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: St. Scholastica parish in Erie has served community for well over 100 years

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

For more than a century, St. Scholastica Catholic Church has served the faithful in the northern community of Erie, Colo. Over time there have been many changes to the structure of the parish, but it still stands on the same foundation that Benedictine pastor Father Cornelius Enders set in place in 1899.

Vibrant, spiritually alive, and welcoming is how St. Scholastica can be described. For years, the church formed part of a circuit assigned to one priest of different parishes and missions, but four years ago, Father Robert Wedow was assigned to St. Scholastica as its first full-time pastor in history.

Since day one, Father Wedow knew there was a lot of work to do for the growing community: “To do what Jesus told us. To go to the ends of earth and baptize all the nation,” said Father Wedow to the Denver Catholic about his mission.

In order to accomplish that mission, he and the pastoral council came up with a parish plan that consists of three goals for the church.

“One of the goals is what we call our spiritual needs, to understand and begin to use our resources to meet the spiritual needs of the people of Erie. The second one is the evangelization of ourselves and others. And the third one is the development of our parish so that we will put ourselves to be able to have a brand-new parish,” he said.

The altar at St. Scholastica was recently renovated and blessed by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila. The Erie parish has served the community for over 120 years. (Photos by Brandon Young)

When he first became the pastor of St. Scholastica, Father Wedow noticed things in the church that required maintenance and renovations in order to keep serving the community in Erie. Among those renovations were the floors, the carpet and the altar of the church that was starting to break apart. On Oct. 13, after months of hard work and dedication, parishioners and friends attended a special ceremony in which Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila dedicated the new altar at St. Scholastica, one of the biggest renovations.

For a parish of approximately 200 families, St. Scholastica offers a wide range of ministries to meet the needs of the whole family. From youth groups, bible study and the Knights of Columbus, the community stays involved and keeps growing bigger and stronger.

To serve the community and continue evangelizing, the church holds a variety of fun events throughout the year where parishioners have the opportunity to help others while having a good time. Among these events is St. Scholastica’s Annual “Cookies and Caroling,” where the community gathers to make delicious cookies, then goes door to door and hands them out to the neighbors while caroling and wishing them a Merry Christmas.

“I personally think what’s unique about my parish is the powerful love of the volunteers and the way in which they show their love for God and for their neighbor,” Father Wedow said.

Although there is still much work to be done in the 120-year-old parish, Father Robert continues to work hard and does everything in his hands to meet the needs of his growing community.

“It’s a great privilege for me to be able to serve the people of Erie and to be a part of this growing community. May the joy of seeing the face of God overwhelm us all, as we celebrate the true gift of Christmas at Christmas night mass,” concluded Father Wedow.