Archbishop: Pope’s legislation on clergy abuse includes ‘groundbreaking provisions’

| May 10, 2019 | 0 Comments

Archbishop Bernard Hebda praised Pope Francis’ May 9 legislation on clergy sex abuse, saying the pope’s actions “reflect the urgent need to take concrete steps and provide clear direction for reporting and investigating allegations of sexual abuse of minors and adults by all clergy, including bishops.”

“This scourge of abusive acts — and the lack of clear procedures to respond effectively to them — as well as the failure of some bishops and other Church leaders to respond appropriately to reports of abuse, has profoundly harmed far too many,” Archbishop Hebda said in a May 9 statement. “Inadequate responses in the past, moreover, have also weakened the credibility of the Church as she strives to give witness to the good news of Jesus.”

Pope Francis released the legislation, known in canon law as a “motu proprio,” to address clergy sexual abuse in the Church worldwide. The document, titled “Vos estis lux mundi,” or “You Are the Light of the World,” followed an international meeting of bishops in Rome in February to address clergy sexual abuse.

Although the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops began to address clergy sexual abuse in the 1980s, it enacted the first binding national policies on it in 2002, following the Boston Globe’s investigation of the issue in the Archdiocese of Boston. That year, the U.S. bishops released “The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” and the corresponding “Essential Norms,” often together referred to as the Dallas Charter, which established procedures for preventing and reporting sexual abuse in U.S. Catholic dioceses.

Last summer, the issue was again brought to the fore with allegations of sexual abuse of minors and seminarians by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, whom the pope has since laicized, and the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report that detailed clergy sexual abuse and cover-up that occurred over seven decades in several of that state’s dioceses.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis recently faced its own sexual abuse scandal, with about 450 people filing sexual abuse claims against clergy and other Church leaders during a three-year lifting of the statute of limitations on such cases from 2013 to 2016. The archdiocese filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015 in response to those claims. Last summer, it announced it had reached a $210 million settlement agreement with abuse survivors. The archdiocese emerged from bankruptcy in December 2018.

Separately, the archdiocese faced criminal and civil charges brought against it in 2015 by the Ramsey County attorney alleging that it had failed to protect three brothers abused by their pastor, then-Father Curtis Wehmeyer. Wehmeyer was removed from ministry in 2012 and laicized in 2015. The archdiocese and the county reached a settlement agreement in December 2015 on the civil charges, and the county dropped the criminal charges in June 2016.

In recent years, widespread clergy sexual abuse has been identified around the world, including in Australia, Ireland and Chile.

In the United States, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops discussed — but, at the Holy See’s request, did not establish new policies on — bishop accountability regarding clergy sexual abuse in the U.S.

In February, Pope Francis met with leaders of bishops’ conferences around the world to examine the issue.

“I am grateful that the Holy Father has acted so decisively to enact legislation that reflects the input offered at the historic meeting of Church leaders … this past February,” Archbishop Hebda said in the statement.

“These groundbreaking provisions, to be applied throughout the world, respond to gaps in the laws and structures of the Church,” he continued. “I am grateful that these new norms envision the meaningful engagement of lay experts, whose professional skills are clearly needed to accomplish this difficult work. I am also pleased that the norms make it clear that bishops, cardinals and other Church leaders are to be held accountable for their actions.”

The legislation, which takes effect June 1, also establishes parameters for the investigation of a bishop accused of abuse. Archbishop Hebda noted that he and Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens “have been publicly calling for a new structure that allows claims against bishops to be investigated and evaluated objectively.”

“Today’s legislation does that,” he said.

Tim O’Malley, the archdiocese’s director of ministerial standards and safe environment, said the legislation “sets out clear and strict requirements for reporting misconduct within the Church, and it also requires worldwide that the Church reports to civil authorities in accordance with the local laws.” While reporting to civil authorities is already part of the practice in the United States, that has not yet been true at the global level.

He told The Catholic Spirit that the legislation doesn’t change the archdiocese’s policy of immediately reporting abuse to law enforcement and civil authorities, and informing people with abuse allegations that their first call should be to law enforcement.

“We not only comply with the state’s statutes, we go beyond what’s required of the state’s statues,” he said, noting that the archdiocese requires all Church employees and volunteers to be mandatory reporters of abuse, a policy that extends the state’s definition of a mandatory reporter.

The legislation also “codifies and clearly states that we have the authority to use and rely on lay experts to assist us in this arena,” O’Malley said, which is something the archdiocese already does with its Ministerial Review Board, which is primarily comprised of lay experts and makes recommendations to the archbishop on clergy misconduct cases.

“In my mind, it gives us the green light to keep moving forward as aggressively as we can with our approach of investigating allegations of misconduct, not just with priests, but with bishops, archbishops and cardinals, and that our approach so far has resulted in greater accountability and transparency,” he said. “It encourages us to keep going on the path that we’re going.”

O’Malley said he thought that the legislation included actions that Catholics would expect are already part of normal Church protocol. 

“It’s hard for us in the United States, or people who are well intended, (to believe) that if (someone) came upon information about sexual abuse of a minor, that they would not act. Of course they would. You would expect that,” he said. 

However, he added, “for (Pope Francis) to state it as clearly and with the authority and with the consequences for those who fail to follow it, as a practical effect, it takes all the excuses off the table for someone to say, ‘It wasn’t clear to me what I had to do.’”

Editor’s note: Updated May 13, 2019.

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