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Religious Tolerance logo

Sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy

Church reaction during 2002-JUN

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Contents of this essay:

bullet The draft version of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People
bullet The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Charter
bullet Reactions to the Charter

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Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People:

An ad hoc committee of Roman Catholic bishops completed a draft document on priest abuse in 2002-JUN. It was a series of recommendations that were debated at a gathering of 288 American bishops at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas TX, during JUN 13 to 15. Archbishop Harry Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis released the draft document at a press conference on 2002-JUN-4. 1 The proposal, titled "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," recommends that:

bullet There would be a zero tolerance policy regarding future abuse cases. All priests found guilty of future sexual abuse of one or more minors would be laicizated (defrocked), with or without their consent.


"If the cleric is a pedophile" then he would be defrocked. Unfortunately, this is an ambiguous statement, because the term "pedophile" is ambiguous, It can refer to:

  • An adult who is sexually attracted to a young child under the age of 11, or

  • Same as above, for a child under the age of 18, or

  • An adult who is sexually attracted to and who also rapes or molests a young child under the age of 11, or

  • Same as above, for a child under the age of 18.

In addition, the statement is not particularly helpful because in excess of 90% of the sexual assaults by priests that involve minors victimize persons between 14 and 17 years of age inclusive. The perpetrators are not pedophiles; they are ephebophiles.

bullet For priests who have committed more than one act of sexual abuse of a minor in the past, there will be a request for the cleric's laicization -- again, with or without their consent.

bullet Allegations of a single past act of ephebophilia (rape or molestation of an older post-pubertal child) would be reviewed by a diocesan review board, that would be mainly composed of lay people. They would decide whether he would be allowed to remain in the priesthood.

bullet Bishops would report all allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities.

bullet Bishops would cooperate fully with civil authorities during the investigation.

bullet Background checks would be done on all religious or lay employees who work with children.

bullet "Accurate and complete" personnel records would be forwarded to a diocese to which a priest is transferred.

bullet Each diocese would undergo an annual examination of their compliance with the sexual-abuse policy.

bullet The Bishops would commit to a process of "transparency and openness."

bullet The church would not generally require confidentially agreements when settling lawsuits out of court. These require the victim to promise to not discuss the abuse or the details of the settlement. However, there was nothing in the document that would release victims from past confidentiality agreements.

Referring to confidentiality agreements, Archbishop Flynn said: "In the past, secrecy has created an atmosphere that has inhibited the healing process, and in some cases, enabled sexually abusive behavior to be repeated." 2

The preamble of the document includes an apology: "From the depths of our hearts, we express great sorrow and profound regret for what the Catholic people have had to endure. The sexual abuse of children and young people by some priests and bishops, and the ways in which these crimes and sins were too often dealt with by bishops, have caused enormous pain, anger and confusion. ... We are profoundly sorry for the times when we have deepened its pain by what we have done or by what we have failed to do."  1

Some reactions to the draft document:

bullet Stephen Brady, spokesperson for Roman Catholic Faithful (RCF), emphasizes that the priest scandal is not about pedophilia (persistent sexual attraction toward girls and boys who have not reached puberty) — but about ephebophilia (usually attraction by adult males, with a homosexual orientation, towards post-pubertal adolescents -- 14 to 17 years of age. Brady said that "The percentage of cases involving teen-age boys is actually closer to 99 percent." Brady noted that the document is silent on the issue of homosexuality. He commented: "I'm sure that was intentional." 3 He expected to mention at a press conference during the Bishops' meeting that there exists a provision in the church's Code of Canon Law that forbids ordination any man who has "tendencies to homosexuality or pederasty."  Brady said: "These bishops should be made to follow the 1961 Vatican document. It's either infallibly binding or it's hogwash.3

RCF has criticized a provision of the draft document which would adopt a zero tolerance policy for future cases of abuse, but tolerate one case of abuse the past. If adopted, the document would forgive a priest who raped or molested an under-aged person once in the past. (One strike and you may be still in.)

RCF is a conservative reform movement, concerned with forces within the Church of "Modernism, Syncretism, Heresy, and the gross immorality of some of its clergy." 4 They "routinely expose the bishops for not dealing with their abusive priests." They note that "no one in authority holds these bishops accountable." 5 They have even criticized the Pope for not having taken decisive action to discipline American bishops. They "insist at this time in history that those in positions of authority in the Church proclaim loudly the infallibly defined dogma that 'outside the Church there is no salvation', as that dogma has been taught and explained by the Church for centuries." 4

bullet David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the report was "exquisite hair-splitting about abusers, short on specifics about enforcement and silent on corrupt church leaders who have reassigned molesters and covered up their crimes." 2

bullet The Rev. Thomas Doyle, who actively helps victims of abuse, said that the admission of past failures by bishops "is certainly extraordinary, given the way in which church bodies respond to crisis situations....It is a new beginning." He notes that the expectations of the laity are high. But if even a very few bishops continue to treat victims with hostility or let lawyers continue to pursue hardball tactics with the victims, "that will blow the bottom out of any credibility they wish to restore." 2

bullet The Family Research Council (FRC), a fundamentalist Christian agency, commented that" "Not surprisingly, there's been a 'blackout' in the media on the link between homosexuality and pedophilia. The major networks, newspapers--and even the [Catholic] church--have intentionally chosen to ignore the body of evidence that FRC's Dr. Tim Dailey wrote about in his paper, 'Homosexuality and Child Sexual Abuse.'  Instead, they've allowed political correctness to prevail over the facts."

Even if the Conference approves of a policy document, it would not be binding on individual bishops. The Conference does not have that authority. The policy must be first sent to the Vatican for approval. 

