Twenty Years Post Dallas - The Limitations of the Charter

Twenty years ago, the American Catholic Church lauded itself for establishing essential norms that the authors believed would eliminate the problem of clerical sexual abuse and cover-up within the institution. While the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People – colloquially referred to as the “Dallas Charter” – did create new strictures that would aid in identifying and removing priests who abused children, it failed to go far enough to actually make a difference in solving the problems that, we believe, are at the true root of the Catholic sex abuse scandal.

What did the Dallas Charter do right?

The authors of the Dallas Charter correctly recognized that churches across the United States were lacking guidance and training on sexual abuse prevention. Critically, best practices such as “the rule of twos” (which says unrelated adults should never be alone with children and recommends that there always be two adults and two children present for interactions) were entirely missing and there were no requirements that parish staff be educated in mandated reporting, child sexual abuse prevention, or trauma-informed communication and care for victim-survivors. The Dallas Charter included new requirements, mandating these trainings and requiring ongoing education in best practices.

Additionally, the Dallas Charter included a zero-tolerance policy for abuse accusations, which in practice meant that any priest or nun who had been accused of sexual abuse was to be immediately suspended from parish activities until an investigation was completed. While this change was applauded in 2002, the reality of the past two decades have shown just how effete the policy truly has been.

What are its limitations?

While many of the provisions in the charter sound very good, especially when summarized, the reality is that the way the document is written is intentionally vague. In addition, many of the requirements are left to the interpretation of those in charge of its implementation - bishops, archbishops, and cardinals in charge of dioceses. The reality is that the charter appropriately responded to the issue of sexual abuse by priests, but did nothing to address the enabling of sexual abuse by hierarchs. This is why many of the well-intentioned provisions have failed to be the bulwark that the USCCB promised.

A key example is Article 2 which requires that all dioceses “are to have a competent person or persons to coordinate assistance for the immediate pastoral care of persons who report having been sexually abused as minors by clergy or other church personnel.” This role, typically referred to as a Victim Assistance Coordinator, has no requirements laid out other than “competence” which, as stated above, is exclusively determined by the hierarch in charge. In some cases, such as in Jackson, MS, where the VAC was also the therapist for the victim  – this meant that the person negotiating the settlement on behalf of the diocese also held a position of trust with the survivor, an obvious conflict of interest and one that was concealed from the public. In another case, in Oakland, CA, a truly independent and competent VAC was hired, but was let go after three months due to their insistence that an allegation of sexual abuse be reported to local police. Even though such a report is already required by the charter, Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland fired the person who wanted to follow this practice. While there has been no public news on this issue, SNAP has remained in close contact with the former VAC. These are but two examples that demonstrate how the vague language in the charter is meant to sound good to survivors and advocates, but really works against them.

In another example of how vague language benefits the Church at the expense of the public, we look at the provision that requires that dioceses report all allegations of sexual abuse. When hearing about a requirement to report, most people naturally assume that this would be to law enforcement officials capable of investigating and adjudicating crimes. What is key here is that the charter merely states that reports must be made to “public authorities.” But what is a public authority, and who defines it?

To illustrate the problem with this, we turn to the Archdiocese of Chicago. In Chicago, Church officials have entered into an agreement with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, a government organization that is dedicated to intervention and response to cases of child sexual abuse. Again, to the untrained ear, this sounds like a sensible and thoughtful decision. In fact, it is anything but. Most allegations made to Catholic officials are regarding abuse that happened in the past. In Illinois, DCFS exclusively investigates ongoing cases of child abuse and can make no determination or judgment on historical cases. What this means in practice is that every single allegation sent by Church officials in Chicago results in a report from a government agency calling the allegation “unsubstantiated,” which Catholic leaders then proudly trumpet to their parishioners. The reality is that the accusation is never “unsubstantiated” because it is false, but only because the agency in question cannot investigate the claim at all. Rather than recognize this problem and correct it by requiring reports to police and prosecutors, as recently as late October Church attorneys bragged about this agreement in an editorial in the Chicago Tribune, again misleading the public. To us, this is a clear example of how Catholic officials have been able to take a well-intended provision and turn it on its head.

