Letter sent to bishops from SNAP National
Saturday, Jan. 15, 2005
Dear Bishop Skylstad:
With great reluctance and little hope, we offer our suggested recommendations to the US Bishops Conference sex abuse guidelines (“Charter”).
We’ve had virtually no contact with the Conference leadership since the June 2002 meeting in Dallas, when bishops apparently felt sufficient public pressure to meet with a handful of us.
But our pessimism stems from a more recent and discouraging development: the bishops’ decision in November to “gut” the so-called “audits” on sex abuse, thus ending anything approaching enforcement of the Charter.
It’s like having speed limits with no cops. Without any real effort to monitor compliance with the Charter, what matters what the Charter actually says?
So it’s hard to devote energy to offering input about the Charter.
(Besides, we’ve always maintained that words matter less than deeds. Bishops’ promises on paper regarding abuse have always sounded adequate. It’s the follow through that was and is sorely lacking.)
The charter itself, it began as and still is a very weak and vague document, drawn up by the very same bishops who repeatedly shielded, transferred and cover up for abusive clergy.
Then, adding insult to injury, the Charter was severely weakened months later by Vatican bureaucrats.
And as it comes up for review, we note with considerable sadness that not one of America’s 300 bishops has called for strengthening the document. Not one.
Some prelates complain that sexual abuse is defined too broadly. Some argue that the privacy rights of accused priests need more protection. But not one is proposing a single step to strengthen the guidelines.
(“Guidelines,” incidentally, is the accurate term. “Policy” or “rules” implies that there are penalties for violating them. No such penalties exist. The worst that can happen is that once a year, a bishop might be deemed “not in compliance.” But this happens only if the bishop voluntarily discloses information that would lead to this conclusion. This, of course, is highly unlikely. It’s even more unlikely now that “auditors” will end up visiting only those dioceses that aren’t compliant, roughly ten percent, and those who voluntarily ask to be audited.)
Nonetheless, we offer two specific suggestions for the Charter.
1. NAMING THE ABUSERS
The Charter should require that each bishop permanently post on his diocesan web site the names of a known or suspected abusive priests. These names should also be published at least annually in diocesan newspapers and parish bulletins.
2. VISITING THE ABUSERS’ PARISHES
The Charter should specifically require that each bishop visit each parish where a known or suspected abusive priest worked and publicly, emphatically, repeatedly beg victims or witnesses to contact the police.
We’ll discuss each of these separately.
1) Disclosing names of dangerous and potentially dangerous men is the least bishops can do to protect vulnerable adults and innocent children. Prelates in Baltimore Milwaukee, Toledo, Tucson and Los Angeles have done so. Every bishop should.
In the last three years alone, roughly 800 known or suspected abusive clergy have been suspended by America’s bishops. Several dozens are behind bars, several dozen are now dead. That leaves perhaps 600 certain or likely child molesters walking free. Most have not been civilly sued. Most have appeared in the newspaper once – when they were temporarily removed. The overwhelming majority has not been defrocked, so are still receiving paychecks and benefits from their bishops.
None of them, however, have been “cured” by their suspension from active ministry. Nearly all of them remain potential risks to countless unsuspecting families.
In St. Louis, a suspended cleric became an elementary school counselor in a neighborhood filled with low income African American and Bosnian immigrant families. He’s now behind bars, having pled guilty to abusing students.
We know we will see more such cases in the months and years ahead. But if families, neighbors and potential employers can turn to a source for accurate information about known and suspected priests and ex-priests, we feel confident that some dangerous men will be forbidden to be tutors, babysitters, coaches, and some innocent kids will be spared the trauma that we have endured and continue to endure.
2) Each bishop should visit each parish where a known or suspected abusive priest worked and:
- disclose everything he can about that cleric,
- publicly, emphatically, and repeatedly beg victims or witnesses to contact the police.
- urge parishioners to ask their children if that priest hurt them in any way, and
- ask each person to think about former parishioners who have stopped coming or who have moved away, and prod Catholics to reach out to those families, and ask if that priest hurt them or anyone they know.
This assertive approach will protect the vulnerable (by leading to more criminal prosecutions) and lead to healing (by prompting more victims to disclose their pain). It will also clearly show that the bishop has learned from the failed, hurtful secretive practices that have enabled thousands of clerics to sexually assault tens of thousands of youngsters for decades.
Just last week, the Gary Indiana newspaper reported that a local prosecutor placed ads in local publications asking if any young girls experienced sexual misconduct during the 1960s at Cathedral of Holy Angels.
We’ve seen no bishop take this step voluntarily. Not one. (As part of court-ordered bankruptcy proceedings, bishops in Tucson and Portland Oregon have bought ads. These, we believe, are self-serving, and include arbitrary and unjust “bar dates” – dates when victims must come forward and disclose details of their abuse in lengthy, complex court documents in order to possibly receive help. These dates effectively reduce church compensation to perhaps dozens of victims, and needlessly put dozens of others through emotional turmoil as they cope with rigid, externally created deadlines for their healing.)
Some church officials will protest. “We put in our diocesan newspaper urging victims to come forward.” That’s somewhat true. But those notices are nearly always vague, sporadic and inadequate, often asking victims to report to church authorities, not the police or prosecutors. Those notices almost never mention the availability of independent, confidential help outside of church channels (like therapists and support groups). Virtually never do they mention a specific offender.
And no written announcement is as effective as a personal, pastoral visit by the top Catholic leader in each diocese explicitly to disclose abuse by a former priest of that individual parish who is known or believed to have molested children.
Why is this so important?
- Because we learn by example. If the bishop himself physically visits my parish, tells me about an abusive cleric who worked here, stresses that I have a Christian duty (to seek out others who are suffering) and a civic duty (to offer information to law enforcement), then I learn that abuse is serious and I can play a role in prevention and in healing.
- Because bishops have long helped create a climate of secrecy about abuse. They must work hard to create a different climate, one that encourages wounded men and women to come forward.
In conclusion, we want to stress that motion doesn’t necessarily mean forward motion. Activity doesn’t necessarily mean progress. It feels as though you and your colleagues and your public relations staff have spent considerable time and energy creating procedures, policies, paperwork, instead of real reform.
Procedures, policies and paperwork have never been the problem. A lack of courage and honesty is the crux of the problem. Many bishops lack the courage to do what’s right – suspend their dear friend, their seminary classmate, their best fundraiser – because of sexual abuse allegations. Many bishops lack the honesty to tell their flock just how dangerous some of these predators are, how much church officials knew, how little church officials did, etc. All the procedures, policies and paperwork will unfortunately not provide bishops with courage and honesty.
In light of this, we hope you will understand our skepticism about possible charter revisions, yet still hope somehow that our perspective is given serious consideration.
National Director, SNAP
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
7234 Arsenal Street
St. Louis MO 63143
314 566 9790 cell, 314 645 5915
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
PO Box 6416
Chicago IL 60680
312 399 4747