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Social justice news
June 2007

Chaldean Catholic Priest and three deacons shot dead in Iraq
Churches worldwide call for just peace in Palestine and Israel
CRS official proposes food aid reforms
Franz Jagerstatter: A conscientious role model
Global bishops urge G8 'bold action' on poverty, climate change, more
June is 'Torture Awareness Month'
Ohio judge becomes new chair of USCCB's National Review Board
Permanent vigilance on child safety, the 'way we do business now'
OxFam to world's wealthy nations: Bill due on climate change

Permanent vigilance on child safety, the 'way we do business now'
Five years after the release of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was intended to calm a church in crisis in the devastating aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, Shelia Kelly worries that the U.S. church could be at the brink of "charter fatigue."

Kelly is the deputy executive director of the USCCB's Office of Child and Youth Protection, the primary overseers of the U.S. church's efforts to clean house and prevent future child abuse. While she's confident that the bishops who serve on the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People "get it," Kelly says it's not completely clear that all U.S. bishops understand that a relentless attention to child safety and creating safe parish and school environments is going to be "the regular way we do business now."

"We are now five years into a process that requires major organizational change for us," Kelly says. Though only a few notable holdout dioceses remain out of compliance with the new child safety standards and protocols established by the charter, according to Kelly, it could be years more before all the new procedures become completely assimilated into the institutional culture of the church nationwide. "The real test will be what happens in 2010," she says, the year the charter will be up for renewal before the membership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Kelly says over the coming years her office will work on further stabilization of procedures aimed at creating safe environments for children and reducing the opportunities that may exist for child abuse to take place within the church. She says no one can guarantee that child abuse will never again occur by a cleric, religious, church employee or volunteer, but she is certain that most dioceses have made great strides in terms of prevention and intervention on this difficult challenge.

Speaking at the Catholic Media Convention held last month in Brooklyn, Kelly said almost 6 million staff, parents, and volunteers at the diocesan and parish level finishing training in preventing child abuse and more than 1.6 million church workers and volunteers evaluated through background checks. Kelly could not say how many workers or volunteers nationwide "failed" such background checks, though one director of a diocesan child protection agency said of the 20,000 volunteers and direct and vendor employees at her diocese, three were flagged and removed from contact with children after background reviews.

More than $67 million has been spent by dioceses on safety training. Still, Kelly says she's concerned that attention may begin to drift from a problem that requires a permanent state of vigilance by essentially any member of the church who is in contact with children. She cites the breakdown of child protective protocols that took place in Chicago last year, allowing a priest accused of child molestation to remain in ministry where he allegedly abused another child, as an example of vigilance fatigue ending tragically.

It will likely come as no surprise that David Clohessy, the National Director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests , isn't quite as sanguine about the effectiveness of the charter five years into the process. The charter, he says "was and remains a weak, vague, unenforced and unenforceable set of promises."

At its heart, he says, its effectiveness will always remain hostage to the willingness of each diocese's bishop to remain actively engaged in the voluntary commitments of the charter. "Therein lies the rub: we are in this mess because the bishops have virtually limitless power and that has not changed one iota."

The two cornerstones of the charter, according to Clohessy, "are the prompt removal of credibly accused predators and a greater openness" among the bishops and diocesan officials about past occasions of molestation and current procedures to address the problem. "We've seen frightening vacillation on both fronts."

He calls the breakdown in Chicago not a result of institutional complacency but "deceit and recklessness," arguing that established protocols were simply ignored at the top levels of the archdiocese.

Though he acknowledges parish children are probably safer today than they were when revelations of widespread clergy sexual abuse first emerged almost six years ago in the Boston Globe, he attributes that progress not so much to the bishops' efforts but to the greater wariness of parents and the greater willingness of police and state attorneys to pursue molestation investigations against Catholic clergy. While background checks and training are positives, he says, they essentially reach the "99.9 percent of the people who were not part of the problem in the first place."

Two steps that he suggests the bishops take toward enhancing the effectiveness of their efforts to protect children are to release all the names of "proven, admitted molesters and credibly accused" clergy—and to make updates to these releases as necessary—and to "stop fighting and instead embrace" efforts to reform statute of limitations so that Catholic adults can seek civil or criminal redress for the offenses committed against them as children and thus uncover predators who may still be lurking among the clergy. "Everybody benefits when abuse reports are properly vetted by law enforcement professionals," Clohessy says.—Kevin Clarke

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