of a child is a sin.  The sexual abuse of a child is a crime.  And it happened to thousands of victims at the hands of Catholic Priests.

It is the scandal of our lifetime and will effect our ministry until the day we die. But it’s not about the headlines or the money or the policies, as much as it is about the victims.  It’s about the victims.  They know best what happened.

[At this point I played a video of survivors of child sexual abuse by clergy telling their stories.]

If there had been but one victim and one priest, that would have been too many and it still would have been a tragedy of unimaginable proportions.  The Lord told us himself about what happens to the disciple who leads one of these little ones astray.

But there was more than one victim and more than one perpetrator.  How many?  Thanks to the USCCB’s determination to uncover the truth, the John Jay School of Criminal Justice was commissioned to examine the records, conduct interviews and publish a forensic report entitled “The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, 1950-2002.”  That report tried to provide some answers, 

The red line on this chart indicates the number of incidents of abuse reported for a given year.  So, the number of cases reported to have occurred in the United States in 1960 was 50.  In 1980 it was 800.  And in 2012 it was back down to 50.

John Jay also gathered statistics on the percentage of those ordained as a diocesan priest who became credibly accused abusers in any given year.   So, in the ordination class of 1960, around 6% of those ordained became abusers.   Almost 12% of those ordained in 1970 went on to abuse a child.   By 1980 the number dropped to 6% and by the millennium the number is somewhere under a tenth of one percent.  By the way, on average, 5% of U.S. Catholic Priests ordained between 1950 and 2001 were credibly accused.

The total credible accusations through 2010 was 14,041, involving just over 4,000 priests.

Remarkably, almost three quarters of the reported abuse occurred between 1960 and 1984.  After that the numbers drop substantially and have remained low.  How low? The 2016 audit of U.S. Dioceses conducted by the USCCB has recently reported that between July 2014 and June 2015 there were 314 credible accusations, but the vast majority date back as far as the 1920’s. Only four of these credible allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors occurred during the audit of 2014-2015.

The next logical question is why did it happen?  In an effort to get an answer to this question, the USCCB commissioned a second study by the John  Jay Institute, which was completed four years ago: "The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010."  

This 143 page report addresses many causative factors, first among which is the failure of seminaries to provide the formation required for priests ordained between 1960 and 1984, who would minister in an increasingly individualistic society and a resultant climate of permissiveness, deviance and danger to vulnerable people.  Likewise, this period predates the sharp increase in understanding of the harms experienced by the victims of this climate, especially in the realm of the sexual abuse of minors.

Now, I want to emphasize that the answer to the question “Why Did it Happen” is more complex than this one observation.  But it is the most significant causative factor identified by the report.

What then was the response of the Church to the sexual abuse of children by Priests?  There were two waves of response.  The first was in 1992, when the number of reported cases had begun to significantly increase.  At that point, the Conference to recommended to Bishops five principles for the addressing the crisis in their own dioceses.

The second wave began with the adoption of the “Charter for the Protection of Young People” and “Complimentary Norms” which grew out of the USCCB meeting in Dallas in 2002.

As a result of the Charter, each Diocese adopted norms, both canonical and practical, to meet the needs of victims and to assure that this would not happen again.

Perhaps the best way to introduce the Charter is by reviewing the Diocesan Codes of Conduct which you are subject to as you enter into pastoral ministry this summer.

Each of our sending Dioceses have Codes of Conduct for Clergy and Lay Personnel, and I have redacted a copy of all of them which you will find at your places.  I urge you to read your own Diocesan Code carefully so that you might follow the directives your Bishop has adopted for the Church in your area.

All of the Codes are a variation on the Virtus Model, which is found in the appendix of the document before you.  The Virtus Code was developed in consultation with the USCCB Office of Child Protection.

