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: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.