A joint statement of member organizations of Catholic Organizations for Renewal (COR) concerning the sexual abuse policy of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Forty years ago the Second Vatican Council opened the windows and doors of the Church and touched the heart of the world. Thirty years ago, reform organizations of Catholics in America came into being, seeking to keep alive the promise of that Council. Ten years ago, Catholic Organizations for Renewal (COR) gathered reform groups into a national forum for dialogue and decision. This year, in the midst of the greatest scandal in American Catholic Church history, COR members issued a document in April as our contribution to the resolution of this crisis. It is attached to this statement.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has recently issued a charter for the protection of children. It is praiseworthy for its call for lay involvement and for its stern insistence that predators be removed from the priesthood and made to face criminal charges. The charter is disappointing in the immunity it allows bishops from accountability, in its maintenance of the system which fosters the abuse of power, and in its preservation of unrealistic statutes of limitations.
The formal Vatican response to the charter raises issues of abuse definition, secrecy, lay participation, due process and cooperation with civil authorities.
We are guided in this statement by the overarching need to protect children. A child assumes the world is trustworthy. When that trust is broken, especially by those who act in the name of God, the child seldom recovers completely.
With the hope of healing, we offer brief words on ten issues of urgent concern.
1. Definition of Sexual Abuse
The Vatican correctly indicts the inadequacy of the definition of sexual abuse in the U.S. charter. Such a definition is not helpful unless it is specific and detailed. We suggest the definition be drafted along the lines of contemporary civil jurisprudence.
2. Accountability of the Bishops
The anger and hurt of lay people at large in the American Church are centered on the bishops, whose incompetence, neglect, complicity, or well-intentioned misguidance have led to the exploitation of thousands of children. No bishop has been compelled to leave office because of cover-up, transfer of known predators to other pastoral assignments, or payment of Church money in exchange for secrecy and silence. This immunity of bishops from accountability is not the sign of a collegial church but of an aristocratic system.
3. Pontifical Secrecy
The Vatican must revoke its recent policy of insisting that all credible sexual abuse charges against priests be sent immediately by the bishop under pontifical secrecy to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. Pontifical secrecy is far more onerous than mere confidentiality. It guarantees that the Vatican will control the evidence. It is this very system of secrecy, the very lack of transparency, and the clerical assumption of superior knowledge that have fueled this crisis.
The U.S. charter speaks of credible allegations, but it does not adequately address the process by which they are adjudicated. Every victim and every priest must have due process. Since victims have so long been denied this, their concerns must be paramount in our deliberations. We note with regret that canon law elaborates due process for clergy but disempowers the laity at large. Canon law is flawed because it includes in the judicial process those who are parties to the dispute. When Church officers are accused, they themselves become the judges of the accusation. The Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have lost their credibility as agents of due process. Impartial and independent lay review boards with deliberative power and the imperative to report directly to civil authority itself are absolutely essential in resolving this crisis and restoring trust in the system.
5. Statutes of Limitations
Canon law and civil authority have diverse time periods for statutes of limitations. We believe all statutes of limitations should be eliminated in cases where the victim is a minor and the behavior is criminal.
6. Removal from Ordained Ministry
Forgiveness and reconciliation are essential to our life as disciples of Christ. We do not, however, believe that clearly defined, criminal sexual abuse of a minor, even once, even many years ago, should be so discounted that an ordained minister may continue to be identified as such and render service at that level. The possibility of repetition and the implication that we tolerate such dreadful actions call for the termination of formal ordained ministry in all its forms. We observe that the U.S. charter did not set in place an effective process for the review of older cases, and that this has led to idiosyncratic application of the new norms. In any instance, the dismissed priest deserves due process and should receive compassion from the community. He forfeits not the community's forgiveness, nor its gratitude for his good work, nor his further acts of reparation and service. He forfeits the right to lead the community and to function in it as a priest. He forfeits this not because of vindictiveness, but because the welfare of children and even his own capacity to be healed are better preserved by his lack of access to those who might easily become victims.
