National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April offered a reminder that protecting children should be a daily priority for everyone.

At the close of a February 2019 summit on “The Protection of Minors in the Church,” Pope Francis issued a call to action against the scourge of sexual abuse, saying, “I make a heartfelt appeal for an all-out battle against the abuse of minors both sexually and in other areas, on the part of all authorities and individuals, for we are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the Earth.”

Child abuse has been called an epidemic, cutting across all sectors of society, most often occurring within families. The pope noted that in the United States, “over 700,000 children each year are victims of acts of violence and mistreatment,” and “according to the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one out of every 10 children experiences sexual abuse.”

But Pope Francis added, “The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility.” Noting that this evil and betrayal of trust violates the innocence of “the most vulnerable… [who] are an image of Jesus,” the pontiff said the Catholic Church is committed “to decisively confront the phenomenon, both inside and outside the Church.”

The pope said the time has come to work together to eradicate this evil from humanity. 

The Vatican summit followed decisive action taken by U.S. Catholic bishops at their 2002 meeting in Dallas, when they adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, a comprehensive set of procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy, including a “zero tolerance” policy preventing priests credibly accused of abuse from serving in any Church ministries.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website notes that the charter directs action for “creating a safe environment for children and young people; healing and reconciliation of victims and survivors; making prompt and effective response to allegations; cooperating with civil authorities; disciplining offenders; and providing means of accountability for the future to ensure the problem continues to be effectively dealt with through the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection and the National Review Board.”

On a local level, those elements have been hallmarks of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Child Protection Policy, which was instituted in 1986 as one of the first such policies in the nation and has been used as a model for dioceses nationwide. The policy, which covers healing, reporting, prevention and accountability, requires the archdiocese to “offer compassionate and timely pastoral care to victims of child abuse, the victims’ immediate families and the affected faith communities.” It mandates reporting suspected abuse to civil authorities, education for children and adults to prevent and recognize abuse, and mandatory criminal background checks for clergy, employees and volunteers who work with minors.

An archdiocesan Child Protection Advisory Board of mostly lay experts advises on and monitors the archdiocese’s outreach and compliance with policy. The board members include a licensed clinical social worker, a local police chief, a retired pastor, and a survivor of clergy sexual abuse. The Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Child and Youth Protection and Safe Environment has a licensed clinical social worker on staff available 24 hours a day to field calls. 

In the preface to the 15th annual report on the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2018, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote, “We have come a long way in the Church since the Charter was adopted by the members of this conference in 2002… We must continually rededicate ourselves to keeping our promise to protect and pledge to heal.”

That report and other research has demonstrated the effectiveness of the Dallas charter, but also the need for continued vigilance in the Church’s child protection efforts. In August 2018, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) released research noting that allegations within the Catholic Church are significantly lower than in other segments of society. CARA’s study found that 22 allegations of abuse occurring during 2015-2017 were made against Catholic priests in the United States, an average of about seven per year. To put that statistic in some context, 42 teachers in the state of Pennsylvania lost their licenses to educate for sexual misconduct in 2017 alone. 

This past year, the abuse crisis hit the Archdiocese of Washington in a personal way, as Theodore McCarrick, who served as the cardinal archbishop of Washington between 2001-06 and who earlier served as an archbishop in New Jersey and as a priest and bishop in New York, was accused of sexual abuse and misconduct. 

A review of the Archdiocese of Washington’s records found that no claim had been made against him during his time in Washington. In July 2018 McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals, and less than a year later, in February 2019, Pope Francis imposed on McCarrick the penalty of his dismissal from the clerical state, prohibiting him from functioning in any priestly ministry, after the former archbishop was found guilty of “sins against the Sixth Commandment with minors and with adults, with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”

In mid-August 2018, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report was issued that described clergy sexual abuse over the past seven decades in six dioceses in that state, including in Pittsburgh, which was led by then-Bishop Wuerl from 1988 until his appointment as archbishop of Washington in 2006. 

Cardinal Wuerl faced criticism in the report for how he dealt with several abuse cases in Pittsburgh, yet the facts confirm that over his nearly two-decade tenure there, his actions demonstrated that he was a national leader in taking a hard line to remove priests from ministry.

In Pittsburgh, then-Bishop Wuerl also met with abuse survivors, established the first Diocesan Review Board on child protection issues in the United States, traveled to Rome to successfully defend his decision to remove a priest from ministry, hired a diocesan assistance coordinator to provide services to survivors, and in 2002 was a leader in the floor debate as the bishops adopted the charter.

Despite these facts, and in the face of ongoing media criticism, Cardinal Wuerl asked Pope Francis to accept his resignation as archbishop of Washington that he had submitted as required by Church law three years earlier when he turned 75. The cardinal said he had taken that step “so that this archdiocesan Church we all love can move forward” and experience “a new beginning.” 

In October 2018, Pope Francis accepted Cardinal Wuerl’s resignation as the archbishop of Washington and praised the cardinal for his desire to put the good of the Church above his own self interest. The pope appointed him to serve as the archdiocese’s apostolic administrator until the installation of the new archbishop. 

After a firestorm of initial media coverage, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report itself came under criticism. In an article for Commonweal magazine, former  longtime New York Times reporter Peter Steinfels undertook a detailed examination of the 1,356-page report, revealing some of its major flaws. Calling the report “inaccurate, unfair, and fundamentally misleading,” Steinfels wrote that the Pennsylvania process seemed to be more about denouncing the Church and leaders, than about a precise desire for the truth regarding the scourge of abuse of innocent young people, and how that great evil was dealt with.

Steinfels’ research found most media outlets covering the report cited only the 12-page summary of the report that emphasized incidents of abuse committed by clergy in graphic detail, but ignored the extensive child protection efforts undertaken by the Catholic Church, especially since the implementation of the Dallas charter. 

In the fall of 2018, Cardinal Wuerl launched a Season of Healing in the Archdiocese of Washington, to seek Christ’s healing for survivors of abuse, for their families, and for the wider family of faith in the archdiocese. During Lent in 2019, the archdiocese held a retreat for survivors of abuse, with more retreats scheduled for 2019-20.

The Archdiocese of Washington’s child protection office expanded its scope, and as the Office of Child and Youth Protection and Safe Environment, it continues to review any claims of child sexual abuse, and also monitors allegations of harassment or improper sexual conduct of adults as a result of abuse of power, whether it be by religious or laity, seminarians or bishops, in church offices, ministries or parishes.

In a similar fashion, the lay archdiocesan Child Protection Advisory Board also codified policies that it had adhered to in the course of its work in years past.  For example, as documented in a letter from the archdiocese’s Moderator of the Curia, the office of child protection and the advisory board has always been prepared to accept any and all allegations against a bishop of the archdiocese.  A stated process for such reviews is now included in the written policies.  

On April 4, 2019, Pope Francis named Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory as the new archbishop of Washington. Archbishop Gregory earlier served as the president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops when the nation’s bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

At his opening press conference, Washington Archbishop-designate Gregory said he would work to foster hope and rebuild trust, noting, “As in any family, challenges can only be overcome by a firmly articulated resolve and commitment to be better, to know Christ better, to love Christ better, (and) to serve Christ better.”

(The Archdiocese of Washington’s Office of Child and Youth Protection and Safe Environment can be reached by calling 301-853-5328, and information can be found online at https://adw.org/about-us/policies-and-resources/child-protection/ .)