Church report: Children safer from abuse; more work to do

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

(CNN) — Children in the Catholic Church are safer 10 years after the church initiated reforms in the wake of the priest abuse scandal, but there is still work to be done, according to a report delivered to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Meeting in Atlanta, the bishops heard from Al Notzon III, the chairman of the National Review Board, on the progress made 10 years after they tasked the lay group with “advising the bishops on the handling of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.”

Notzon delivered the report to the clergy leaders in a morning session. “There has been striking improvement in the Church’s response to and treatment of victims,” the report said. “Children are safer now because of the creation of safe environments and action has been taken to permanently remove offenders from ministry.”

But Notzon was quick to point out, “much work still needs to be done.”

He said the board worried about complacency with the church, “thinking that 10 years of action is enough and that programs and vigilance can be taken for granted or, worse, watered down.”

At their meeting in Dallas in 2002, the bishops implemented the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. It outlines policies and procedures for the church to address allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy and deals with reconciliation, accountability and prevention.

Wednesday’s progress report marked a decade since the charter’s implementation.

“In the past 10 years, over 15,000 victims have come forward to tell their secret they had carried for years, and each year, more have come forward,” Notzon said. “It is impossible to know the final number of victims.”

Notzon pointed to findings of the “Scope and Nature” study by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. It was commissioned by the bishops’ group after determining the need for an outside group not only to review the scope of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis in the United States but to determine the cause.

Notzon reminded the bishops that the study found “the incidences of abuse began to rise in the ’60s, peaked in the ’70s and declined sharply in the ’80s.”

He said cases that have been reported recently have followed that pattern.

“The peak of the curve is not moving forward or broadening as time moves forward,” he said.

He said that over the course of 10 years, the church has learned painful lessons on the best way to handle abuse cases. “We treat those making allegations of sexual abuse with compassionate care. It is not only the best thing to do but the right thing to do and an integral part of the church’s spiritual mission.”

Notzon also noted that in that area, the church has moved from a legal stance to a pastoral stance.

Dioceses are offering mental health services, healing Masses and retreats for victims, he said.

“Confidential settlements have been abolished except when requested by the victim,” Notzon said. The new charter abolished quiet private settlements, opting instead for a policy of openness and transparency.

Under the rules of the charter, churches are required to report allegations of sexual abuse of a minor to civil authorities and to inform the victims of their right to report the allegation to civil authorities.

The board also said the church would continue its zero-tolerance policy for abuse and quickly remove priests who were proven to have abused a child. “There is no room in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young,” Notzon said.

“Dioceses are still receiving reports of sexual abuse of minors. Most are quickly reported to civil authorities as required by law,” he said, but he warned the leaders that they must respond quickly to reports and share information with their congregations for the sake of transparency. “If there’s anything that needs to be disclosed to their diocese, it needs to be disclosed now. One can no longer claim, ‘I didn’t know.’ “

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York and president of the bishops’ conference, praised the report at the conclusion of Notzon’s remarks: “It was like an an examination of conscience.”

Critics of the church quickly responded to the report.

“In the report on the charter today, time and time again, promises were depicted as facts. Again and again, pledges that have been repeatedly violated were described as realities that are undeniable,” said Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, outreach director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Sadly, we rarely see a real plan that’s effectively enforced.”

Dorris’ statement also challenged the notion that the number of abuse cases had dropped off. That was premature speculation, she said. “It always has and likely always will take decades before victims can speak up.”

Notzon seemed to agree with that premise as well when he told the bishops that while strides have been made, “The work is not finished and may never be.”

By Eric Marrapodi

CNN Belief Blog co-editor

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