Five Ways to Safeguard Children Everywhere

Updated: Mar 2

Stephen J. Rossetti

Msgr. Stephen J. Rossetti is a licensed psychologist, researcher and teaches pastoral studies at the Catholic University of America. He is a priest of the Diocese of Syracuse and was named a consultor to the Holy See’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2016.

In 2002, I assisted the U.S. bishops’ committee on the drafting of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, also known as the Dallas Charter. It has subsequently been revised three times and no doubt will be revised again in the wake of new revelations of sexual abuse in the church.

Do the prevention and education principles embodied in the Dallas Charter work? A study produced by an independent professional research team at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, commissioned by the U.S. bishops, found that acts of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the United States peaked in the mid-1980s. It found that 4 percent of Catholic priests were abusing minors at the height of the crisis. This number has plummeted and is now estimated to be less than 1 percent.

Nevertheless, other grand juries investigating sexual abuse claims will be impaneled like the one in Pennsylvania. They will spend millions and also come up with a long list of dead and defrocked priests. Wouldn’t it be better for the protection of children if this money was spent on the education and prevention of child abuse throughout the United States?

If we make protecting children our most important priority, we must emphasize the following:

Require all Americans who work with minors to go through a child safety program. This program would define proper boundaries with minors, as well as how to identify grooming behaviors that signal possible problems to other adults. In the Catholic Church, over six million Americans have undergone such training. But what about the other 240 million adults? Those working in schools and day care centers, as well as health care workers, lifeguards, scout leaders, choir directors, Olympic trainers, coaches and more, ought to be required to attend. Experts could draft child safety programs and make them available for free on the internet, much like the Gregorian University in Rome’s online program that annually educates hundreds of church leaders around the world, particularly in developing nations.

A 2004 U.S. Department of Education study suggested that “more than 4.5 million students are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade” and then went on to say that “little has been done to prevent educator sexual misconduct.” The report strongly supported child safety training and stated, “With rare exceptions, sexual abuse prevention training for educators and school staff...does not include educator sexual misconduct.”

Require background checks and human formation of all child care workers. The John Jay study found that seminaries with strong human formation programs had fewer graduate priests who molested minors. The Dallas Charter requires all those in the Catholic Church who minister to minors to go through background checks and all future priests to go through extensive human formation training. Learning from this, states should come up with a list of those jobs, like child care workers and teachers, that should also require background checks and more intensive personal training.

The D.O.E. report recommended a similar step for all schools in the United States: “Background checks with fingerprint screens should be completed for all current and new employees.” If the protection and nurturing of our children is a priority, then the training and selection of those directly charged with their care should be a priority as well.

Adopt a zero-tolerance policy for all jobs directly involving minors. In the previously cited D.O.E. report, it is stated, “In most cases where educators cross boundaries [with minors], the educator does not lose her or his license.” In the studies cited by the D.O.E., a significant portion of offenders suffered no adverse effects and some simply moved to work in another school district. It should be the policy of this nation that once someone has sexually abused a minor, he or she has permanently lost the privilege of working with minors in any capacity. In 2002, the U.S. bishops committed themselves to a zero-tolerance policy, and no one, including a priest, who has abused a minor will ever minister again.

Completely abolish any statute of limitations on the criminal prosecution of offenders and invest more money in resources to investigate and prosecute these crimes. It is time that laws hampering the prosecution of offenders be eliminated. Because civil authorities prosecute so few of these crimes, the Catholic Church is obliged to investigate and determine the guilt or innocence of its own members. The church is not equipped nor is it appropriate for a religious organization to prosecute these crimes or any crimes, and it will likely never do it well.

If a priest were accused of murder, would he be tried in a canonical church court? No, he would be handed over to civil authorities. Why should the crime of child sexual abuse be any different? A civil court should determine if a priest is guilty. The government is shirking its duty in this regard.

Catholic dioceses, public schools and any organization where abuse has occurred should financially compensate the victims, no matter how long ago the abuse occurred. While statutes of limitations for civil suits have typically expired by the time victims come forward, all child care organizations should do everything within their power to come up with a just compensation package for the victims under its care. The Pennsylvania grand jury suggested opening a two-year window for any suits against the Catholic Church. Why not do the same for any organization, including public schools?

However, it ought to be noted that when such windows are opened, Catholic dioceses go bankrupt, with 40 percent of the money going to attorneys. And when dioceses go bankrupt, they must shut down or diminish many charitable programs, including those assisting children. Perhaps a more effective help to victims is the church’s willingness to fund psychotherapy for victims and also for more recent programs to compensate victims financially. My own Diocese of Syracuse and other dioceses have launched an “Independent Reconciliation Compensation Program” for victims of sexual abuse in the church. All of the compensation should go directly to the victims. Should not every diocese, every school and every organization where children were abused do the same?

The subject of child sexual abuse is a highly charged issue. If we are not angered by anyone who molests a minor or fails to act in response, then one could rightly say that we do not “get it.” Nothing could be more evil. Pope Benedict called it “filth,” and Pope Francis likened a priest abusing a minor to a “black Mass.”

But emotions and words are not enough. Concrete and effective action is needed. We know essentially what works in protecting children, including mandatory reporting (also included in the Dallas Charter) and the steps outlined above. These steps must be implemented wherever children are cared for.

The frozen public narrative that has persisted since 2002 is that the bishops in the United States have done nothing but move perpetrators from one ministry to another, covering up the abuse. In reality, the Catholic Church in the United States is far ahead of most organizations. Each of the steps I advocate here is contained in some way within the current U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. In 2016, in a motu proprio called “Like a Loving Mother,” Pope Francis made it church law that bishops who are negligent in their duties toward children must be dismissed. Thus any U.S. bishop who subsequently fails to implement this charter is negligent and ought to be removed.

The Dallas Charter is working. Abuse rates in the Catholic Church in the United States have fallen dramatically. But we cannot stop at the doors of the cathedrals. Most abuse takes place in homes and in our neighborhoods. Are we committed to helping children everywhere? It is time that these steps be adopted everywhere. There is no excuse. We know what works to protect children. The Lord, who declared that his kingdom belonged to them, expects this of us. And it is a deep truth lodged in the heart of every parent: “Who are we if we can’t protect them?#secualabusecatholicchurch #dallascharter

*This article appeared online in America Magazine, and in the October 29,2018 print edition.

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