While each of the codes differ, sometimes even in title, there are some common elements that run throughout in regard to: 
Screening and Training 
Working with Children
Respecting the Dignity of Every Child
Alcohol and Drugs
Reporting Abuse

Screening and Training
Criminal background checks - conducted once every three years
Commonly called CORI checks (Criminal Offender Record Information), these searches of Court records look for arrests or convictions in State and Federal jurisdictions.

Safe environment training – conducted once every three years
The VIRTUS program is used in almost all Dioceses in the United States  and (in the words of Virtus) “assists the Church in being a safe haven for children and a messenger for preventing child sexual abuse within the Church and society in general.  We seek to achieve this lofty goal through our child sexual abuse program: Protecting God’s Children.  Virtus continues:

“Child abusers seek to operate and abuse their power within nurturing, child-friendly environments where it is assumed that nobody would want to harm a child. Religious organizations of all faiths are an easy target. The Protecting God's Children program implements safety mechanisms that send a message to all abusers and potential abusers:
Child abuse is not tolerated,
Children are vigilantly protected,
Victims are listened to, heard, and shielded from further abuse
Offenders are identified and punished.

By utilizing best practices for training and loss prevention, the Protecting God's Children program helps make churches safe for all people—especially children.”

Working with Children and Youth Five Basic Rules

1. Be a positive Catholic Christian role model.
Children learn by imitation.  Parents and caregivers are the most influential, but other relatives, teachers and peers and even celebrities, such as athletes and entertainers, and characters from books, TV, movies and video games can provide hints as to how to deal with life and living.

Each time a child goes to Church he is told to sit quietly with his parents and respectfully listen to what the Priest says about God and about life and about what is right and wrong.  They look at him with pride when he shakes the priest’s hand on the front steps.  It is no wonder that younger children look to the priest with a trustful and almost worshipful gaze.  The two or three year old Church-going child is likely to believe not only that you work for God, but that you are God.

The identification of the Priest with the presence of the Church was brought home to me years ago when, making the round of First Communion parties, I walked into one communicant’s home.  She was in the front years playing with her friends.  When she saw me, she ran inside the house and announced “The Church is here!  The Church is here!”

Now just imagine what that’s like for a child who is abused by the Priest she thinks is God.  Or the Priest who thinks is the Church.  That single act of abuse has not only broken the soul of the child, but her ability to trust in the Church and even in God, perhaps for the rest of her life.

2. Establish and maintain clear boundaries.
Remember that meaning is in the mind of the perceiver, and the mind of a child is a marginal world where the boundaries between play and life, fantasy and reality are easily blurred.

The child is not your friend.  The adolescent cannot be your companion.  A child is, by definition, vulnerable, easily confused and easily broken.  The unconditional love which is the right of every child means that purity, trust and mature and unselfish love must move the shepherd’s heart.

3. Use discretion concerning settings.
The Church steps, the classroom, the parish office, and the Children’s choir rehearsal are appropriate settings for your interactions with children.  Your office with the door closed, the Rectory, a school basement or anywhere else where you are alone with a child is not an appropriate setting.

Three ingredients are needed to make the abuse of a child possible: a vulnerable victim, a motivated perpetrator and the opportunity to commit the abuse.  By removing the opportunity, the potential for abuse is eliminated.  Likewise, the possibility of false accusations is greatly diminished.

4. Use discretion concerning physical contact.
You’re standing on the front steps of the Church and a kid runs up and hugs you.  What do you do?  You hug him, as Jesus would have.  In front of his parents and friends and the whole parish.

Standing on the front steps of the Church I am asked to bless a child.  I place my hand on his head and pray for him. In front of his parents and friends and the whole parish.

Beyond that, I need to always recall that physical expressions are replete with a variety of meanings, each of which are conditioned by the mind of the perceiver.  The very needy middle aged woman in a marriage falling apart whom you are counseling may want you to hug her because she feels alone and afraid and is desperate for affection.  But she may be looking for an expression of something different than you should be willing to give.

