Church’s safe environment reforms merit respect

Because the reality was so abhorrent – the pervasive sexual abuse of minors by members of the Roman Catholic clergy – and because the church was so exposed in its reluctance or even refusal to act, the secular media narrative, even 15 years after Armageddon in the Archdiocese of Boston, is difficult to shake.

Bishop Timothy Doherty  of the Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana, was in New Orleans last week for a national Catholic conference on child protection and how parishes and schools can create safe environments and provide better accountability. Not many people outside of Indiana would know him, but Bishop Doherty is the chair of the  U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People.

Bishop Doherty told a story  that bears repeating. A group of college students recently watched the 2015 movie “Spotlight,” which detailed the rampant sexual abuse that occurred in the Archdiocese of Boston, as well as the archdiocese’s failures to report the allegations promptly to civil authorities, a dereliction that allowed even more abuse to occur.

At the end of the movie, the class opened a discussion  period. One student asked, “Why hasn’t the church done anything to protect victims?”

It’s a narrative Bishop Doherty has heard over and over in his travels, and it weighs on him.

This is not an advertisement for the Catholic press – we don’t place ads on page 2! – but Bishop Doherty explains one reason for the information gap.

“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,” Bishop Doherty said. “We do more than put on ecclesiastical fashion shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

As head of the child and youth protection committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Doherty said an updated 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 at the June 11-13 Spring General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

He is heartened by the discussions that have taken place over the last two years.

“We’ve done a lot of nice work,” Bishop 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.”

Providing a snapshot for how the church has responded over the last 15 years to the sexual abuse of minors, Bishop 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, Bishop 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.”

Bishop 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 (the 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 last 15 years, Bishop 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.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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