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Abuse allegations down, but challenges remain: US bishops

Many dioceses and eparchies 'have taken certain measures that go beyond the specific requirements,' says report
USCCB President Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of Military Services

USCCB President Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of Military Services. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Published: July 15, 2023 06:00 AM GMT
Updated: July 15, 2023 06:04 AM GMT

Abuse allegations against Catholic clergy and religious in the U.S. declined last year, but challenges remain regarding protecting vulnerable adults and ensuring online safety, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

On July 14, the USCCB's Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection released the "2022 Annual Report – Findings and Recommendations on the Implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

USCCB President Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of Military Services said in his preface the report was "a milestone accounting of the continued efforts in the ministry of protection, healing, and accompaniment."

The document -- covering the period July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022 -- consists of a progress report from the secretariat; an audit report conducted by the Rochester, New York-based consultants StoneBridge Business Partners; and a survey of abuse allegations and costs by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.

Now in its 12th year of performing the audit, StoneBridge visited 62 dioceses and eparchies, 48 in person and 14 virtually.

The report itself is the 20th of its kind since 2002, when the U.S. bishops established the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" as a number of clerical abuse scandals emerged.

Commonly called the "Dallas Charter" for the city in which the bishops met at the time of its ratification, the document lays out a comprehensive set of procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. The charter also includes guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of abuse.

During the 2022 report period, 1,998 individuals came forward with 2,704 allegations of abuse, with claims down 399 from 2021 and 1,548 from 2020. The decrease was largely due to resolutions of allegations received through lawsuits, compensation programs and bankruptcies. Most allegations (83%) were initially brought to diocesan officials by an attorney.

Sixteen reports during the period involved current minors, with all other allegations made by adults citing abuse as minors.

The CARA portion of the report said that 194 responding dioceses and eparchies had judged 245 allegations of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest or deacon to be credible. Of those, 20 allegations involved children who were under the age of 18.

CARA also calculated that total costs incurred by dioceses and eparchies due to allegations were down 19% from the previous year, totaling over $157 million. (Costs for men's religious communities, by contrast, rose 53%, approaching $45 million.)

The secretariat said in its assessment "the year-over-year trends are encouraging as the number of current minor allegations in the U.S. remains low."

Many dioceses and eparchies "have taken certain measures that go beyond the specific requirements of the charter," StoneBridge noted in its report.

Among the measures cited were recurring adult training, parish audits and background check renewals (which are not currently required by the charter).

However, StoneBridge found that more than 30% of diocese and eparchies it had visited during the report period struggled with "some dysfunction" in their review boards, including "lack of meetings, inadequate composition or membership, not following the by-laws of the board, members not confident in their duties (and) lack of rotation of members."

Auditors pointed out an unevenness in the charter's overall application, with "196 different implementations" of the document resulting from the various policies of dioceses and eparchies.

Another concern centers on the protection of "vulnerable adults," a definition for which is not contained in the charter, said auditors.

A year after the charter's most recent revision in 2018, Pope Francis issued the motu proprio "Vox Estis Lux Mundi" ("You are the light of the world"), outlining global legal procedures for how the church should deal with clergy sexual abuse, including procedures for investigating bishops.

The document, implemented for a three-year experimental period beginning June 1, 2019, included the term "vulnerable person," defined as "any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offense."

On March 25, Pope Francis published an updated version with the specific term "vulnerable adults," without altering the previous definition. The revised text also was broadened to include investigations of leaders of Vatican-recognized international Catholic lay associations and movements.

Yet Suzanne Healy, chairwomen of the lay-led USCCB National Review Board, highlighted findings by StoneBridge in her remarks in this report, saying that while the charter addresses clerical abuse of children, "there is confusion in reporting matters pertaining to "Vos Estis Lux Mundi" and canon law regarding penal sanctions.
The board "recommends the pursuit of a separate auditable resource with specific guidelines for these adult and lay matters of abuse," she wrote.

The audit results represent 194 of the 196 dioceses and eparchies in the U.S., with the report listing the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle and St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy as not participating.

Father Richard Janowicz, vicar general and safe environment coordinator for the Chicago-based St. Nicholas Eparchy, said in an email to OSV News he was "quite surprised" to learn the eparchy had been listed as such, since it had been audited by StoneBridge on April 17 of this year, and confirmed in a June 21 letter that the eparchy had remediated its initial lack of a children's safe environment training program. It remains unclear as to why the eparchy was listed in the report as “not participating,” and OSV News has reached out to the USCCB for clarification.

Father Simon Esshaki, secretary to Bishop Emanuel Shaleta of the St. Peter Eparchy in El Cajon, California, said in an email to OSV News that the eparchy "did in fact have a full 'Protecting God's Children' program for 2022," but "unfortunately for some reason the statistics were not shared with the USCCB."

The dioceses of Birmingham, Alabama, Lubbock, Texas, and St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands were each found noncompliant regarding Article 2 of the Dallas Charter, which in part specifies a required review board, comprised of mostly laypeople not employed by the diocese, that meets regularly and serves as a consultative body to the bishop. Each diocese subsequently corrected the deficiency.

For the Birmingham Diocese, the problem was one of timing, Donald Carson, director of communications and public relations, told OSV News.

Two resignations due to health concerns and the transfer of a religious sister left three vacancies on that review board during the audit period. The seats "have since all been filled, bringing the number of representatives not employed by the diocese back in compliance with the requirements of the charter," he said in an email to OSV News.

In the Lubbock Diocese, COVID was at its height during the reporting period and had "stopped many areas of our work," Lucas Flores, communications director, told OSV News in an email, adding that the diocese had resumed review board meetings.
OSV News was awaiting a response from the Diocese of St. Thomas.

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