Like spoken language, physical expressions of affection or solidarity are interpreted by different folks in different ways, and just because you mean one thing, does not mean it is perceived by everyone in the same way.

This includes onlookers.  Don’t be surprised when your nephew, a junior in High School, runs up to you and hugs you that you get scowls and suspicious looks.  The abuse committed by some of our brothers has greatly compromised our ability to work with children and youth and we need to be cautious, very very cautious about what we say in word and in gesture.

5. Be self-aware and use prudent behavior.
Know yourself.  And to your own self be true.  You are a seminarian or a priest.  Act like it.  Wherever you are, with whomever you are.  Never act on impulse or out of the fulfillment of some unfelt need.  Be prudent and through your constant work with your spiritual director and counselors, be self-aware about what your needs are and how you are appropriately meeting them.

Respecting the dignity of every child
It’s obvious, or at least it should be:

Never strike, shake or slap a child. 

Never intimidate or harass, physically, verbally, in writing, psychologically, socially or electronically

Never give a gift to a young person without prior approval from your pastor or a parent/ guardian.

Never meet privately with a young person Never be alone with a young person in a residence, sleeping facility, locker room, rest room, dressing facility or other closed room or isolated area.

Never drive alone with a young person without explicit parental or guardian consent, and even then, always take two adults along.

Alcohol and Drugs
Never provide alcohol, controlled substances or pornographic materials to young people.  Now that may seem obvious, but remember that even the showing of a single pornographic image to a minor can bring harm to a vulnerable child and will end your active ministry for the rest of your life.

Never consume alcohol or controlled substances while participating in a youth activity.  No alcoholic beverages will be accessible or served during events which are designed specifically for children and/or youth. A very high percentage of priest perpetrators report that they were under the influence of alcohol each time they committed an act of abuse.

Reporting Abuse
Always report abuse or inappropriate activities involving a minor to civil and ecclesial authorities, unless your knowledge is bound by the Seal of Confession. The abuse of a child is a crime and you are a mandated reporter in all the states which send seminarians to this Seminary.  Which means that you are subject to criminal penalties if you suspect abuse and do not report it.

And it goes with out saying that you always cooperate fully with Diocesan and/or law enforcement personnel in any investigation of abuse of children and/or youth.  They are there to protect children and to seek justice, and that should be your constant goal as well.

So, why am I telling you all this, and why now? Well, first, because originally when this happened it was because the seminaries dropped the ball.  And that’s why every year before you go out to parishes for the summer and next Fall for an intensive day, we will continue to explore these issues and learn how we can, in the word of Saint John Paul II be “bridges to Christ and not obstacles.”

Second, because I have met men and women who have been victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Priests, and the crimes which they have suffered, the sins which have scarred them are preventable.  And future potential victims are my responsibility as your Rector.  It is an enormous responsibility which I take with the greatest seriousness and you should too.

As Pope Francis believed with his whole heart and soul when he appointed Cardinal O’Malley to direct and intensify the  Church’s efforts to protect children.  The same Pope Francis who said this:

[The talk concluded with a video of Pope Francis speaking the following words:]

Here is what causes me distress and pain: the fact that some priests and bishops violated [children's] innocence and their own priestly vocation by sexually abusing minors.  
It is something more than a despicable action.  It is like a sacrilegious cult because these boys and girls have been entrusted to the priestly charism in order to be brought to God.  And those people sacrificed them to the idol of their own concupiscence.   
Today the heart of the Church looks into the eyes of Jesus in these boys and girls and wants to weep; she asks for the grace to weep before the execrable acts of abuse of minors.  
Before God and his people I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse against you and I humbly ask forgiveness.  
I beg your forgiveness, too for the sins of omission on the part of Church leaders who did not respond adequately to reports of abuse.  I beg forgiveness of the abuse victims themselves.   
There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses.  I commit myself to not tolerating harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not.  All bishops must carry out their pastoral ministry with the utmost care in order to help foster the protection of minors and they will be held accountable.