Who will guard the guardians? Ten years after the Catholic hierarchy of the United States gathered in Dallas and adopted unprecedented policies to address the scourge of child sexual abuse by clergy, the question of accountability at the top remains unanswered.
To be sure, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young Peopleâ€”the Dallas charter, for shortâ€”took some critical steps. In June 2002, the bishops passed a “one-strike” policy for abusers and began pushing the Vatican to streamline the processes that would allow them to more easily defrock molesters.
The bishops also vowed to report allegations to the civil authorities instead of keeping them in-house, to more rigorously screen not only seminarians but all church workers and volunteers, and to teach children in Catholic facilities to avoid potential abusers. In addition, they set up an office of child protection to audit each diocese’s compliance with the charter, and they established the National Review Board, composed of lay Catholics, to make sure they were doing what they promised.
But throughout it all, the bishops exempted themselves from accountabilityâ€”even though records showed that feckless inaction by many bishops, or even deliberate malfeasance by some, had allowed abusers to claim so many victims.
The best answer the bishops had to this in Dallas was a behind-the-scenes “fraternal correction” policy, by which a bishop would quietly pass along any concerns about another bishop to that bishop. Church tradition was invoked to preclude any external oversight by laypeople or other prelates. As always, each bishop would answer only to the pope, who alone had the authority to remove the head of a diocese.
Now, as the bishops gather next week in Atlanta for their annual spring meeting, they will hear an update on the Dallas charter but are unlikely to address this enormous loopholeâ€”despite events that make it all the more urgent. [More]