DignityUSA's Policy on Persons Serving in Designated Spiritual or Ministerial Roles. Revised and adopted as a DignityUSA Policy, November 12, 2020.
The DignityUSA Board of Directors has a duty to care for and protect the members of our entire organization whether they are children or adults. In light of the global failure of the leadership of Roman Catholic Church - to properly address sexual victimization of children by adults – particularly priests-- we see the need to focus on our responsibilities to those among us who are survivors of sexual abuse.
The experience of many of our chapters in addressing the issue of child sex abusers serving in any named or designated spiritual or ministerial role, including presider, prayer leader, worship facilitator, or homilist for Dignity communities, whether in-person or virtually, clearly shows this is a serious and multi-faceted concern. This document focuses on any designated spiritual or ministerial role, such as presiders, prayer leaders, worship facilitators and homilists, etc. Those who serve in these spiritual or ministerial roles are the most visible symbols of spiritual leadership in a community, and are in a position of spiritual, moral and liturgical leadership. Such power placed in anyone assuming ministerial or spiritual roles who is or has been a child sexual abuser is potentially harmful or distressing to a range of people – from children who are present to adult survivors of sexual abuse and others affected by this issue, such as persons whose family members or friends have been victimized. Their presence in these roles also compromises Dignity’s ability to be a credible voice for change in LGBTQI sexual ethics in the broader Catholic community.
Part of the difficulty in dealing with this issue is that many bishops of the Roman Catholic Church covered up allegations of child sexual abuse. Those accusations were therefore not able to be investigated by law enforcement, making it almost impossible for abusers to be tried in criminal proceedings because of the statute of limitations. Due to this coverup, many victims were denied the right to sue their abusers for damages in the civil courts or to seek justice in the criminal courts. When the bishops covered up these crimes and offenses, they interfered with the legal mechanisms for reaching a just resolution for all parties, those victimized and those accused. Even though recent investigations and updates to policies have led to increasing revelations about those facing serious, credible allegations of child sexual abuse, it remains the case that decades of cover up prevented accountability in a majority of cases. These failures often meant that those facing serious allegations were released into communities without supervision or any way to hold them to account.
This situation has a direct impact on Dignity communities. In much of the country, Roman Catholic Bishops have forbidden ordained priests from presiding at many chapters. Consequently, communities have found alternative presiders, which may include former priests, married priests and those ordained in a Catholic tradition other than Roman. In addition, many priests, who have been forced out of ministry in the Roman Catholic Church because of their acts of sexual abuse, have sought, and may still seek opportunities to exercise their former ministry in Dignity Chapters and Caucuses.
Because DignityUSA Caucuses have nationwide membership, they tend to meet virtually, other than for occasional in-person gatherings. During the COVID-19 pandemic, most Dignity communities met for worship and social events virtually in order to preserve the health and safety of community members. The Board of DignityUSA wants to make it clear that no matter how a Dignity community gathers, this policy provides important protections for community members and should be adhered to at all times.
The scandal of sexual abuse of minors/children by ordained priests has torn many parishes apart. While this scandal has rocked the Roman Catholic Church, it is not limited to it. Other denominations face related challenges. Dignity communities are not immune from such painful consequences. Indeed, as of the issuance of this policy, many chapters have already experienced the pain, and have sought guidance from DignityUSA.
Because of all these factors, therefore, for the good and protection of the entire organization, DignityUSA’s Board issues the following updated policy on dealing with presiders, prayer leaders, worship facilitators, and homilists – or anyone playing a ministerial or spiritual role, whether ordained or not ordained, who meet the definition of child sexual abusers.
The following definitions are based on “Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth- serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures” which is a publication of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published by HHS. Unjust laws have targeted LGBTQI persons in the past.
Therefore, these definitions do not cover behavior that was criminalized in some states in the past between consenting adults who were 18 years of age or older at the time of the activity.
Child - Anyone under the age of 18 years of age.
Child sexual abuse - any sexual activity with a child. The sexually abusive acts may include sexual penetration, sexual touching, or non-contact sexual acts such as exposure or voyeurism, the possession of child pornography, grooming activities* including contributing to the delinquency of a child by supplying a child with drugs or alcohol, money or services for the purpose of establishing a sexual relationship, a battery which is sexually motivated, sexual solicitation, electronic communication offenses with a sexual motivation or an attempt to commit any such offenses.
* Child molesters typically groom and seduce their child victims with the most effective combination of attention, affection, kindness, privileges, recognition, gifts, alcohol, drugs, or money until they have lowered the victims’ inhibitions and gained their cooperation and “consent.” For more information on grooming activities, see Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis For Professionals Investigating the Sexual Exploitation of Children, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Child Sex Abuser - For the purpose of this policy, a person shall be deemed a child sex abuser when a credible accusation of child sexual abuse has been made against that person. A credible accusation includes the following:
1) A finding of guilty by a criminal court of an act of child sexual abuse as defined above; or
2) When a Diocesan Review Board or a similar body established by a religious order or non- Roman Catholic denomination has found sufficient evidence after investigation that the allegation of sexual abuse is credible; or
3) A civil settlement based on an act or acts of child sexual abuse by the person or a finding of liability in a civil suit; or
4) Removal from active ministry, pending the completion of an investigation of an accusation of child sexual abuse; or
5) When the accused has been laicized or requested laicization or has resigned from ministry due to an accusation of child sexual abuse.
