What Is the Church Doing about Sexual Abuse?

Mary Jane Doerr
Director, Office of Protection for Children and Youth
Archdiocese of Chicago

After a brutal wake-up call in 2002, the bishops of the United States formalized the response to allegations of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy. With the approval of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the bishops apologized for the mistakes that had been made in the past and pledged to promote healing and reconciliation with those abused by clergy; to guaranteed an effective response to allegations of sexual abuse of minor; set up an audit to ensure accountability of practices and provided training for the protection of the faithful in the future.

Since 2002 great strides have been made in the United States. All dioceses have a person to work with those who come forward with abuse allegations. Their job is to provide pastoral care and outreach for victims/survivors and their families. Over $2 billion dollars has been spent on settlements and therapy for victims/survivors. And while no amount of money can remove the abuse, it is hoped that pastoral care can bring healing.

All allegations of sexual abuse by minors are required to be reported to civil authorities. Many dioceses report all allegations, even those 20 years old. There is zero tolerance for sexual abuse in the church. Clergy with an admitted or established incident of sexual abuse are permanently removed from ministry. Since 2002, over 8,000 clergy members have been identified as abusers. Of those, 74% had already been removed from ministry. At times the process may seem to take too long; because of civil statutes of limitations, few abusers went through the criminal law process. However, there is no statute of limitations in the Church and clergy who have a credible allegation of abuse, even once, years ago, are removed from ministry.

In their wisdom the bishops required an Annual Report based on an audit to determine which dioceses are implementing the requirements of the Charter. They knew that a mishandling of abuse in one diocese taints all dioceses. This year all diocese will participate in the audit.

Training programs and background evaluations are the standard in all dioceses. In what was a sea change of parish culture and life, training was required for all clergy, employees and volunteers who work with children. Adults now learn to create safe environments by learning the nature and scope of sexual abuse – not just in the church, but in all of society. They learn the warning signs of offenders, how to respond and how to report. Children are taught about safe adults and what to do if someone is making them uncomfortable. They are taught both how and who to tell if someone is hurting them. In the past 14 years since the Charter was approved well over 3 million adults have been trained in how to create safe environments. It is encouraging to know that 98% of those working in our parishes, clergy or lay have not only been trained but have undergone background checks. The 2% is reflective of the fluid nature of personnel in our parishes and schools. Those who have not been trained nor had a background check either are no longer associated with the church or have since come into compliance.

No youth serving organization has done more than the Catholic Church in the past 14 years to combat sexual abuse within its institution and in society. The Church has done much, but cannot sit back and say it’s over. The safe environment coordinators across the country know this. They strive to improve their compliance with the requirements of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Assistance ministers continually reach out to assist those harmed by abuse.

Few people went into ministry with the idea that God was calling them to heal those sexually abused by clergy, family members or strangers. But it is part of what God is calling the church to do now.  The safe environment coordinators, assistance ministers, the clergy, the bishops across the country are all working together to protect and to heal. It is in doing this work that we meet the face of God in the face of survivors. It is with them we have the courage to do the work.

For the full issue in which this article appears, click here


Mary Jane Doerr holds a Bachelor of Arts in Behavioral Sciences from Nazareth College, Kalamazoo, and a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership from Western Michigan University. She has more than twenty years’ experience as an educator as a classroom teacher, an elementary school principal, and a college instructor. She joined the Diocese of Kalamazoo in 1994 where she worked in stewardship and development. In 2003, she was appointed Safe Environment Coordinator for the diocese and in 2006 was promoted to director of the Safe Environment Office. She was named the associate director in the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection of the USCCB from 2008- 2016.  In 2016 she joined the Archdiocese of Chicago as Director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, overseeing all compliance issues related to the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

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