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How safeguarding ministry responds to sexual abuse in the church

Candles surround a crucifix in the historic El Santuario de Chimayo Church in Chimayo, N.M., July 29, 2020. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

As the church continues to address sexual abuse cases among clergy and religious, Deacon Steven A. DeMartino, director for safeguarding initiatives for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, recently spoke with OSV News’ Charlie Camosy about the past history of these efforts and the best practices the church now has in place.

Charlie Camosy: I realize this is a big question, but would it be possible to summarize in broad strokes what has been done by Popes St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis with regard to sex abuse and safe environment in the Catholic Church?

Steven A. DeMartino: A good place to start is with the reality that safeguarding ministry has gradually matured in the church over the past 30 years.

This new ministry is a response to our Catholic obligation to defend life and the dignity of the human person across the life span and has been informed by the courageous actions, and risks, of sexual abuse victim-survivors as they come forward to recount in each public story the painful and horrific wounds of sexual abuse caused by clergy.

These wounds include the inaction or cover-up in responding to sexual abuse allegations by some church leaders.

Pope John Paul II declared in 2001 that “a sin against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue by a cleric with a minor under 18 years of age is to be considered a grave sin, or ‘delictum gravius.'”

This prompted our bishops in the U.S. to institute reforms to prevent future abuse, culminating in the development and approval in June 2002 of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and shortly thereafter for Religious Orders of Men to endorse the Praesidium Accreditation Standards for Catholic Men’s Religious Institutes.

Highlights of Pope Benedict XVI’s actions include authorizing “fast track” procedures at the Congregation [now Dicastry] for the Doctrine of the Faith to laicize any cleric found guilty of the sexual abuse of a minor, making important changes to canon law, such as waiving the statute of limitations on sexual abuse on a case-by-case basis and raising the age of consent to 18, and meeting with victim-survivors of sexual abuse by clergy during his pastoral visits throughout the world.

Pope Francis has universalized safeguarding ministry, both canonically and pastorally, by establishing Tutela Minorum, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which released the safeguarding ministry Universal Guidelines Framework that calls for every jurisdiction in the church to develop appropriate policies and procedures to address allegations of sexual abuse.

In addition, our current Holy Father promulgated Book VI of the Code of Canon Law, Penal Sanctions in the Church, 2021; released the Moto Propio “Vos estis lux Mundi” in 2023, which outlines new procedural norms to combat sexual abuse and holds leaders in the church accountable for their actions in responding to allegations of sexual abuse; and released the Vademecum, which is a guide to certain points of procedure in treating cases of sexual abuse of minors committed by clerics.

No recent pope has escaped criticism for their failings in responding to the scourge of sexual abuse.

Much has been done, but there is so much more to do to accompany victim-survivors of sexual abuse by clergy and ensure that the church is a safe haven for all vulnerable persons.

Camosy: What effects have these reforms had? What’s the reality on the ground now? How does the prevalence of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church compare with the abuse in the culture more broadly?

DeMartino: We now have safer environments for minors and vulnerable persons in all our Catholic ministry settings.

The USCCB established the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection and a National Review Board.

Religious Orders of Men provide safeguarding ministry resources and programming to Major Superiors through the Conference of Major Superiors of Men and their Director of Safeguarding Initiatives.

Every diocese/archdiocese/eparchy in the U.S. has an office of safe environment, charged with ensuring that their safeguarding ministry policies and procedures are operating in every parish and ministry site, in conformity with the bishops’ charter.

The safeguarding ministry teams in place throughout the U.S. church include victim-survivor assistance advocates, independent advisory review boards, canonical and legal support for all parties, professional and independent allegation investigators, and pastoral and spiritual care for victim survivors and their loved ones.

All allegations of sexual abuse are taken seriously, investigated through cooperation with local law enforcement, and follow due process and the presumption of innocence for the accused as proscribed in canon law.

With these systems and structures in place, the incidence and prevalence of new cases of sexual abuse of minors in the U.S. church has dropped precipitately.

However, we must remember that our children remain vulnerable to abuse of all kinds that occurs outside the church, as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families reports each year.

Camosy: We obviously do not want to downplay the reality of child abuse, but it seems like we need a particular focus now on adult misconduct. How is the church currently moving to address this issue?

DeMartino: As we become more aware in the church of how clergy and non-clergy church leaders develop and maintain healthy relationships in ministry environments, we must become more accountable and just when these relationships become disordered and our sinfulness emerges through behavior patterns of infidelity, abuses of power, exploitation of vulnerable adults, and abuses of human dignity by violating the normal boundaries of body, emotions, and spirituality.

New programs and instruction toward strengthening human formation activities in our seminaries and houses of formation are occurring.

The USCCB, through the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations, has issued a revised Guide to Ongoing Formation for Priests, which offers practical resources for maintaining human and spiritual health for priests.

New and revised training for church ministers and leaders through our primary abuse prevention specialists, Virtus, is now available.

When adult misconduct becomes known, we must respond to protect and defend the life and human dignity of the person and, after proper investigation, demand accountability for all who have offended.

Camosy: These are difficult and unsettling matters to think about and engage. But justice for victims and protection of vulnerable populations requires us to do so. Can you recommend best practices in this regard, especially when it comes to protecting our health and faith in the church? For many, I suspect, confronting these realities puts both at some risk.

DeMartino: The Holy Spirit has inspired us with the wisdom of how best to do this.

We do so in the context of faith and the Eucharist; in acknowledging the sin and crime of sexual abuse of children, young adults and vulnerable persons; in upholding the rights of children and vulnerable persons; in establishing safe, caring environments; in the safe recruitment of personnel; in listening to people who have suffered abuse, their families and communities; in properly responding to allegations of abuse; in cooperation with civil and ecclesial authorities; in monitoring and ministering to the accused; and in monitoring compliance with safeguarding standards and practices.

For safeguarding ministry to be effective, there must be a commitment from church leadership to create and sustain cultures of safety in every ministry setting. Safeguarding prevention programs must be integrated with leadership and seminary formation, and we must practice accountability and responsible governance; always consistent with the Magisterium.

For those who are engaged in safeguarding ministry, they require spiritual and practical support to protect against stress-related challenges and spiritual attacks.

The protection of life and the unwavering advocacy for ensuring the dignity and respect for every human person remains our Gospel mandate as the church continues to address abuse of all kinds and ensure that cultures of safety are in place in every ministry setting.

Charlie Camosy is professor of medical humanities at the Creighton School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska, and moral theology fellow at St. Joseph Seminary in New York.

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