It is worth noting here that an independent investigation into clergy sexual abuse in Illinois, undertaken in 2018, resulted in a report that specifically called out this vague language, writing “Some of the [Illinois] dioceses’ written policies are so detailed and overly complex that they are confusing for survivors to navigate. On the other end of the spectrum, other diocesan policies are too general, giving little clarity to survivors as to what they can expect upon reporting their abuse and offering broad discretion to the diocese to conduct investigations in a non-transparent manner.”

The most egregious example of the Charter failing is found within its most important Article, Article 5, which required that “Diocesan/eparchial policy is to provide that for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor—whenever it occurred—which is admitted or established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon is to be permanently removed from ministry and, if warranted, dismissed from the clerical state.” This vaunted “zero-tolerance” policy has been openly flaunted by Church officials since it was first written. Myriad examples exist, post 2002, of Catholic hierarchs being aware of reports of sexual abuse made against a priest and failing to adhere to this policy.

A particularly egregious example of this took place in Houston, TX, in an archdiocese headed at the time by the then-president of the USCCB. Fr. Manuel LaRosa-Lopez’s first accusations of abuse stemmed from 1998. A man reported this abuse to Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who apparently chose not to remove the clergyman from ministry. Similarly, in 2000 a woman reported that Fr. LaRosa-Lopez had sexually abused her, and in response the cleric was transferred from his parish, but was not reported to police and remained a priest in good standing. In 2010, eight years after the adoption of the Dallas Charter, that same female victim learned that her abuser was still working and went to the police, who were told by the Archdiocese that Fr. LaRosa-Lopez was given a job with no contact with children. This is a clear and flagrant violation of the zero-tolerance policy set out by USCCB. Making matters even worse is what occurred in 2018. Following yet another accusation by a young man that he had been abused in the 1990s by this priest, Cardinal DiNardo quietly removed Fr. LaRosa-Lopez from his post, but lied to parishioners about the reasoning, saying instead that the priest was “at a retreat.” The fact that such a flagrant violation was committed by the man at the head of the bishops’ conference in the United States is an example of the primary reason for the ultimate failure of the charter. It completely failed to acknowledge the role of hierarchs in covering up, minimizing, and enabling abuse.

It is appropriate that the charter focused on punishing and removing abusers from ministry. It is a massive omission that this document failed to lay out clear, concrete steps for hierarchs on what to do when handling an allegation and how to punish those bishops who ignored the strictures of the charter. To date, Cardinal DiNardo has not been punished or even publicly reprimanded by the USCCB for his flagrant violations. Neither has Bishop Daniel Walsh, who in 2006 waited four days to report an allegation of sexual abuse, allowing the accused priest time to flee to his native Mexico. Nor has Bishop Howard Hubbard, formerly of Albany, NY, who admitted in 2021 that he intentionally employed priests with accusations of abuse until as late as 2014. Nor has Bishop Victor Galeone, whose review board in the Diocese of Augustine, FL, actively chose not to review allegations against a priest who had been accused of sexual abuse multiple times. Those crimes were made public by the priest’s victims, not Church officials following the spirit of their charter.

The reality is that hierarchs are accountable only to themselves. Even a body like the USCCB is more show than substance – punishments for hierarchs can only be meted out by the Vatican and only for violations of canon law, not via the Dallas Charter. We ultimately view the charter as more of a PR fluff piece that pulled the wool over the eyes of parents and parishioners as opposed to a good-faith document that has made a meaningful impact on clergy sexual abuse in the United States.

What can be done?

The sad but important truth is that sexual abuse in the Catholic Church is ongoing. For example, according to public announcements, at least two priests or church staffers were arrested per month in 2020 in the US for sex crimes against children. This is especially meaningful because of the realities of delayed disclosure – in the United States, the average age at which a survivor reports their abuse is 52, and given how few children report contemporaneous abuse, we believe these numbers are but the tip of the iceberg. In order to curb ongoing abuse, we do not believe that the Dallas Charter is an answer. Only through the involvement of independent and secular authorities who are willing to investigate and arrest abusers and enablers and amend laws to punish those institutions which keep perpetrators in power can we be confident that actual steps are being taken to protect children in the pews.

In the U.S., we are heartened by the investigations ongoing in countries like New Zealand and believe that these efforts are what is needed to protect children and help survivors heal. We hope that the truths realized and reported through this Commission will not only bring other survivors forward so that they can move forward, but will galvanize the public with the truth that we at SNAP firmly believe – that no institution can or will police itself.

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  • Zach Hiner
    published this page in Blog 2022-11-15 10:05:26 -0600

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