Archbishop Flynn Gives Progress Report on Sexual Abuse Response

Catholic News Service
June 26, 2003

ST. LOUIS - In the past year the U.S. bishops have made a "monumental effort" to address all aspects of the crisis caused by clergy sexual abuse of minors, Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis said June 21.

Archbishop Flynn, chairman of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, delivered a report on the issue on the final day of the bishops' June 19-21 national meeting in St. Louis.

The meeting also featured a half-day closed session June 19 at which the bishops discussed the goals and methodology of a national survey being conducted in all dioceses by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York to determine the extent of clergy sexual abuse of children in the U.S. church since 1950. They also spent a day reflecting on some of the major issues in the U.S. church that they see as underlying the sexual abuse crisis.

Archbishop Flynn said the bishops were facing "perhaps the worst crisis in the history of the church in our country" at their watershed meeting last June in Dallas, where they adopted a child protection charter and began the process of establishing legally binding norms for the removal of all abusive priests.

"Since that historic meeting last year, a monumental effort has been made to fulfill the promises of that charter, to implement measures that would remove offending clergy, to reach out to those so terribly injured by sexual abuse and to restore the trust and confidence of our people and our priests," he said.

"We do not take too much comfort in that," he added. "There is still a long road ahead of us."

The archbishop said the bishops have been working "at full throttle" over the past year "on the many specific building blocks that round out" the framework set by the charter and legal norms.

He noted that soon after the Dallas meeting the bishops expanded the membership of the sexual abuse committee and formed an all-lay National Review Board to oversee every diocese's compliance with the charter.

He said the board conducted a national search culminating in the appointment of former FBI official Kathleen McChesney to head the Office for Child and Youth Protection, which is assisting dioceses in implementing the charter and helping the review board oversee that process and conduct the research mandated by the bishops.

Archbishop Flynn challenged the common media perception that Vatican-initiated changes in the legal norms adopted by the bishops weakened them.

"Contrary to the views sometimes expressed in the press, the changes made to the norms strengthened our ability, not weakened it, to act effectively and expeditiously when addressing these cases," he said. "In particular, Norm 9 made very clear the place of the bishop's executive power of governance."

That norm says that for the common good a bishop is to use his power of governance "to ensure that any priest who has committed even one act of sexual abuse of a minor ... shall not continue in active ministry."

Archbishop Flynn noted that more than 200 U.S. canon lawyers have participated in special training sessions run by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has special jurisdiction over sexual crimes committed by clergy, to enable them to handle trials of priests accused of molesting minors.

He also noted that his committee has sponsored "a series of regional training workshops for bishops" to prepare them to cooperate in the compliance audits that the Office for Child and Youth Protection will be conducting in every diocese.

The workshops also focused on "pastoral outreach to victims and their families," he said.

He urged bishops to engage personally in that outreach. "We are convinced that this outreach is best done at the local level. It is most effective when it can be done personally by the bishop," he said.

"It must be said that these efforts are not always successful," he added. "Sometimes because of our shortcomings, but also at times due to the climate of litigation, outreach can be seriously inhibited. Nevertheless in our workshops we have urged the bishops that they should not allow litigation to get in the way of pastoral care."

Archbishop Flynn noted that priests in religious orders, who make up about one-third of all U.S. priests, are also covered by the norms. He said the bishops' conference and the Conference of Major Superiors of Men have formed a working group to discuss the necessary cooperation between bishops and religious superiors in dealing with the case of any ordained religious who has sexually abused a minor.

He said the committee has formed another working group "to explore more fully the meaning of the term 'a life of prayer and penance'" used in the charter to discuss requirements to be imposed on abusive priests who, because of age or illness, may be exempted from laicization.

One of the areas the committee is working on, he said, is the question of ongoing monitoring of priests who are removed from ministry but not laicized.

At a press conference following the meeting Archbishop Flynn stressed that, in most substantiated cases of abuse of a minor, if the abuser is healthy and still of a working age he should undergo voluntary or forced laicization.

But he noted that the charter also makes provision for exceptions in the case of advanced age or infirmity. In those cases, he said, it is the responsibility of the bishop or the superior of the religious community to which the priest belongs to assure that the priest is monitored.

In response to a question about the seminary visitations called for in the charter, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the bishops' conference, said that the visitations will be conducted under Vatican auspices. The Vatican has contacted the bishops' conference about the process "and we've responded and are working out the details," he said. "We are moving forward" on the plan.


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