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Cover-ups, transparency, and confidentiality

Father R. Michael Dollins is the Vicar for Clergy for the Archdiocese of Denver.

When a priest is absent from a few weekends at a parish, it is natural for the parishioners to wonder where he is.
“Is he OK?” “Did he do something wrong?” “Why aren’t they telling us anything?”

Those aren’t new questions when a situation like this happens, but recently I have noticed there has been a heightened call for greater transparency in the Church, especially as historical sins that have long been hidden in the shadows have recently been brought into the light. In almost every aspect of our lives, there is a tension between what is private and what is public. Where is the line between being a trusted person who must keep something confidential, and a person who is involved in a cover-up?

If we are honest, we know that full disclosure of information is not appropriate for every situation. Discretion and privacy are a prudent part of how we live our lives, relate to friends and family, and conduct business. There are personal situations that simply must be kept private, and when confidential information remains confidential, this is not a cover-up. A cover-up is when information that ought to be known publicly is kept secret.

So when it comes to how we handle purported misconduct of priests and deacons, seeking to achieve “Reliable Confidentiality” may be a better standard than transparency.

An organization that practices Reliable Confidentiality is able to strike a balance between an appropriate level of privacy for those involved in an issue, while at the same time, adequately reassuring those who are concerned about the same issue that a satisfactory response will occur. When this happens, those involved in an issue feel they were treated in an equitable manner and those who are concerned feel that they can trust the organization and its processes.

In the area of clergy misconduct, and responding to new standards driven by the Vatican, the Archdiocese of Denver has recently instituted the Clergy Misconduct Advisory Committee (CMAC). This is a group of professional Catholics, mostly lay, whom the archbishop consults on matters of priest or deacon misconduct. NOTE: This does not include sexual misconduct with minors, as a separate process exists for this more serious issue. The CMAC is composed of a few senior priests (not in archdiocesan central leadership), mental health professionals, law enforcement members (current and retired), and finance specialists. They are granted full transparency into issues of misconduct and then offer counsel directly to the archbishop. Cases may include financial transgressions, inappropriate relationships with adults, or struggles with addictions.

Depending on the gravity and nature of the issue, the CMAC will also help guide the Archdiocese on what information needs to be shared publicly, and what should remain confidential. That said, it should be kept in mind that difficult issues often proceed slowly through a review process and what may be perceived as improper secrecy is, in reality, appropriate confidentiality.

Hopefully the CMAC will give the faithful confidence that the Archdiocese of Denver has responded to the alleged misconduct with appropriate seriousness and reparative measures, while still being able to maintain the right balance of privacy for all involved. Hopefully the CMAC will give the faithful confidence that the archdiocese is practicing Reliable Confidentially.

Father Randy Dollins
Father Randy Dollins is the Vicar General for the Archdiocese of Denver.
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