Reforms in the Catholic Church over the past 8 years are a model for the world . . .
Critics and the media continue to level charges that the Catholic Church’s leadership has done virtually nothing in response to the problem of sexual abuse. One wonders if these detractors simply read salacious headlines rather than investigate the facts.
Tremendous reform has occurred. Indeed, more reform has taken place in the Catholic Church than in any other social institution in which the abuse of minors has occurred. In 2002, U.S. bishops approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. They hired the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct an independent investigation of the problem. They established a National Review Board (NRB) chaired by a woman, Justice Anne M. Burke, stifling critics who claimed an absence of women in leadership roles. The NRB monitors the policies of the bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection and oversees its annual audit. Five of its current 13 members are women.
When the report was first issued, the chairman of the NRB’s research committee, Robert Bennett, said that the sexual abuse of minors was a broad social problem and that a focus merely on the Catholic Church would be a disservice to children. Regrettably, however, that is exactly what has happened.
Media reports of sexual abuse by school teachers, Scout leaders, swim coaches and others are few and far between despite being far more pervasive than those in the Church. In March, a judge ordered the Boy Scouts to release over 1,200 “perversion files” with Scout leaders who had molested boys. In April, a headline shouted “Sex Abuse Pervasive in USA Swimming” with reports of molesting swim coaches going unchallenged for decades. In 2002, Dr. Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University prepared a report for the U.S. Department of Education. It found that 6-10% of U.S. high school students have been sexually abused or harassed. “The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests,” she declared. However, the mainstream media continues to ignore this essential finding.
Many have heard of the sexual abuse by clergy in Germany’s Catholic schools. However, at the time these reports were surfacing, it was learned that a prestigious private boarding school had its own unspeakable record of abuse. The Odenwaldschule is a UNESCO model school whose administration would arrange to have students provide “entertainment” for visitors and whose male students regularly had sexual relations with teachers’ wives. Where were the headlines proclaiming that a UNESCO model school was engaged in the systematic molestation of children? In fact, when the report of the Odenwaldschule first appeared it was under a headline decrying abuse in Catholic schools!
None of these other social institutions have put safeguards in place that even begin to approach those established by the Church. There is nothing on a national level that tracks abusive school teachers, for example. Such negligence by these other institutions leaves more children at risk.
Church reforms have been extensive. When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he arranged for abuse cases to be moved to his own office — not to cover them up, but to deal with them more expeditiously. Pope John Paul II’s 2001 decree Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela, drawn up by Cardinal Ratzinger, amended Canon law in 18 places to allow a more effective response to charges of sexual abuse. Priests are now more easily disciplined and laicized.
Other reforms continued. Virtually every diocese in the country posts abuse policies on its website. Most dioceses have a victims’ assistance coordinator — a layperson to whom abuse can be reported if the victim is uneasy approaching a cleric. The Church has also adopted a “zero tolerance” policy, meaning that if a priest admits to any past sexual activity with a minor or is found guilty of it, he may no longer function as a priest.
All were shocked by the sexual abuse in Ireland’s Catholic and state institutions. But it was underreported that the Church has been addressing the problem for some time. In 1996, the Church in Ireland published Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response. The bishops’ Committee on Child Abuse commissioned independent research into the problem. Their 2003 report was A Time to Listen. The National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland had its inaugural meeting in 2006 and was headed by Justice Anthony Hederman. Four of its current members are women.
Pope Benedict XVI severely criticized the Irish bishops for their handling of the abuse cases, and four offered their resignations. And the Holy Father recently met with abuse victims during his trip to Malta, not shying away from public acknowledgment of Church members’ sins — and the Church’s desire to make amends. None of this expresses complacency.
Critics should recognize and applaud the reforms in the Catholic Church — and urge other institutions working with young people to be equally as bold and as far-reaching in establishing programs to protect children.
John M. Haas, Ph.D., is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and founding president of the International Institute for Culture. He is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
Editor’s Note: While Dr. Haas’ commentary is off the topic of bioethics, he gives an astute assessment of the situation. We will return to publishing bioethics-related material in the next issue of Legatus Magazine.