WASHINGTON, D.C. — Calling the abuse of children a “spiritual felony,” Washington Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory offered prayers April 3 for victims of such abuse and prayed that God would “help us respect the dignity of all the young, vulnerable and those who need protection.”
Gregory made the prayer during a Mass he celebrated for National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April. The Mass was offered in conjunction with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection.
While not opened to the public because of shelter-in-place measures to fight the spread of COVID-19, the Mass was streamed live via the Archdiocese of Washington’s Facebook page.
“With so much attention focused on the serious threats to our physical health … we might well acknowledge that the month of April is also dedicated to our commitment to the health, protection and safety of our young people and for the continued healing of the scars of abuse that too many people have suffered in their own childhood,” Gregory said.
He said that National Child Abuse Prevention Month “calls our attention to the dangers of sexual, physical and emotional abusive treatments that youngsters may face.”
“God sees all of us as his own sons and daughters,” Gregory said. “The spiritual tragedy of child abuse is the violation of one of God’s own children.”
He added that the “violation is intensified” when perpetrators of such abuse are “themselves called to guard, protect and even bless young people.”
Praying for “the little ones who have been harmed,” Gregory asked God to “pardon the offenses of your people … and set us free from the bonds of the sins we have committed in our weakness.”
Prior to the Mass, Courtney Chase, executive director of Child Protection and Safe Environment for the Archdiocese of Washington, noted that while there is a battle going on against the coronavirus, “the church has long been fighting its own crisis, and will not stop as we face this new crisis … not only must we protect our own health, we still have to protect and create a safe environment for all members of the community, especially our children.”
Chase noted that both crises — the coronavirus and child sexual abuse — “must be fought with the same determination and with the same goal in mind, to protect our people and eradicate this scourge.”
The Archdiocese of Washington has a Child Protection Policy that was instituted in 1986 as one of the first such policies in the nation and has been used as a model for dioceses nationwide. The policy — which covers healing, reporting and prevention of abuse — was updated in 1993, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2013 and 2019 to incorporate enhancements in child protection mandates and oversight.
Gregory was installed as the archbishop of Washington in May 2019, two months before the archdiocese’s revised Child Protection and Safe Environment Policy was issued.
He has been a national leader in the church’s efforts to address the abuse crisis. As the bishop of Belleville, Illinois, he was president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004, when in 2002, he led the nation’s bishops in implementing the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which included a “zero tolerance policy” on priests who abuse children.
The 2019 revisions to the archdiocesan policy included changing the title to Child Protection and Safe Environment Policy to reflect its expanded scope emphasizing the importance of ensuring safe environments for people of all ages, protecting children from sexual abuse and adults from sexual harassment or abuses of power.
The revised policy’s introduction makes that expanded scope clear, stating: “All people — children and adults — have the right to be safe and protected from harm in any and all environments — home, school, religious institutions, neighborhoods and communities.”
Key points include:
— The policy requires mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse and immediate removal of someone credibly accused of abuse.
— The policy emphasizes transparency and pastoral care in abuse cases.
— The policy requires that “all clergy, employees and volunteers who will come into contact with children while working or volunteering for any archdiocesan institution and/or program will undergo the relevant state and federal criminal background checks.”
— The policy includes an educational component for children and youth, and also for adult staff members and volunteers, designed to help prevent abuse from happening.
— The revised policy has an expanded scope emphasizing safe environments for adults working or volunteering in church ministries and outreach.
Szczepanowski is managing editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.