New Vatican norms against sex abuse build on policies mandated by the Archdiocese of Denver in 1991

Catholic News Agency

by Kevin Jones/Catholic News Agency

The Vatican’s global norms mandating sex abuse reporting took effect June 1, but two North American archdioceses say their recent decades’ work against clergy sex abuse means they are largely already compliant with the new global requirements for the Catholic Church.

“We recognize that trust needs to be regained and that we must work every day to earn that trust. That’s why viewing this from a global perspective is important,” Neil MacCarthy, Director of public relations and communications at the Archdiocese of Toronto, told CNA. “It’s not just about Toronto having a responsible approach in place. It’s trying to ensure that this is a priority of the global Church — that we are all concerned for the safety and well-being of those involved in our ministries.”

“When any diocese experiences a case of sexual abuse, it is a wound to every one of us. People don’t tend to distinguish between one diocese or another so it really is a ‘Catholic Church issue,’” MacCarthy added. “That’s a huge challenge and in our own dioceses we need to do all that we can to regain that trust, one day at a time.”

Pope Francis promulgated the new norms May 9 in a document titled Vos estis lux mundi, or “You are the Light of the World.”

The norms establish that clerics and religious are obliged to report sexual abuse accusations to the local ordinary where the abuse occurred. Every diocese must have a mechanism for reporting abuse.

When a suffragan bishop is accused, the metropolitan archbishop — that is, the head of the region’s archdiocese — is placed in charge of the investigation.

Sexual abuse of minors is not the only focus. With the new norms, the coercion of seminarians and religious into sexual activity through the misuse of authority is placed in the same criminal category as abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.

The document is a motu proprio, a Church instruction that reflects the Pope’s personal judgement. The norms of Vos estis lux mundi are approved for an experimental basis for a period of three years.

“The crimes of sexual abuse offend Our Lord, cause physical, psychological and spiritual damage to the victims and harm the community of the faithful,” Pope Francis said in the document. “Therefore, it is good that procedures be universally adopted to prevent and combat these crimes that betray the trust of the faithful.”

The Toronto archdiocese is reviewing the document and believes that “key elements” of the norms are already present in archdiocesan procedures.

“We don’t view these as new responsibilities. Rather, they are building on what has been in place for us since 1989. We must foster a safe environment for every person who interacts with the Archdiocese of Toronto,” MacCarthy said.

MacCarthy pointed to the Canadian bishops’ 2018 document “Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation, and Transformation.” It has over 60 recommendations for dioceses on how to implement their protocols on sex abuse.

The Archdiocese of Denver said its initial review of the document concluded that the mandatory reporting policies and reporting mechanisms are already part of the its own code of conduct and its Office of Child and Youth Protection.

The new norms “mirror many of the policies put in place in the United States by the 2002 Dallas Charter,” said the archdiocese, referring to the Charter for the Protection of Young People approved at the U.S. bishops’ spring 2002 assembly held in Dallas in the wake of widespread reports of clergy sex abuse of children and failure of Church authorities to keep known abusers away from minors.

“In Denver, we have had mandatory reporting and strict sexual misconduct policies since 1991, that were further strengthened by the 2002 Charter, and consistently updated every few years,” the Denver archdiocese said.

It suggested that the main change required by the document is the establishment of reporting and investigating procedures for allegations against bishops. Such discussions began at the US bishops’ fall assembly in November 2018, and “will no doubt be resumed at the next bishops’ meeting in June.”

“We would echo what Cardinal Daniel D. DiNardo has said, that we too are grateful for the opportunity to build upon the excellent foundation and existing framework already in place here in the United States,” said the archdiocese.

“Protecting our children and our most vulnerable is a sacred responsibility of the Catholic Church, and the Archdiocese of Denver is committed to seeking justice and healing for survivors and to restoring the trust of people to live their faith in the Church,” the archdiocese added.

It cited Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila of Denver: “May Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life guide us, and may we keep our eyes fixed on him who alone can bring healing and peace.”

MacCarthy said the new norms are “a positive step forward for the global Church,” adding, that there are many countries around the world with “no policies or procedures in place whatsoever.”

“It is important to view this document in the context of the global Church and the impact it can have in bringing everyone up to a minimum standard,” he said. “In North America, we have been deeply immersed in trying to address the abuse crisis for decades. We must remember this isn’t the case in many jurisdictions and hopefully the collective effort can have an impact.”

“The Archdiocese of Toronto has had a policy and procedure relating to allegations of abuse in place since 1989,” MacCarthy explained. The policy has been revised multiple times, with the last revision in October 2018.

“Every employee of the archdiocese has a responsibility to report any credible allegation of abuse,” said MacCarthy. “In the case of minors, our policy explicitly states that we must inform the appropriate civil authorities ‘within one hour within one hour or as soon thereafter as circumstances will reasonably permit.’”

The mechanism for reporting abuse and communicating with any victim is “very clear.” Victims are told that going to civil authorities is always an option.

“In the case of bishops, they are subject to both civil law and canon law as they relate to the issue of abuse or misconduct,” said MacCarthy, who stressed the importance of continuing education about sex abuse protection.