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The Charter of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:

Some of the thousands of victims of clergy abuse met with the bishops at their 2002-JUN meeting. They described the deleterious effects that clergy abuse had had in their lives. They told of divorce, depression, alcoholism, and suicidal ideation. Some felt further victimized by the church who had been "either negligent or hostile about their accusations." 6

The preamble of the Charter contained an apology to the thousands of victims of clergy abuse: "As bishops, we acknowledge our mistakes and our role in that suffering, and we apologize and take responsibility for too often failing victims and our people in the past" 7

The bishops approved the Charter on 2002-JUN-14. Included were the following sections:

bullet To promote healing and reconciliation:
bullet Dioceses are to reach out to every victim who was sexually abused as a minor -- recent or in the past -- with counseling, spiritual assistance, support groups and other social services.
bullet Dioceses are to have an assistance coordinator to give pastoral care to persons who allege that they are victims of abuse.
bullet Dioceses are to have a review board made up mainly of lay persons to assess "allegations and fitness for ministry." The boards will have little power, as all decisions will be made by the bishop. The board will also review diocesan policies and procedures for dealing with sexual abuse of minors.

bullet To effectively respond to allegations:
bullet Dioceses will report allegations of abuse to public authorities.
bullet They will cooperate with the police/CPS investigations.
bullet If a preliminary investigation of abuse against a priest or deacon indicates, the alleged offender will be:
bullet Promptly relieved of his ministerial duties,
bullet Referred for medial and psychological evaluation.
bullet If the complaint turns out to be unfounded, "every step possible will be taken to restore the good name of the priest or deacon."
bullet If even one act of sexual abuse of a minor (past, present or in the future) is admitted or established, then:
bullet The offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from active ministry.
bullet He will be offered professional assistance for his "own healing and well-being, as well as for the purpose of prevention."
bullet His bishop may request that he be dismissed from the clerical state.
bullet "If the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state has not been applied (e.g., for reasons of advanced age or infirmity), the offender is to lead a life of prayer and penance. He will not be permitted to celebrate Mass publicly, to wear clerical garb, or to present himself publicly as a priest."
bullet Dioceses will prepare and publicize standards for ministerial behavior.
bullet Each diocese will develop a "communications policy that reflects a commitment to transparency and openness."

bullet To assure accountability:
bullet A national Office for Child and Youth Protection will be created to assist dioceses and produce an annual public report. The Office will be assisted and monitored by a National Review Board which will include lay parents. They will:
bullet Approve each dioceses' annual report on the implementation of the Charter.
bullet Commission a study on the causes and context of the crisis.
bullet Commission a study of the nature and scope of the problem including statistics on perpetrators and victims. 
bullet The Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse will be reconstituted to include representation from all the episcopal regions of the country.
bullet The Vatican will be informed of the Charter.

bullet To protect children in the future:
bullet Dioceses will establish "safe environment programs," in cooperation with outside individuals and groups.
bullet Dioceses will do background checks on all of their personnel who have regular contact with minors.
bullet Dioceses will adopted "screening and evaluative procedures in deciding the fitness of candidates for ordination."
bullet When a cleric is transferred elsewhere, his personnel record will be reviewed with the new diocese.
bullet The charter will be communicated to the communities of religious men.
bullet Leaders of seminaries will meet periodically with their bishop concerning the handling of allegations of abuse by seminarians.
bullet The church will cooperate with groups conducting research in clergy abuse.
bullet There will be greater emphasis in seminaries on the preparation of students for a life of celibacy.

The report acknowledges that the "vast majority of our priests are faithful in their ministry and happy in their vocation. Their people are enormously appreciative of the ministry provided by their priests. In the midst of trial, this remains a cause for rejoicing. We deeply regret that any of our decisions have obscured the good work of our priests, for which their people hold them in such respect." 7

There is no recognition in the Charter of the actual nature of sexual abuse of minors by clergy: that almost all cases involve adolescents who are well past puberty -- and not pre-pubertal children, as the media seems to imply. There was also no discussion in the Charter concerning the removal from office of those bishops who have irresponsibly contributed to the problem in the past through cover-ups.

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Reaction of the laity to the Charter:

Many of the abuse victims who appeared before the meeting of the U.S. bishops expressed the feelings that the proposed draft document and the final Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People were too lenient on priestly abusers and on the senior officials who covered up abuse in the past.

A public opinion poll of 1,004 randomly selected American adults, including an over-sample of 355 self-identified Roman Catholics, was conducted on 2002-JUN-16 & 17 by the Washington Post. The margin of sampling error is within 4 percentage points for the general public and 5 percentage points for the Catholic sub-sample.  It found that:

bullet Two-thirds of all Roman Catholics said that the Charter fails to do enough to solve the problem of priest abuse. Three quarters of the general public agree.

bullet Slightly more than one half of all Catholics disapproved of the policy of allowing abusive priests to remain in the priesthood.

bullet Half of Catholics expressed satisfaction with the leadership of the bishops; more than 40% were dissatisfied. 8

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  1. "Excerpts from proposed policy on abuse," Associated Press, at:
  2. Warren Wolfe, "Catholic bishops may amend zero tolerance policy on abuse," Star Tribune, 2002-JUN-5, at:
  3. Joyce Howard Price, "Critics decry panel silence on gay priests," The Washington Times, 2002-JUN-6, at:
  4. "Our Philosophy," Roman Catholic Faithful, at:
  5. "From the desk of the president: Roman Catholic Faithful, Inc.," at:
  6. "Working together, bishops and laity make protection of children paramount," The Morning Call, at:
  7. Text of "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," at:
  8. "Catholics: Abuse policy falls short," Washington Post, at:

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Copyright © 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAR-25
Latest update: 2011-SEP-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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