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Painful Lessons Learned

The Catholic Review

By any measure, the allegations of child sexual abuse by a former Penn State University football coach – coupled with the failure of those who knew about the abuse to report it to the appropriate civil authorities – is a sad and horrific situation. It is also tragically familiar.

Some people have commented that it is unfair for the media and others to link the Church to the Penn State situation, given that the Church had no known involvement in the matter, Penn State is a state institution, etc. I would argue that it is a fair comparison, given the similarities between the allegations at Penn State and what we know occurred within our Church.

The question now becomes, will the similarities end there, or will the University respond as the Catholic Church in the United States responded? Will Penn State institute groundbreaking institution-wide reforms in child protection? Will it operate with transparency, weed out and hold abusers accountable, promote healing for victims and lead an overall cultural change in how all those who work and volunteer promote safe environments for children? This is what the Catholic Church has done, and here in the Archdiocese of Baltimore we continue to make this a daily priority in our parishes, schools and other institutions.

For Catholics who have cringed over the last two weeks at any reference to the sexual abuse crisis in the Church with every report from Pennsylvania, I remind you that we must always remember our own failings yet also see that there is reason for optimism and hope. For out of the dark place the Church found itself, the bright light of transparency and accountability has led to many purifying reforms:

  • The immediate reporting to civil authorities of any suspected case of child abuse is required by Maryland law and by Archdiocesan policy, regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred. This is made clear to every employee and volunteer. All suspected abuse must be reported to civil authorities and, if a representative of the Church is suspected of committing the abuse, the suspicion must also be reported to the Archdiocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection so immediate action can be taken to prevent possible harm to additional children and so healing assistance can immediately be offered to those involved;
  • Every Church employee, priest, deacon and volunteer who has substantial contact with children must undergo criminal history screenings and reference checks; and
  • Adults working with children, as well as children in Catholic schools and religious education programs, receive mandatory training in how to detect and report abuse, and how to recognize violations of appropriate adult-child boundaries.

The Church has also implemented a zero-tolerance policy on abusers; any priest or deacon deemed to have sexually abused a minor is permanently removed from ministry regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred. Further, the Archdiocese requires extensive background screening and psychological testing for those wishing to become priests.

An Independent Review Board – comprised of 11 distinguished and strong-willed community leaders from diverse religious and professional backgrounds – reviews the Church’s handling of every suspected case of abuse, and an independent audit takes place regularly to measure our compliance with the U.S. Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the landmark 2002 document that details our Church’s commitment to protecting children.

And dioceses throughout the country have taken similar steps to protect children and earn back the trust of the faithful.

It is understandable that people would want to view the sexual abuse of children as a problem “in the past.“ And it is certainly accurate to say that we know of no one in ministry in the archdiocese today who has ever been credibly accused of harming a child. However, we know that any failure to remain vigilant and any failure to enforce these necessary policies could result in another child being harmed. If that were to occur, our Church would find itself where Penn State is today: facing distrust, anger, shame and resentment. And, worst of all, we would have to accept responsibility for the harm of another child. Neither must ever happen again.

As with the case of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, the Penn State scandal will likely yield many painful lessons. Let us pray for all victims of abuse and that the University – and many other institutions entrusted with the care of a child – will learn from them.