Archdiocesan efforts seek to ensure comprehensive approach to issue of clergy sexual misconduct

| November 7, 2013

While news coverage of the archdiocese in recent weeks has focused on sexual misconduct allegations against certain priests and how their cases were handled by archdiocesan officials, the work of a group that recently issued comprehensive improvements to the way clergy sexual misconduct is handled in the archdiocese has gone mostly unreported.

The working group — comprised of lay and clergy members — met for nearly a year beginning in fall 2012 to update the archdiocese’s previous policies and procedures on ministry-related sexual misconduct. The revision, titled “Strengthening Trust,” was published in mid-September and is available online.

“The primary intent and purpose of the work was to look at the policies and procedures of the last several years in the area of safe environment — to look at what we’ve been doing, to look at best practices throughout the country and to analyze what we’re doing with an eye toward improving our procedures and practices,” said Father Daniel Griffith, the archdiocese’s new safe environment delegate who was a member of the group.

On Aug. 15, Father Griffith succeeded the outgoing delegate, Father Kevin McDonough, who held the position since 2008.

Updated policy

The new document — an update of a previous version issued in 2007 — explains safe environment requirements related to criminal background checks, codes of conduct and safe environment training, and it outlines the services offered to victims of clergy sexual misconduct.

The document also reflects recent changes in Church law, said Susan Mulheron, the archdiocese’s chancellor for canonical affairs. And, it more clearly defines roles for groups that review clergy misconduct and firmly establishes that acquiring, possessing or disseminating child pornography constitutes sexual abuse of a minor.

It also addresses how the archdiocese responds to allegations, and to parishes that experience clergy sexual misconduct.

One fruit of the working group’s efforts has been “a strong improvement in communication” among archdiocesan staff members at the chancery, Father Griffith said, “knowing that we have to communicate among each other to make sure things are not missed.”

Those chancery staff members include the chancellor and associate chancellor for civil affairs, chancellor for canonical affairs, auxiliary bishop, vicar general, vicar for clergy, clergy services director and delegate for safe environment, he said.

Improved communication has also been the focus of another archdiocesan group that was formed about two years ago by former vicar general Father Peter Laird. Members meet every other week to discuss “matters related to priestly health — maybe somebody who’s struggling in a particular way — and/or issues of misconduct,” Father Griffith said.

“A major benefit of the priest working group is that there is a team approach to addressing issues that are affecting priests,” Mulheron said. “This allows for a variety of perspectives to be shared, as well as to help ensure accountability in how specific situations are handled.”

Comprehensive approach

“Strengthening Trust” also defines different roles exercised by two boards in the archdiocese: the Clergy Review Board and the Ministerial Standards Board, both of which are comprised of lay and clergy members.

Another outcome of the working group’s efforts was to change the scope of the Clergy Review Board so it could focus only on cases where sexual abuse of a minor by a cleric is alleged, Father Griffith said.

According to “Strengthening Trust,” the Clergy Review Board’s work is done after such allegations are reported to civil authorities, and the board “offers advice and recommendations, as appropriate, to the archbishop.”

The working group also recommended the creation of the Ministerial Standards Board. Its role is to evaluate ministry-related misconduct that does not involve the sexual abuse of minors. This would include sexual misconduct by clergy with adults and misconduct related to gambling, drug and alcohol addictions and other inappropriate behavior. This board also serves as a consultative body to the archbishop.

“Another positive outgrowth of this work is that we have a number of lay people either in the chancery or on these boards who are bringing their own expertise and their own good judgment,” Father Griffith said. “It really helps us to not be insular in our thinking. Having a number of outside folks checking our work can be a helpful thing.”

The work of both of these boards in ongoing.

Separate from these two groups is the Safe Environment and Ministerial Standards Task Force, which was created last month to conduct a full review of the archdiocese’s policies and practices and “any and all issues” related to clergy sexual misconduct.

The task force is charged with examining how allegations of clergy sexual misconduct in the archdiocese have been handled in the past and what must be done to address any gaps in the process.

The archdiocese’s new vicar for ministerial standards, Dominican Father Reginald Whitt, will receive the report of the task force — an independent all-lay group — and ensure it is in compliance with both civil and Church law. He will publish its findings and recommendations as well as implement the recommendations, which Archbishop John Nienstedt has pledged to accept.

Separate from the task force’s work, an outside firm is reviewing all files of clergy members in the archdiocese “as another important piece of the comprehensive approach to ensure safe environments in the archdiocese,” Father Griffith said.

Both the task force and file review have missions limited in scope and duration. They will remain in existence only until their work is completed.

Restoring trust

While there has been some confusion in media reports about the roles and missions of each of these boards and investigative efforts, the archdiocese’s intent is to approach the issue of clergy sexual misconduct in as comprehensive a manner as possible, Father Griffith said.

“There are a number of important decisions that will need to be made in terms of restoring trust in this archdiocese,” he said.

“One of the most important aspects of restoring trust is that we’re following through on the commitments made to make sure we do everything we can to provide safe environments for our children and for the people of God,” Father Griffith said.

“It’s also important for archdiocesan leadership to acknowledge the specific mistakes that have been made in the past as a step toward restoring trust,” he said.

“At this difficult time, it’s essential to have a comprehensive review of what we’ve done in the past with an eye toward improving what we do in the future,” he said. “Each of those pieces of the puzzle has a specific task and together are an important part of a comprehensive response.”

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