The release on January 6, 2004, of the audit report by the Office of Child and Youth Protection (OCYP) of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) provides reason for cautious hope. It is the first report card on how each U.S. diocese or eparchy is carrying out the bishops’ 2002 Dallas Charter to insure the protection of young people from clerical sexual abuse. Some initial disappointment and confusion greeted the report. It does not provide cumulative figures as to the extent, duration, and costs of the abuse. As mandated, the audit concentrated on analyzing each diocese’s compliance with the Dallas Charter in the one year since it was promulgated. A second report, to be issued in late February under the auspices of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, will deal with the broader nature and scope of the sexual-abuse scandal. Catholics should be prepared for more disheartening news when that study is issued.

The John Jay report will not only spell out the numbers of victims, perpetrators, and the costs, it is likely to encourage other victims to step forward. It will reinforce the sense the laity has had, since the abuse scandal broke two years ago, that they have been betrayed by a hierarchy intent on protecting the church’s reputation, not its children.

Both the OCYP and the John Jay reports are necessary responses, however, and the bishops (97 percent of whom are cooperating with the John Jay study) are to be commended for taking these steps. Still, confessing one’s sins and pledging a firm purpose of amendment are not sufficient. Only when the bishops fully implement adequate programs to protect children will the faithful begin to regain a sense of trust.

The January 6 report, under the direction of Kathleen McChesney of the OCYP, marks an impressive beginning in that respect. It conveys a sense of urgency and genuine compassion for the victims; is aware of its own methodological limitations; and most important, calls for a thoroughgoing retrofitting of the original Dallas Charter, offering fifty-two detailed recommendations for making the charter more effective. The bishops should adopt the substance of these recommendations at their next general meeting.

Adherence to the Dallas Charter, even as it now stands, is strictly voluntary. That is why the refusal of some bishops to cooperate fully with the OCYP or with the John Jay study is within an ordinary’s rights. Yet bishops who refuse to cooperate are damaging the long-term health of their dioceses, and diminishing the credibility of the USCCB and of the church as a whole.

This should not detract from the serious work evident in the OCYP’s first annual report. Within a short time frame, and starting nearly from scratch, the OCYP has provided not only credible figures and a commendable sense of lay oversight, but also a useful baseline to anchor further reports. Now the bishops must assure the church—and the American public—that the Dallas Charter is a permanent, effective tool for protecting the young, and a useful model for other institutions faced with similar responsibilities.

Published in the 2004-01-30 issue: View Contents
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