In an interview with the Review this week, the Archbishop said that while most clergy are good and holy men, the minority of abusers must not be reassigned to ensure children are protected and to restore trust in the priesthood, in the bishops and in the Church.
The "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" was approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a 239-13 vote at its meeting in Dallas June 14. The charter requires that for even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor - past, present or future - the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry.
This more restrictive policy is now the policy of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Archbishop Rigali said. The archdiocese's practice until now had been that any priest with a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor would not be reassigned to any parish and any ministry involving children. The charter, the Archbishop said, goes further than this, and all dioceses have to conform to it. "Our diocesan policy will provide that for a single offense, an offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry."
The charter resolves the question of removal of offending clergy from ministry. What it doesn't do is treat who and how someone will be dismissed from the clerical state, the Archbishop said. Dismissal was not envisioned by the bishops for every offending priest or deacon, such as those who are ailing and aged, for example, he said. Offenders are to lead a life of prayer and penance. They may never celebrate Mass publicly, wear clerical garb or present themselves publicly as a priest, he said.
The Archbishop reiterated that to his knowledge there were no priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse now serving in public ministry in the archdiocese. "All of this will be checked again and again," he added.
With the charter now in effect, the archdiocese is reviewing its policies and procedures to bring them in line with the approved document.
The charter represents the commitment of the American bishops "to do everything that is prescribed." But the bishops, Archbishop Rigali said, want the charter to be more than a commitment; they want the document's details on how sex abuses cases will be handled to become law for the Church in the United States. The bishops will send the charter's details, or norms, to the Vatican for confirmation, which will make the norms law. It has been estimated by one Vatican official that the process will be swift, with completion expected within three months.
The charter, while geared toward the protection of children and young people, also included an apology from the bishops, Archbishop Rigali said. The bishops apologized to all victims and their families "for the tremendous abuse" that has taken place, "for the mistakes" made in the handling of some cases, and for their role in contributing in any way to the suffering the victims have experienced.
The charter also addresses the importance of providing all necessary assistance possible to abuse victims and expresses the Church's intent to ensure that clergy falsely accused will be exonerated and their good name restored. It also calls everyone to the holiness of life through prayer and reparation, he said.
The archdiocese is committed to continuing its efforts to reach out to victims and will continue its training and education of children, parents, clergy, seminarians and Church personnel on ways to make and maintain a safe environment for children, as outlined in the charter.
Archbishop Rigali said the victims' testimony given in Dallas intensified for him and his fellow bishops the nature of the abuse. "Although all of us already know the evil of abuse," hearing it directly brought about "a new realization of the depth of evil itself and the suffering that evil has produced." Reflecting on the cases made the bishops "even more determined to root out this evil and to protect children. Everyone - from the person in the pew to the experts themselves who have dealt with these cases for many years - everyone is more keenly conscious of the evil and keenly conscious of what the victims have endured."
The Archbishop concurred with the charter's statement that the Church in the United States "is experiencing a crisis without precedent in our times" due to the issue of clergy sexual abuse.
"This is something that has shaken up the whole community because of what is at stake," Archbishop Rigali said. "Even though it is only a question of a small minority, it is such a despicable evil that it touches the life of the Church. ... It has caused immense suffering and harm."
But this crisis will not overwhelm the Church because of the overall health of its body, he said. "We're convinced that it will be faced, that it is being faced and that sexual abuse will be rooted out, and we will continue on with greater diligence in this regard and also with greater zeal in proclaiming the Gospel and in serving the people of God, and certainly, children," as the Church does now through "so many faithful priests and deacons whose lives have nothing to do with this."