7. Lay Review Boards
Lay review boards monitor implementation of the charter and diocesan policy regarding sex abuse of minors. They are the voice of God's People and a sign of hope and healing for the victims. They must be given deliberative authority and must be an impartial, independent panel for priests and victims. The review boards may prove especially helpful in the review of old cases and in caring for priests and victims. Review boards should be staffed by professionals competent in these matters and should include a victim or a representative whom victims trust to speak for them. No member of the lay review boards should be employed by the Church. Members should be chosen in a process that is not limited to the bishop and his staff. The boards should send charges of credible and criminal sexual abuse of a minor to the bishop and the civil authorities simultaneously.
8. Cooperation with Civil Authorities
Civil authorities are essential agents in the restoration of credibility in the Catholic Church. This is both ironic and yet somehow in keeping with the Second Vatican Council's trust of secular life. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has lost its capacity to lead in this instance. All charges of clearly defined, criminal sexual abuse of a minor must be reported to civil authorities. This policy will not diminish the relationship of bishops and priests with each other, if bishops are truly pastoral and fair, and if the priests they ordain are clearly healthy and dedicated to Christ's message.
We find it deplorable that substantial reform of the clerical system and the priesthood is not cited in official Church statements on this crisis. There is a call to manage the crisis, to study the candidates in the seminary, their training, and their sexual maturity. One would have thought all this was in place from the very beginning. Official Church documents seek to maintain the clerical system. They do not show any intent to make the ordained ministry more inclusive and more accountable. Indeed, there is an indictment of homosexuals as the cause of the problem. We see abuse of power as the cause. Blaming homosexuals for a difficulty rooted in a dysfunctional Church system is an attempt to preserve the system and deny the problem. We do not need more apologies. We need change, reform, renewal, and collegiality.
10. Joint Commission
The recent Vatican joint commission of bishops summoned to revise the U.S. charter is a sign that the dimensions of this crisis are still not perceived in Rome. If an ecumenical council and a birth control commission could include laity, women, and even Christians of other churches, why was this not an appropriate constituency for the Vatican commission? The exclusion of victim representation on the commission is part and parcel of a Vatican process of deciding issues with no representation from the concerned groups.
The violation of children amounts to a new slaughter of the innocents, to a crucifixion of God's People by an abusive power system. Christ told us that if we shatter the heart of a child, we lose the Gospel. The consequences are dire. The summons could not be more urgent.
COR organizational signatures follow.
Assn. For Rights of Catholics in the Church
John F. Sheehan
P.O. Box 85
Southhampton, MA 01073
Call to Action USA
773-404-0004 x 270
Linda Pieczynski (eves)
2135 W. Roscoe
Chicago, IL 60618
Call to Action of Northern Virginia
PO Box 5617
Arlington, VA 22205
Catholics for a Free Choice Canada
Kathleen Howes, LL B
P.O Box 65179
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Catholics for the Spirit of Vatican II
Thomas J. Kerwin, Acting Director
4980 E. Quincy Ave.
Englewood, CO 80110
9 Millstone Dr.
Morris Plains, NJ 07950
Federation of Christian Ministries
Sr. Bridget Mary Meehan, President
5856 Glen Forest Dr.
Falls Church, VA 22041
Fellowship of Southern Illinois Laity
FOSIL, P.O. Box 31
Belleville, Illinois 62222.
Pax Christi - Maine
242 Ludlow St.
Portland, ME 04102
Save Our Sacrament:
Reform of Annulment & Respondent Support
Janice P. Leary, Ph.D.
Cochituate, MA 01778
Spiritus Christi Catholic Church
Rev. Jim Callan
60 Bittner St.
Rochester, NY 14604
CITI Ministries, Inc.
(Celibacy Is the Issue)
P.O. Box 2850
Framingham, MA 01703-2850
Priests for Equality/Quixote Center
P.O. Box 5206
Hyattsville, MD 20782
Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER)
8035 13th St.
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Young Feminists' Network
P.O. Box 2693
Fairfax, VA 22031