NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — The chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People said a two-year project to revise the charter that guides the U.S. Church in protecting minors from sexual abuse is nearly ready to be presented to the full body of bishops.
Lafayette Bishop Timothy L. Doherty, the committee chairman, told the 13th annual Child and Youth Protection Catholic Leadership Conference in New Orleans that the proposed revisions of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” will be discussed and voted on at the bishops’ June 13-14 spring general assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“We’ve done a lot of nice work over the last two years,” Doherty said. “The great thing people should know is that this has been a collaboration among a lot of bishops’ committees and the National Review Board, who are professional people — judges, lawyers, therapists, trauma experts. There’s a lot of healthy conversation there, and our church can be very proud of the people who are working toward the protection of children.”
The annual conference June 3-6 attracted more than 150 people from across the U.S. working in areas of safe environment, victims’ assistance and pastoral care.
Providing a snapshot for how the Church has responded over the past 15 years to the sexual abuse of minors, Doherty said “the good news” is that “there have been really solid efforts in individual dioceses for the protection of children and vulnerable people.”
“There’s been huge training,” he said. “Millions of children and hundreds of thousands of adults have gone through these programs, and it’s simply not publicized well enough.”
One of the challenges, Doherty said, is that the “historical nature of some of the (sexual abuse) cases” has prompted approximately 15 states to extend their statute of limitations on incidents of abuse that may have happened “30 or 40 years ago, if not more.”
Doherty said some of the new laws extending the statute of limitations have targeted exclusively the Catholic Church and have had “nothing to do with government or public schools.”
“It should be known that in most of the states, the bishops are really for (extended statute of limitations) provided no other (state) agency is exempt from that kind of research,” he said.
Because the U.S. Church has been dealing openly with abuse protection for the past 15 years, Doherty believes bishops are transforming their efforts of “mainly being therapeutic or protective to the larger scope of having healthier communities in our parishes, in our religious orders and in our seminaries.”
“If we really aspire to a healthy environment, a lot of these things that we’re now kind of legislating would be second nature to us,” he said. “The rules are never going to go away. We need those for our protection. But I am utterly certain that we’ve got to realize our gifts and how powerful we could be under the blessing of the Holy Spirit.”
Doherty said the story of the Church’s response to sexual abuse has not been acknowledged by many outside the Church. He said he heard a story of a college class recently watching the movie Spotlight, which detailed the sexual abuse that occurred in the Archdiocese of Boston, and then asking why the Church has not done “anything” to protect victims.
“One of the reasons we have Catholic newspapers is so we can speak with our own voice so that people can hear our story, because there’s no money to be made in a report that says the Catholic Church is doing good things,” Doherty said. “We do more than put on ecclesiastical fashion shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”
The conference also featured Teresa Kettelkamp, who from 2003 to 2011 was executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, and who was appointed in February to a three-year term with the 16-member Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.
That panel, headed by Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, meets twice a year in Rome and has the specific role of advising Pope Francis on “the best initiatives that could be implemented in the Catholic Church to keep children safe.”
The panel includes survivors of sexual abuse, and they were given the option to remain anonymous if they wished to avoid any potential scrutiny or pressure.
“I don’t think we realize the trauma that goes with clerical sexual victimization,” Kettelkamp said. “It’s just devastating.”
Kettelkamp chairs one of the commission’s three working groups that deals with survivors.
“The purpose of that group is to give the pope ideas for how the Church can best hear the voices of victims and survivors,” she said.
While the U.S. Church has provided a model of a healthy and effective response to sexual abuse of minors, Kettelkamp said that “what works in a Western culture doesn’t work in other cultures at all,” especially in a culture where abuse “is just too shaming that you don’t talk about it.”
“The U.S. and other Anglophone countries have opened the door that this is a global issue,” Kettelkamp said. “Remember, initially, it was just in the U.S., and that’s definitely not true at all. So, one of the biggest challenges the commission has is to reach out to those other cultures and educate them, because it was an educational process for us. What is grooming? What is abuse? It’s going to be an educational process for them.”
Kettelkamp said working with abuse victims is a pillar of the Church’s “sanctity of life theology.”
“Safeguarding is not just a secular thing where we have to keep children safe,” she said. “It’s part of what we believe as Catholics — the dignity of the human person, the sanctity of life. That’s the foundation for safeguarding.”
Kettelkamp said her work with O’Malley has convinced her the Church will continue to place a priority on protecting children.
“He is compassionate, he listens, he’s smart,” she said. “He’s multilingual, so he can converse in a very comfortable way with a number of people. He just exemplifies the Franciscan charism. He’s very pastoral. He really cares. I know that hearing the voice of victims is of critical importance to him.”
Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.