The publication of the first annual report on the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was a first step in the long and demanding journey necessary to restore confidence in the bishops’ moral authority, after the searing revelations of the way in which certain bishops responded to allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.
After adopting the charter in Dallas, Tex., at their annual spring meeting in June 2002, the bishops agreed that as an exercise of necessary accountability, a compliance audit would be conducted each year to measure the progress made in implementing the provisions of the charter by the dioceses and eparchies of the United States. The fact that the report, issued by the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, is intended to be the first in a series of annual reports is the most obvious reason why it can only be a first step on a challenging journey.
While a compliance audit is an exercise familiar to corporations and government agencies in the United States, conducting an on-site review of 191 Catholic dioceses and eparchies presented unusual challenges to the auditors. Still, the report describes the process as “informative, illustrative, and inspiring.” Nearly 90 percent of all dioceses were found to be in compliance with the charter. The auditors issued Instructions for dioceses that were not in compliance, Recommendations when they found incomplete compliance or room for significant improvement and Commendations for dioceses that had established sound sexual abuse policies prior to the adoption of the charter or had developed enlightened pastoral programs to support the victims of sexual abuse.
Since the purpose of the audit was to measure compliance with the Dallas charter, the auditors confined their attention to allegations of sexual abuse made since June 2002. Later this month, a broader study of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy dating back to 1950 will be published. This study, commissioned by the bishops and conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, will provide necessary information on such neuralgic questions as whether incidents of sexual abuse of minors by members of the Catholic clergy in the United States occurred at a higher rate than in other groups in the male population. The information provided by the study should lead to a candid analysis of possible systemic problems in the training of candidates for the priesthood: what standards should be set for admission to seminary training; what level of emotional maturity is necessary for candidates to understand and accept the commitments of a celibate life; what kind of formation will promote the development of such emotional maturity.
The study will presumably identify the rate of such incidents in different cohorts of priests ordained at different times since 1950 and clarify the relationship, if any, between the kind of theological education they received (for example, before or after the Second Vatican Council) and their subsequent behavior.
When the John Jay College study is released, the Catholic bishops of the United States will face another challenge in their attempt to restore the confidence of both laypeople and priests in their leadership. These are not easy days to be a bishop. A bishop’s moral authority cannot be simply assumed as a corollary of his ecclesiastical appointment. While a better educated and increasingly disappointed Catholic laity in the United States recognizes the need for moral authority in the Catholic community, it also believes that such authority, to be effective, must be earned by personal witness.
Even more than the shameful deeds of individual priests, the patterns of deception and misplaced priorities displayed by certain bishops in dealing with errant priests have been the primary cause of the anger and disillusionment that is widely shared by Catholic laypeople and priests. In the end, only the bishops themselves can restore the confidence in their leadership necessary for the exercise of effective pastoral authority. To do this, the bishops may have to find a new voice, relying less on assertions of canonical authority and more on their ability to fashion a new language to speak to their people, after first listening to their needs and frustrations. Their capacity to listen will probably be tested from time to time by intemperate voices and individuals pursuing their own special agendas. But the bishops have one great resource: the desire of all Catholics for strong and credible moral authority in a time of accelerating change and shifting cultural values. Patience and generosity of spirit will, in the end, be the most important allies of our bishops on their journey toward a restoration of trust.