There are situations when an accusation against a person has been made, but the stipulations stated on paragraph 1 through 5 do not apply because the accuser has no legal recourse because the statute of limitations has run out in both the civil and criminal courts and the person has not been removed from ministry. In those rare situations, DignityUSA and the Chapter/Caucus in which this has become an issue agree to cooperate in order to decide whether there is reason to believe the person is a child sex offender and/or whether it is in the Chapter’s/Caucus’s best interests that the person act in any designated spiritual or ministerial role in that Chapter/Caucus at that time. When in doubt it is the policy of DignityUSA to act on behalf of the alleged victim(s).
Due Diligence Process
The leadership of DignityUSA and its Chapters/Caucuses are obligated to check the background of any one who seeks a ministerial or spiritual role, such as presiders, prayer leaders, worship facilitators, and homilists, etc. to make sure they are not child sexual abusers. Chapters/ Caucuses are obligated to make a good faith effort to check the background of all seeking ministerial or spiritual roles. DignityUSA will assist any Chapter/Caucus in checking the background of its ministerial and spiritual roles if asked to do so by a Chapter/Caucus. We recommend the following “best-practice” steps to follow to do due diligence about this complex issue:
- Ask the person seeking to serve the community in any ministerial or spiritual role, such as a presider, prayer leader, worship facilitator, or homilist, etc, if he/she has ever been accused of child sexual abuse or removed from ministry because of an accusation. While a verbal inquiry is powerful, in order for the Chapter/Caucus to protect itself against possible future charges of negligence, it is highly advisable that this question be asked and answered in a written document. The Chapter/Caucus should retain such documents with other important records in a safe, confidential and secure manner.
- Perform an internet search of the person’s name including checking BishopAccountability.org to determine if the person has ever been accused of child sexual abuse The sex offender registry of the state in which the chapter is located is also a reliable source (e.g., search “sex offender registry” and the name of the relevant state or states). Great care must be taken to confirm that records are referring to the person accused (e.g., make sure the proper date of birth is used).
- If steps 1 and 2 reveal information that suggest that a person may be a child sexual abuser the chapter/caucus should check further into the background of the person such as:
- Check the county court databases in which the person has resided for prior criminal and civil actions. (Most counties have a database for criminal and civil defendants that can be found searching for “clerk of the court of X County”.)
- Check the sex offender database for every state in which he or she has lived (e.g. search “sex offender registry” and the name of the relevant state or states)
- If the person has been removed from ministry, check with the diocese, religious order or similar authority to determine the reason for the removal (e.g., go to the diocesan webpage and look for the director of public relations or communications or the office of child and youth protection);
- Check with the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) to see if its leadership is aware of any information regarding the person as it may have access to information not available to the general public.
- Ask the accused person for permission to speak with the accuser. If the accused person does not have enough information on the accuser, ask the accused person to give permission to the diocese or a religious order to release that information to the Chapter/Caucus in order to contact the accuser. DignityUSA will provide assistance to the chapter/caucus in these inquiries.
Ministerial or Spiritual Role Accountability
A person who has previously breached the public trust as a child sex abuser as defined above shall not serve in any ministerial or spiritual leadership role in a Chapter or Caucus, including presider, homilist, prayer leader, worship facilitator, etc. Any Chapter or Caucus that knowingly allows a child sex abuser to be in a ministerial or spiritual role such as presider, prayer leader, worship facilitator, or homilist, etc. risks failing the interests of adults affected by sexual abuse themselves, places children who may be present at risk, and puts the Chapter/Caucus, other Chapters/Caucuses and DignityUSA at legal and reputational risk, and acts contrary to the best interests of DignityUSA and its mission and work.
Any Chapter or Caucus that becomes aware that an issue regarding child sexual abuse exists regarding anyone who has assumed a ministerial or spiritual role, such as presiders, prayer leaders, worship facilitators, homilists, etc. is obligated to contact the DignityUSA national office as soon as possible and keep that office informed and up to date with decisions and events surrounding the situation. DignityUSA will provide whatever professional assistance it can to aid the Chapter/Caucus in gathering information regarding a person of concern, and reaching a decision regarding whether the person is qualified to serve in these roles of spiritual leadership.
This policy sets minimum standards for anyone assuming a ministerial or spiritual role, such as presiders, prayer leaders, worship facilitators, and homilists, etc. Chapters/Caucuses may wish to add their own provisions regarding other types of leaders, or other background concerns, with the goal of protecting the vulnerable from persons who would misuse their positions as spiritual or community leaders.
The DignityUSA Board of Directors recognizes that the issue of child sex abusers in any ministerial or spiritual roles, such as presiders, prayer leaders, worship facilitators, and homilists is a very difficult and emotional one. We may be called upon as DignityUSA or as Dignity Chapters and Caucuses to make wrenching decisions that may be experienced as hurtful by people we know as friends and who are valuable members of our community. However, we are called above all else to protect those who cannot protect themselves, i.e. children, those who were abused as children, those who may be vulnerable to abuse and to the survivors who come to us expecting safety and spiritual nurturance. Our actions should always be accompanied by compassion and kindness, guided by ethical and transparent action. This culture of silence and denial has not helped to heal and offer redemption to anyone. Dignity must do better than that. It is our hope that this policy and the resources available, can assist us in discerning and doing the right thing, guided by both a Gospel of Love and a Gospel of Accountability.
Approved by Board of Directors November 12, 2020