The Charter: Catholic Church reaches a milestone

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This month, the Diocese of Grand Rapids welcomed more than 150 diocesan safe environment coordinators and victim assistance coordinators for the annual Child and Youth Protection Catholic Leadership Conference. These individuals and their ministry are of vital importance to the well-being and witness of the Catholic Church in this country.

June marks the 20th anniversary of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” The bishops of the U.S. promulgated the charter in response to the reporting by the Boston Globe that uncovered clerical sexual misconduct in the Catholic Church. This discovery has led the American church to experience a crisis without parallel in our times. But 20 years later, children and young people in the Catholic Church in the U.S. now are safer than ever before.

This is because the charter (with its corresponding canonical essential norms) requires every U.S. diocese to appoint a victim assistance coordinator who is available for the immediate pastoral care of persons who report having been sexually abused as a minor by a priest, deacon or someone representing the church. The victim assistance coordinator informs the diocese of every report received and so, in a real way, “gets the ball rolling” in regard to mandated reporting about such allegations. Additionally, dioceses report to the civil authorities every allegation, no matter how long ago it might have occurred.

The safe environment coordinator sees to it that the diocese accomplishes what the charter requires. This person is crucial for maintaining a safe environment for children and young people by ensuring all who will have contact with children — clergy, volunteers, staff members and teachers — complete the following requirements. They must participate in a certified safe environment training program (Virtus), comply with diocesan standards for ministerial behavior, successfully complete periodic criminal background checks, and for certain staff members, be fingerprinted.

Every year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops publishes an independent audit (conducted by Stonebridge Business Partners) of all dioceses, which includes a determination of whether a diocese has been found in compliance with the charter. The Diocese of Grand Rapids has been found in compliance with the charter in every annual audit since 2002. I take this certification of compliance very seriously and am grateful to the diocesan staff members who have made sure our diocese is implementing the best safe-environment practices. I also want to thank our parishes and other Catholic institutions that cooperate in this regard.

The latest audit (for the year 2020) documents new cases of sexual misconduct by clergy involving minors are rare today in the Catholic Church in the U.S. There were 22 current allegations nationwide involving minors. Six of these allegations have been substantiated; seven continue to be investigated; two were unsubstantiated; three were unable to be proven; and four were categorized as “other.” While one allegation of abuse is too many, I believe we can conclude that the charter is helping the church to protect its youngest members.

Prevention of abuse, while of utmost importance, is not enough. The church also must look to those brothers and sisters who are survivors of abuse. I am saddened when I think of what they have gone through. Such deep-seated trauma impacts their lives daily. I want to again express my sorrow and deepest apologies to every person who has suffered abuse by someone representing the church. I remain committed to helping you heal from that abuse by prayer and other ways of support.

The sexual abuse of minors has inflicted a horrible wound upon the body of Christ, the church. Every day we must choose to rededicate and recommit ourselves to the safety of our young ones, and to those among us who have been wounded in this way. May the Holy Spirit guide our efforts to protect and to heal.

Most Reverend David J. Walkowiak is Bishop of Grand Rapids.

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