“We are one of the largest groups in the country involved in police background checks and screening clergy, staff and volunteers in ministry,” he said. “The more education we can do with our clergy, staff and volunteers, the more effective we will all be in ensuring that a safe environment is a priority for every parish.”

In the U.S., clergy sex abuse of minors peaked in the mid-1970s before going into a long decline which some researchers say mirrors a general countrywide decline in sex abuse of children.

Father D. Paul Sullins, a Catholic priest and retired Catholic University of America sociology professor, has warned that there are signs of a new rise in the rate of sex abuse by clergy and warns of possible complacency among bishops and dioceses.

COMING UP: Thomas Fitzsimons: The unsung Catholic Founding Father 

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As our nation celebrates the day of its independence and subsequent founding as a country on July 4, a look back some lesser-knowCatholic history of this historic event seems warranted.  

George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin: these are names every American knows. Pull out your wallet and you’ll likely see at least one of their faces on the money you carry aroundAnd while this nation was founded on principles rooted in Christianity, none of these men were Catholic. In fact, of the men history calls the Founding Fathers of America, only two were. 

Many may already be familiar with Founding Father Charles Carroll, a Catholic and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and whose brother John was the first Catholic bishop assigned to what would become the United States. However, Carroll was not the only Catholic who played a role in the founding of our country. The other was Thomas Fitzsimons, a name that is not mentioned much (if at all) in U.S. history classes but deserves to be recognized nonetheless.  

The unwieldy named Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, published in 1887, paints a vivid picture of Fitzsimons and the way his faith informed his character. While the other Founding Fathers were meeting and deliberating about the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons joined the Continental Army anfought on the frontlines against the British army. 

Captain Fitzsimons commanded his company of militia until 1778, when France entered the war. British troops withdrew from Pennsylvania and began to focus on the southern states. It was at this time that Fitzsimons became more involved in politics at the state level. In 1782, he became a delegate at the Continental Congress. In 1786, he was elected as a Pennsylvania state legislator and served for three terms until 1789. In 1787, he was selected to represent Pennsylvania at the Constitutional Congress, where the United States Constitution was written and ratified. He, along with Daniel Carroll, were the only two Catholics to sign to Constitution. 

Born in Belfast, Ireland in 1741, not much else is known about Fitzsimons’ family. He had three brothers – Nicholas, Andrew and John – and one sister, Ann. He and his family immigrated to America as early as 1760, where they became residents of Philadelphia. It was here that Fitzsimons would stake his claim as a businessman and politician. 

In 1763, Fitzsimons married Catharine Meade, whose brother, George Meade, would later go into business with Fitzsimons and build one of the most successful commercial trade houses in Philadelphia. Throughout his life, Fitzsimons was in close correspondence with Bishop John Carrollthese letters revealed insights into the Catholic Founding Father’s personal life. In a letter to Bishop Carroll in 1808, Fitzsimons wrote of being married to Catharine for 45 years. Additionally, local baptismal records show that he and Catharine stood as sponsors at the baptisms of three of Meade’s children. 

In 1774, Fitzsimons began his first foray into politics when he was elected as one of 13 Provincial Deputies who were given authority to call a general meeting of the citizens. It is believed he was the first Catholic to have ever held public office in the budding United States. Even so, anti-Catholic bigotry was common at the time and did exist within some of his fellow statesmen, such as John Adams, who once said in an address to the people of Great Britain that the Catholic faith was “a religion that has deluged your island in blood and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder and rebellion through every part of the world.” 

Fitzsimons’ first stint in public office was brief, only lasting from May to July, but it was a foreshadowing his future involvement in state affairs. As the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Fitzsimons formed a company of soldiers to fight against the British army. He was assigned to the Third Battalion under Col. Cadwalader and Lieut. Col. John Nixon, who was the grandson of a Catholic. Behind the scenes, as George Washington and the like organized committees and framed what would become the Declaration of Independence, Fitzsimons ascended to the rank of Captain and continued to serve his country as a soldier and patriot.

In addition to his tenure as a commanding officer and politician, Fitzsimons also found success in other ventures. In 1781, he helped found the Bank of North America, the United States’ first de facto central bank, and served as its director until 1803. The latter years of his life were spent primarily in private business, but he maintained a consistent interest in public affairs; even Fitzsimons wasn’t exempt from the old adage, “once a politician, always a politician.” 

Through all of these endeavors, and even after befalling troubled financial times in the early 1800s, Fitzsimons remained a diligent philanthropist. He gave immense support to St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia and was invested in the improvement of public education in the commonwealth. As one of his contemporaries wrote after his death in 1811, “he died in the esteem, affection and gratitude of all classes of his fellow citizens.” 

Fitzsimons was buried in the graveyard of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia, which is now part of Independence National Historical Park. His name may not be a household one like Washington or Jefferson, but Fitzsimons can be remembered as something of an unsung Founding Father of the United Statesa man whose life of quiet faith, humble service and admirable patriotism exemplifies the values that this country was founded upon in a simple yet profound way.