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Spotlight Report

  A Boston Globe Editorial  

An answer to abuse


THE UNITED States Conference of Catholic Bishops has prepared a policy statement which, if followed by all American dioceses, will go far to resolve the crisis of child abuse in the Catholic Church. With two possible exceptions, the recommendations are straightforward, comprehensive, and sound.

In the past, cases of sexual abuse were closely held within the clerical subculture. One of the breakthrough elements of the proposed charter is a mandate for the involvement of lay people. "Dioceses ... will have a review board, the majority of whom will be lay persons not in the employ of the diocese," the document states. The board would assess allegations and review policies on sexual abuse. Just to make sure that openness prevails, confidentiality agrements would be banned "except for grave and substantial reasons brought forward by the victims."

In addition, dioceses would be required to report all complaints involving minors to the authorities. The Boston Archdiocese adopted this policy after much delay, and it ought to be extended nationwide. Cases where the victim is no longer a minor would require diocesan cooperation with the authorities. This is distressingly vague and needs to be explained further when the US bishops meet in Dallas next week.

For future cases of abuse, the bishops' conference proposes zero tolerance -- the offender would be defrocked. The same would apply to past chronic abusers. This is a sensible policy. Had it been followed earlier, much of the present scandal could have been avoided.

As for past offenders, those who have committed no more than one offense could remain in the active priesthood if the diocesan review board agreed, if the offender fulfills any criminal penalty, and if he accepts supervision and public disclosure of the offense. If the bishops approve this recommendation, they must make a persuasive case that anyone who is allowed to continue his ministry will not commit further offenses.

This document must still be endorsed by the US bishops next week and then reviewed by the Vatican. One proposal that may cause controversy is the creation of a national Office for Child and Youth Protection to assist dioceses and report on their progress.

Lines of authority in the Catholic Church run from the Vatican to each diocese. But the pope and his aides cannot be expected to supervise the abuse policies of every diocese, and this office would provide badly needed insurance that standards are uniform and enforced throughout the country.

It is a tragedy, for victims and for the church, that the bishops did not draft this charter in the mid-1980s when sexual abuse first became a matter of national concern. This document, if it is approved in Dallas, offers the church an opportunity to show the nation that it has learned from the failings of its past and will strive not to repeat them.

This story ran on page A18 of the Boston Globe on 6/5/2002.
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