ATLANTA — The National Review Board (NRB), a lay group advising the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the handling of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, issued a 10-year progress report, June 13, at the USCCB spring meeting in Atlanta.
Al Notzon III, NRB chair, addressed the bishops on the report ( The report looked at the decade since the 2002 approval of the bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
The NRB noted that “Ten years later, there has been striking improvement in the Church’s response to and treatment of victims. Children are safer now because of the creation of safe environments and action has been taken to permanently remove offenders from ministry.”
“Yet, much work still needs to be done,” the NRB said.
The NRB cited data that “found the incidence of abuse began to rise in the sixties, peaked in the seventies and declined sharply in the eighties.” Even cases from the past which are reported now, they said, “continue to fall into this same pattern” and that “the hundreds of cases reported yearly continue to fall within the timeline of the established curve.”
“These results do not mean that the hurt of the abuse is in the past,” the report said. “It is apparent that many people abused fifty years ago are still hurting.”
The report said that “Strides have been made in the work of healing and reconciliation.” The NRB said, for example, that “prior to the Charter, at least 25 dioceses/eparchies had Victim Assistance Coordinators (VAC); since 2002 all 195 dioceses/eparchies have them. The VAC assists the bishops in responding to those making allegations in ways that promote healing and reconciliation. The Church learned that responding to victims in a strictly legal manner did not help either the victims or the Church. In the long run, the strictly legal response caused more pain, did more damage and cost more money. The lesson learned by the Church is clear: we must treat those making allegations of sexual abuse with compassionate care.  It is not only the best solution but the right thing to do and an integral part of the Church’s spiritual mission.”
“Policies and procedures to carry out the Charter have been implemented across the country,” the NRB said. “Prior to 2002, at least 77 dioceses/eparchies had policies and procedures in place to respond to allegations of sexual abuse. Now all 195 dioceses/eparchies have such policies and procedures. Codes of conduct are in place for clergy, employees and volunteers. All dioceses/eparchies have Review Boards whose responsibility is to advise the bishop on whether or not a cleric accused of sexual abuse should be reinstated or permanently removed from ministry. These boards consist of laity and clerics, both diocesan employees and those not in the employ of the diocese.”
The NRB noted that “confidential settlement agreements with victims have been abolished except when requested by the victim. Prior to 2002, when bishops learned of incidents of abuse they may have quietly settled with the family of the victim. Confidentiality agreements either at the request of the bishop or the family were frequently a part of that settlement. The Charter forbids this practice and the audits over the past ten years verify that in cases where confidentiality agreements were made, they were only at the request of the victim.”
The NRB said dioceses now realize that “cooperation with legal authorities is in the best interest of the Church” and are “required to report all allegations of sexual abuse of minors to public authorities and to cooperate with all investigations on all matters of sexual abuse. They are also required to advise victims of their right to make a report to public authorities. When one bishop fails to do so, the whole Church suffers.”
The board addressed the zero tolerance policy, saying it is “one of the more controversial requirements of the Charter. Some feel this is too harsh if, for example, behavior occurred many decades ago, the NRB said, but concluded that “this policy is in the best interest of children and the Church.” They pointed out that “convicted sex offenders cannot be police officers, Boy Scout leaders, or teachers” and said, “They cannot be allowed to remain members of the Catholic clergy functioning in public ministry either.” They reported that data from 2004 found 4,392 clerics had allegations made against them and an additional 1,723 clerics have had credible allegations made against them since then. Many of the accused are now dead, but the NRB said the Church “should take a special look at those men who have been removed from public ministry.” The NRB said many dioceses have developed “safety plans” for those clerics removed from ministry but not from the clerical state. “These safety plans are critical to the continued protection of children,” the NRB said. “Assignment to a life of prayer and penance must be taken seriously.”
The NRB highlighted “boundary violation reports that involve international priests.”
“Behavior that might be culturally appropriate in one place, may not be appropriate in U.S. culture,” the NRB said. “This issue needs to be investigated more thoroughly and programs instituted to help international priests learn U.S. cultural ways. Because boundary violations mimic grooming behaviors,” the NRB said, “the National Review Board recommends that the bishops take action to address boundary violations made against any cleric.”
The NRB cited lack of trust that bishops are handling the problem, even in the face of proof that they are.
“Despite solid evidence many of the faithful believe that sexual abuse by clergy is occurring at high levels and is still being covered up by bishops. This suggests a trust problem that must be met with scrupulous adherence to the Charter.”
The NRB highlighted safe environments.
“Safe environments are created by training clerics, employees, and volunteers who work with children to understand the nature and scope of child sexual abuse and how to prevent it in institutions,” they said. They cited statistics to indicate what has been accomplished.
The NRB said dioceses have trained and conducted background checks on 60,190 clerics and candidates for ordination; 159,689 educators; 249,133 employees; 1.8 million volunteers. They said they have trained “94 percent of the 5.1 million students attending Catholic schools or parish religious education programs” and that “annually, $20 million is spent on safe environment programs.”
The NRB said that “problems exist with the coordination between religious orders and dioceses” and said there are still instances where dioceses are not informed of religious order priest offenders living in the diocese until it is too late. The NRB recommended “dialogue between bishops and religious superiors within the diocese on a yearly basis to address these issues.”
The NRB warned against “complacency or Charter drift – that is, thinking 10 years of action is enough and programs and vigilance can be taken for granted or worse, watered down.”
“While the current trend shows a decrease in clergy sexual abuse, we must never let our guard down. Now is not the time to drift away from the moral requirements of the Charter and the legal requirements of reporting. Children must be protected. Bishops must continue to work toward restoring the trust of the faithful. Only when bishops are seen as following through on their promise to protect and pledge to heal will the faithful begin to trust them to take care of their most precious gift – their children.”