Apples and Oranges – and Abuse

In August 2018, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania released a Grand Jury report on clergy sexual abuse cases in most of the Commonwealth’s Catholic dioceses. It was not the first report of its kind. In fact, a similar report covering the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown had been published several years prior. But the 2018 report came just weeks after bombshell revelations about Theodore McCarrick and the Church’s abject failure to deal with the then-Cardinal’s decades of predation.

Detailing decades of allegations by more than 1,000 victims against more than 300 alleged abusers across six dioceses, the PA Grand Jury Report dumped a tanker-load of fuel onto what was already a raging fire. The ensuing conflagration ripped through the Catholic Church in the United States creating institutional and ecclesial damage with which the Church here in the US and globally will be dealing with for a generation and more.

A few months after the Grand Jury report was released, Peter Steinfels wrote in Commonweal to pose and answer a question most people simply weren’t asking. The crimes described in the report were horrific; the number of cases appalling. But the scandal of 2018 was at least as much about the cover-up as it was the original crimes. Was it actually true, Steinfels asked, that, as the Grand Jury Report insisted, “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all?”

Had the Church really spent decades pouring all her energies and efforts into hiding the truth rather than fixing the problem? Steinfels’ carefully argued conclusion, based on the Grand Jury Report’s own telling of the facts, was a resounding, “No.” He writes:

In the case of Pennsylvania, whether one looks at the handling of old allegations or the prevention of new ones, the conclusion that a careful, unbiased reading of the Pennsylvania report compels is this: the Dallas Charter has worked. Not worked perfectly, not without need for regular improvements and constant watchfulness. But worked.

Fire destroys, but it can also purify.

The crisis of 2002 led to the Dallas Charter, an imperfect but largely effective tool which has made American parishes much safer for children and held hundreds of abusers accountable. The conflagration of 2018 spurred the Church – not just in the United States but in Rome as well – to make significant changes to the way it handles allegations of abuse, particularly those made against bishops and high-ranking clergy.

No one should imagine the full toll of damage done – materially and spiritually – by the abuse crisis has been paid. Not by a long shot. Nor should one imagine that the painfully slow process of purification is complete. Even a cursory glance at the news (the recent cases of Fr. Rupnik and Bishop Belo leap to mind) shows how far we are from where we ought to be.

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The Church’s handling of allegations of clerical sexual abuse and misconduct has come a long way, even as, more than two decades after the Dallas Charter, it remains a work in progress. But how should we measure that progress? The Church is making progress in protecting kids compared to what? She’s come a long way in promoting transparency compared to what?

Consider the following.

At the beginning of this year, the Office of the Inspector General for the Chicago Board of Education published a report of its own, covering the period between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022. The report showed more than 600 allegations of sexual misconduct by adults against students in Chicago Public Schools for the 2021-22 school year alone. Of these, more than half were deemed substantiated and in 16 cases, criminal charges were filed.

Chicago is a very large school district, the nation’s third largest. It’s unique among American school districts in having an entire investigatory unit dedicated to handling sexual allegations in schools, an initiative which began in late 2018. (Whether it is reassuring or utterly depressing that a Sexual Allegations Unit even exists is a matter of perspective.)

Comparing Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania to the Chicago Public Schools is, to be generous, not an apples-to-apples comparison. But it’s a comparison that can shed light on the genuine improvements the Church in this country has made.

During the same year covered by the Chicago IG’s report (2021), the Catholic Church in the entire United States received 30 current allegations involving minors, of which six were substantiated. Of the 3,103 historical allegations received by Catholic dioceses in 2021, only 38 were for offenses alleged to have taken place after the year 2000. Again, Chicago Public Schools reported more than 600 allegations, of which half were substantiated. One school district. One year.

Evaluating the Church’s record in handling the abuse crisis means making reasonable comparisons to other institutions grappling with the same scourge of abuse. And it means having reasonable expectations for how we measure progress and success.

You won’t find any lists of credibly accused schoolteachers and school-district employees. There are no zero tolerance policies permanently removing school employees for allegations that are never proven in court. You also won’t find calls to allow teachers to marry in order to stem the tide of abuse in schools. The Chicago IG’s report doesn’t mention the word “clericalism.”

It must be said that the Church ought to be held to a higher standard precisely because of what the Church claims to be, because of what she is. The conduct of Catholic priests and bishops ought to be measured, ultimately, against the demands of the Gospel, not merely the standards imposed by civil law.

The Church deserves no awards for being better at preventing and reporting the sexual abuse of children than large public-school systems. But she ought to be seen – and ought to see herself – as a model for others in combating the scourge of abuse, which touches every part of society.

 

Image: Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori, 1613 [Royal Trust Collection, London]

You may also enjoy:

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek’s Rome Failed on McCarrick – and Needs to Change

Taynia-Renee Laframboise’s Saving Theodore McCarrick

Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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