The Catholic Church has taken steps so that a sexual abuse crisis does not happen again, according to a newly released study. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to safeguards that have been put into place.
Archbishop Robert J. Carlson issued a letter May 18 on the report on the causes and context of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy by the John Jay School of Criminal Justice at City University of New York, an independent institution. The study was requested by the U.S. bishops and found that no single cause of sexual abuse exists.
The study, and an earlier one by the same group, is an unprecedented self-scrutiny that is unique among child-serving institutions in the United States, whether religious or secular. Both studies showed that cases of sexual abuse by priests decreased dramatically starting in the early to mid 1980s.
Archbishop Carlson stated that child abuse is an unspeakable evil that must be addressed forthrightly in order to protect children.
"We have learned a lot in the past decade, but we have much more to learn and much more to do to make sure that our children and youth are protected from the grave harm of sexual abuse whenever and wherever it occurs," Archbishop Carlson said.
Msgr. Vernon Gardin, vicar general of the archdiocese, said "we have many, many safeguards in place. The Church is committed to an ongoing program of child safety and child protection."
All Church workers in the archdiocese, including priests, volunteers and parents, must go through safe environment training. The archdiocese is audited yearly by an independent, secular auditing firm to ensure compliance with the U.S. bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth People.
Since 2002, the Church in the United States and the archdiocese have maintained a zero-tolerance policy, and all reports of current child abuse of a minor are reported to civil authorities in accord with state law. All reports, including those that occurred many years ago, are internally investigated and presented to a review board of mostly laypersons. Those who have credible accusations are permanently removed from ministry.
The study showed that the best way to protect children from abuse is to create safe environments where appropriate boundaries between the adults and children are maintained. It noted that sexual abuse of minors is a human problem that all of society must always guard against.
Keep children safe
Terry Edelmann's goal, and the goal of the archdiocese, is "to keep children safe" and to "educate everyone on how to do that."
Edelmann is director of the Safe Environment Program, the archdiocesan effort to protect children from abuse.
The Safe Environment Program includes a mandatory background check for anyone working with or near children; required participation in the two-hour Protecting God's Children class, which includes videos; and reading and signing the Code of Ethical Conduct. A Safe Touch class is given annually to all Catholic school students and parish school of religion students to teach what is and is not appropriate behavior.
"Everyone involved with children must do this," Edelmann said in an article in the Review earlier this year, "from the archbishop to the assistant soccer coach. Our goal is to keep children safe. And, as we have learned, there is no category of person who would not harm a child."
Her program reaches out to every parish and school in the archdiocese, with 8,000 employees and 35,000 volunteers. She and her staff have trained about 100,000 adults since the program started.
Through that training many people have learned to spot what Edelmann called "red flag" behavior. "If someone has attended a Protecting God's Children class and then read the Code of Ethical Conduct, that helps them take a good look at a situation that may make them uneasy. And if it does, they should talk to someone about that."
Edelmann said the first call should be to the state Child Abuse Hotline, the second to the archdiocese, if an archdiocesan employee is involved. "People can call our office for advice," she added.
Deacon Phil Hengen, director of the archdiocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection, said the program is an important and effective way to keep children safe.
He noted that the Vatican has asked every bishops' conference in the world to have guidelines in place for handling accusations of clerical sex abuse, acknowledging that the U.S. bishops for many years have had such procedures for protecting children, assisting victims of abuse, dealing with accused priests, training clergy and cooperating with civil authorities. "We're ahead of the curve worldwide," Deacon Hengen said.
Archbishop Carlson said he encourages every member of the archdiocesan family, "and all people of good will, to help us do everything in our power to protect our young Church from the evil of sexual abuse wherever and whenever it is threatened."
He urged anyone who has been abused by a Church worker or who wants to report an incidence of abuse to call Deacon Hengen at (314) 792-7704.