Editorial: The Dallas Charter is succeeding, but there is more work to be done

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This is the cover of the USCCB "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." (CNS photo illustration/Rick Musacchio, Tennessee Register)

“Church allowed abuse by priests for years.”

That headline, published Jan. 6, 2002, by the Boston Globe, accompanied the first in a series of stories chronicling sexual abuse by priests and the leaders within the Church who turned a blind eye — or worse, covered it up.

Boston might have been the epicenter of the earthquake that initially rocked the Church 20 years ago, but soon after, like aftershocks, more and more cases of abuse were being reported across the country. Public trust in the institutional Church — and members of the clergy — began to crumble.

“It was a cascade, a real cascade of revelations,” said Father Thomas Berg, a professor of moral theology at St. Joseph Seminary in Huntington, New York, in this week’s In Focus, which marks the 20th anniversary of the U.S. bishops approving the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. “The revelations of actual abuse always make your stomach churn, and they’re awful, but in its own way, there was the awfulness of this mysterious blindness and ineptness to act on the part of the bishops that became part of the scandal.”

In April 2002, with the U.S. Church reeling from the scandal, a delegation of American cardinals were called to the Vatican to meet with Pope John Paul II, who told them: “We must be confident that this time of trial will bring a purification of the entire Catholic community, a purification that is urgently needed if the Church is to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force. Now you must ensure that where sin increased, grace will all the more abound. So much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier Church.”

With the pope’s mandate clear, the bishops convened in Dallas that June to put into place new protocols and procedures to both discipline priests credibly accused of abuse and protect children and young people going forward. By the end of their assembly, the bishops overwhelmingly approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which set into motion in dioceses across the country the establishment of victims’ assistance ministries, safe environment programs and the removal of abusive priests.

Over the past 20 years, the bishops have updated the charter multiple times (the last being in 2018) and annually gather data on its effectiveness through abuse audits reported by each diocese. Since the passing of the charter, these annual reports have consistently and unequivocally shown that the Dallas Charter is succeeding in its mission to protect children.

In her 2021 report to the bishops, Suzanne Healy, chair of the National Review Board, wrote that, in 2020, there were 22 new allegations of abuse within the Church — a number that represents “less than one percent of the total 4,250 reported [largely historical] allegations. … These numbers,” Healy wrote to the bishops, “are evidence that the great work and efforts you and your dioceses/eparchies have done by implementing safe environment programs and policies are truly making a difference.” Still, as Healy acknowledged, even a single case of a child who suffers abuse by a leader within the Church is one too many.

More than a decade after the Boston Globe shined a light on the widespread abuses within the Church, another crisis struck. In 2018, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was accused of sexually abusing children and adults — allegations that led to his laicization. That same summer, a grand jury in Pennsylvania published an investigation that detailed abuses by 300 priests (most of which occurred decades before the release of the report).

While we hope and pray that the faithful won’t have to endure similar headline-making stories of abuse in the future, it would be naive to think the Church has seen the last of such scandals. Such is the nature of sin and temptation.

But that doesn’t absolve the Church — bishops, priests and the lay faithful alike — from continuing the work started 20 years ago in Dallas. There is still progress that can and must be made, not only in preventing abuse but also in caring for those who were abused in the past. While healing is a very personal and often complicated process, the Church has a duty to do what it can to right past wrongs, to listen to victims and, most importantly, to act with the love and compassion of Christ the Healer.

Only by doing so will the Church be able “to preach more effectively the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all its liberating force” to a world desperately in need of healing.

Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young

Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board

The Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board consists of Father Patrick Briscoe, OP, Gretchen R. Crowe, Matthew Kirby, Scott P. Richert and York Young.