Diocesan Review Board Established

By Irene Lagan
The Catholic Herald [Arlington VA]
March 13, 2003

In keeping with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People issued by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops in June 2002, the Diocese of Arlington has established a revised diocesan review board. The revised board consists of six members of the Catholic laity and two priests who serve in an advisory capacity to the bishop to review allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clerics. Members of the confidential review board have a range of backgrounds and include parents and professionals in social services, child protection services, counseling, forensic psychology and law.

The role of the board is to "assist the diocesan bishop" in determining whether an allegation meets the definition of abuse as outlined in Article 1 of the Charter and to determine whether an allegation is credible.

According to both the Charter and the Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons, each diocese is required to establish a review board consisting of "at least five lay persons" who are not employed by the diocese to "function as a confidential consultative body to the bishop." Members of the board are appointed to the panel for a renewable term of five years.

The Diocese of Arlington has had a Policy on the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct and/or Child Abuse in place since 1991. The existing policy is broader in scope than the Charter because it includes all forms of abuse and sexual misconduct. In addition, the existing policy applies to diocesan employees, volunteers, priests and religious whereas the Charter only addresses the sexual abuse of minors by clerics. The 1991 policy included a review panel that was assembled on an ad hoc basis; the newly revised review board is designed to implement the Charter's provision by having local experts commit to a five year term to serve on the permanent board.

According to Father Mark S. Mealey, O.S.F.S., Episcopal Vicar for Pastoral Services and Moderator of the Curia for the diocese, the protection of children is "uppermost in the mind of the Church. The emphasis of the Charter is to safeguard children," he said. "This is not to say that other forms of abuse or abuse of young adults are not hideous and would not be dealt with similarly. However, the competency of the Charter is specifically on children."

According to the new procedure, when an allegation of abuse of a minor by a priest or deacon is made, Father Mealey and at least one other person will meet with the complainant. If the allegation is found credible, the complaint will be reported to civil authorities if the victim has not already done so, and the victim will be offered counseling services. In every instance, the diocese will advise the victims of their right to make a report to public authorities and will support this right. When an allegation is credible, the review board will investigate the matter further and report its findings to the bishop. According to the Essential Norms, allegations that are deemed credible will also be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, where they will be handled in accordance with canon law.

According to the Essential Norms (no. 8), "When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants." Father Mealey stated that priests will be assured due process when the review board reviews an allegation.

In the Arlington Diocese, a separate diocesan advisory board in addition to the review board will be announced in the coming weeks. The Advisory Board consists of at least eight experts in the area of sexual abuse who will assist the bishop in formulating and reviewing policies for responding to sexual misconduct by clergy, religious or people employed by the diocese. In addition, the Advisory Board will recommend outreach and support services for victims and survivors of sexual abuse and educational programs to raise public awareness.

"The function of the Advisory Board is to look at how the diocese responds to an allegation and what services are offered to victims and survivors, as well as clergy who are guilty of sexual abuse," Father Mealey said. "They will also review the diocesan sexual misconduct policy and assist the diocese in creating the 'safe environment' for children that the Charter envisions."

Another obligation, Father Mealey added, is to promote healing for victims and survivors and to recommend speakers and educational programs for employees and volunteers of the diocese. In order to accomplish this, the advisory board will review existing programs and establish new programs specifically for this purpose.

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