At their spring meeting in Seattle on June 16, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a revision of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” incorporating new Vatican guidelines on abuse cases.
Bishop Blase J. Cupich, chairman of the bishops' Committee on the Protection for Children and Young People, said that the charter is already “working” to protect children. But he explained that the document would now align more closely with Vatican directives on the “most grave crimes” that were released last summer.
According to the revisions, child pornography will be considered a crime against Church law, and the abuse of someone who “habitually lacks reason” will be considered child abuse.
The U.S. bishops' child protection charter was first established in 2002 in response to cases of abuse by Catholic clergy stretching back several decades. It will undergo another revision in two years, taking into account a study on the causes and context of clergy sexual abuse that was released in May.
That study, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, concluded there was “no single cause or predictor” of sexual abuse – including homosexuality, celibacy or experience in the priesthood.
However, the report did find that the “increased deviance of society” during the 1960s and 1970s was closely correlated with the rise in abuse incidents. Next year, a national review board will make recommendations to the bishops based on its survey of the study.
Bishop Cupich said in 2009 that the John Jay College study aimed to discover “what was the situation that led to this great crisis in the life of the Church.”
However, at a press conference that followed Thursday's voting on the charter and other topics, he pointed out that sexual abuse was a society-wide problem, and not something unique to the Catholic Church.
“Child abuse is a pandemic in this country and in the world,” Bishop Cupich said. “Yes, we've had our problems, but that doesn't absolve us from dealing with it outside of the Church.”
In the debate on revising the charter, retired Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley expressed concern about the zero-tolerance policy's effect on priests judged to be guilty of abuse. He said it could prevent them from experiencing what he called “the reconciliation-forgiveness package” in their communities.
But Bishop Cupich responded to his concern at Thursday's press conference, saying the Church was not going to change its charter to accommodate those found guilty of abuse.
He said the bishops had “learned the hard way” not to trust the guidance of psychologists who said sexually deviant priests could be treated and placed back into a parish. This theory, he said, was “bad advice, and put children in harm's way.”
The child protection chairman said the Church “is not going to put priest offenders first.” Its priority, he said, is to protect children, promote healing for past victims and to restore trust.