WASHINGTON (CNS) — The U.S. church still stands ready to help the victims of clergy sexual abuse, according to Bishop Edward J. Burns of Juneau, Alaska, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Child and Youth Protection.
“Victims of abuse have helped us see the errors of the past,” Bishop Burns said in a Nov. 10 telephone interview from Juneau with Catholic News Service. “It’s important that we assist them in the healing process.”
Bishop Burns added, “We express our gratitude for the way they’ve called us to look at ourselves, and see that there is a need to change, to be contrite, and to assist in the healing process. It’s important that we continue to work together in order to be sure that there is a safe environment within the church, and that we never grow lax in assuring that all our children are safe.”
He cited background checks for close to 99 percent of the diocesan and religious priests and deacons, and safe environment instruction for 92 percent of the estimated 4.4 million children who have been enrolled in Catholic educational programs.
“What needs to be done? We need to get to 100 percent,” Bishop Burns said.
Bishop Burns acknowledged the subject of clergy sex abuse is being brought into the headlines again with the release of the new movie “Spotlight,” which has opened in a handful of cities but will open Nov. 20 in a nationwide release, adding he hoped to see the movie soon.
“I’ve heard some wonderful acclaims for how well it’s presented and how well it’s been produced,” he said, but “I’m not looking forward to watching it, because I know the topic is heart-wrenching.”
“Spotlight” deals with the Boston Globe’s investigation into clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston. The stories published by the newspaper in 2002 brought significant changes in the way the church operates with regard to addressing abuse claims and abuse prevention.
Bishop Burns, then the executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, said he was working as staff when the bishops met in Dallas in 2002, when the abuse crisis was part of the national conversation.
“I still remember the frenzy of media surrounding the hotel and the anxiety of the bishops in addressing this issue, as well as the opportunity for the bishops to hear from the victims of abuse during their general session,” he said. “I remember it being very poignant, very direct. The bishops recognized at that point that they needed to collectively take action.” What resulted was the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” Since its adoption in 2002, the charter was revised in 2005 and 2011.
“The Dallas charter has laid clear how we are to respond whenever there is a credible allegation of sexual abuse by anyone in the church,” Bishop Burns said, adding the “zero tolerance” principle was put into place with the charter.
Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the bishops’ Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection — created as another response to the abuse scandal — said he sees the release of the movie as “another opportunity of grace” to show how far the church has come in its response to victims of sexual abuse.
The assertion by some bishops and other church leaders that no institution has done more than the Catholic Church to put a halt to adult sexual abuse of minors is credible to Deacon Nojadera.
“Dr. David Finkelhor has told us” the same, Deacon Nojadera told CNS Nov. 9. Finkelhor, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, is a sociologist known for his research on sexual abuse of children and is director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center.
Before the scandal, it was the case of “get the priest out of here” (the assignment where the abuse occurred) “and not believing the victim,” Deacon Nojadera said. “Now we should always put the child at the center of our conversation,” he added. “No one’s going to be working with kids or vulnerable adults without a background check. That’s part of the culture now.”
To Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, the culture change is too little, too late.
“I think the church is safer today” because of the “diligent work” of reporters like those at the Boston Globe as well as abuse victims who came forward, said Blaine, who herself had been abused by a priest.
But “those of us who have come forward are just the tip of the iceberg and I think victims today are still treated as though we are the enemy,” Blaine said in a Nov. 9 telephone interview with CNS from Chicago.
While the church did change, Blaine told CNS, “the Catholic Church only did it begrudgingly and belatedly. Most child welfare agencies started demanding fingerprinting and background checks by the mid-(19)80s.”
Victims, she said, often cannot trust the institution under whose watch the abuse occurred to take a part in healing their trauma.
Asked whether seeing “Spotlight” could retraumatize victims, Blaine replied, “I think it can be painful, but I suspect that it will be healing for victims. I think that many victims still suffer in secrecy and shame. I think this movie will give them the opportunity to heal.
“We’re already hearing from a lot of victims, before the film came out,” she added. “I got two emails today already from people that were sparked by the movie. They just saw trailers of the movie. And they haven’t seen the movie yet.”