Updated: What society can learn from the Catholic Church regarding child protection

Credit: Luis Molinero/Shutterstock.
Credit: Luis Molinero/Shutterstock.

.- One month after an avalanche of sexual assault accusations were lobbed against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, another Hollywood scandal broke.

This week, actor Anthony Rapp accused actor Kevin Spacey of sexually assaulting him as a minor. Spacey apologized, but said he didn’t remember the encounter, and also took the opportunity to come out as gay.

In the early 2000s, the Catholic Church in the United States was also reeling from a sex abuse crisis when the Boston Globe broke the story of a former priest who was accused of molesting 130 minors, mostly young boys, over the course of more than 30 years. This led to a large-scale uncovering of thousands more allegations of abuse in dioceses throughout the country.

Since then, the Church has put into place numerous policies and practices to protect children from sexual abuse, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' (USCCB) Charter for Child and Youth Protection.

The charter, implemented in 2002, obligates all compliant dioceses and eparchies to provide resources both for victims of abuse and resources for abuse prevention. Each year, the USCCB releases an extensive annual report on the dioceses and eparchies, including an audit of all abuse cases and allegations, and recommended policy guidelines for dioceses.

Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the USCCB's Office of Child and Youth Protection, said that protective measures were in place prior to 2002, but they "were not comprehensive nor uniformly implemented."

Today, the guidelines of the current Charter are implemented in every diocese in the United States, he said.

"(The guidelines) include measures to promote healing and reconciliation with victims/survivors, guarantee an effective response to allegations, ensure accountability, and protect the faithful in the future. An annual audit of dioceses by an external firm helps to make sure dioceses are effectively implementing the Charter," Nojadera said. 

"For example, the audit ensures that: all clergy, volunteers, staff, educators and children are trained to identify and report abuse; all adults with access to children receive background checks; allegations are reported to law enforcement; victim outreach and support is available in every diocese; and offenders are removed from ministry and further access to children," he said. 

The Charter also contains guidelines on how to better support victims and prevent abuse, he added. The USCCB also annually publishes a report of the findings of the yearly audits of the dioceses. 

Dr. Elizabeth A. Heidt Kozisek is a psychologist and the director of the Child Protection Office for the Diocese of Grand Island, which is in compliance with the charter.

Her diocese, like most throughout the country, has an abuse prevention program called Safe Environment training that is required for all adult employees and volunteers within the diocese, which trains them in preventing abuse, recognizing warning signs, and reporting incidents of abuse.

They also provide children in the diocese with education on appropriate relationships, Kozisek said.

“We educate children and youth in the qualities of right relationships and what to do when a relationship isn’t right; and provide continuing education for youth and adults with a goal of helping all experience right relationships throughout their lifespan,” she said.

“We strive to create a culture of healing and protection, where fostering right relationships, building resilience, and promoting healing are an integral part of who and how we are with children and youth, rather than merely a series of programs.”

Kozisek added that the USCCB charter provides the basic guidelines and principles for child protection in the U.S. dioceses, which then implement them with some specific considerations for their individual communities and the resources available within them.

When abuse allegations are reported, Kozisek said the protocol is first to report the abuse to local law enforcement authorities and to Child Protective Services. The accused person is immediately suspended from ministry pending a legal and internal investigation.

If someone is legally charged, they are immediately barred from ministry. Even if an accused individual is not legally charged, but the internal investigation still finds them “unfit for ministry”, they are removed from their employment or volunteer position, Kozisek said.

The Archdiocese of New York is also compliant with the USCCB charter, and has trained more than 100,000 people in providing a safe environment for children.

Edward Mechmann, director of public policy for the New York archdiocese, told CNA that the local Church has a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to sexual abuse of minors, and that they also follow the protocol of having both legal and internal investigations of each allegation of abuse.

“At the conclusion of our investigation, if the accused is a cleric we submit the case to the Advisory Review Board for evaluation,” he said.

“If they determine that the allegation is substantiated, then a recommendation is made to the cardinal that the cleric be permanently removed from ministry. If the accused is a layperson, and we determine that the allegation is substantiated, then they are discharged from employment or volunteer service and permanently barred from any ministry. As a result, we have a zero tolerance policy that applies equally to clergy and laity.”

Last year, the USCCB found widespread compliance throughout the country in their annual report on the implementation of the charter.

According to the 2016 report, 386 out of the 838 people who reported past abuse as minors accepted diocesan outreach and healing, and continued support was provided to 1,646 victims.

Nojadera also said that while 4-6% priests were accused of abuse between 1960-1980, this percentage has dramatically decreased in recent years. 

"...in 2016, there were 35,815 active U.S. priests and 2 new substantiated cases of abuse of minors. That makes it 0.00558425% of priests who committed abuse in 2016. This is according to data collected by an annual audit of all dioceses/eparchies," he noted. 

Mechmann said the key to combating abuse is combating a culture of abuse, which the Church has worked hard to do since the scandal of the early 2000s. The Church continuously reviews and updates recommended abuse prevention and reporting procedures and strives for full disclosure and a zero-tolerance policy of abuse.

“In the area of child protection, the corporate culture is the most important element. In the Church, we have successfully made child protection a key part of our regular course of business and we have made it unequivocally clear that any kind of sexual sin against minors is utterly unacceptable,” he said.

“We have put into place strong policies that are aimed to prevent any abuse. These policies are taken very seriously by the leadership of the Church (laity and clergy alike) who have all demonstrated repeatedly that they are committed to the program. We have demonstrated over and over again that we are open to receiving complaints, we take all allegations seriously, we vigorously investigate them, and we are firm in correcting any problem,” he said.

Nojadera added that the Church has learned a lot in terms of creating a safe culture for children since the abuse crisis first broke. 

"To bring about reconciliation and healing, we must put victims first. A culture of secrecy only hides the wounds caused by abuse. Openness and transparency are an important part of the healing process," he said. 

The Church has also learned that all its leaders must have a strong commitment to preventing abuse and changing policies as well as hearts, attitudes and behaviors of those within the institution. 

"This is not a quick fix, it is a long journey," Nojadera said. 

"To guide our efforts going forward, we must rely on the Holy Spirit. We constantly pray for the grace of God to effectively carry out our mission to protect and heal the most vulnerable."

Hollywood, Mechmann said, could learn a lot from the Church’s work in combating a culture of abuse.

“The contrast with the entertainment industry couldn’t be more stark - there is clearly a corporate culture of sexual vice, there is no commitment to cleaning out the bad elements, and they are doing little or nothing to prevent further abuse.”

 

Update 10:29 11/2/17: This story has been updated to include comments from Deacon Bernie Nojadera. 

Tags: Catholic News, Child Protection, Abuse