By Bishop Edward J. Burns
March 2016 Southeast Alaska Catholic
Every parent and every parishioner has a right to know how the Church is responding to the crimes and allegations of child sexual abuse by priests and ministers. Leaders within the Church have the responsibility to demonstrate to the faithful that effective procedures are in place and to verify their effective implementation. These procedures include reaching out to victims, cooperating with law-enforcement agencies, engaging a diocesan review board of dedicated lay faithful in the process, assuring the presence of a victims’ assistance coordinator/safe environment coordinator in each diocese, and taking steps to provide a safe environment for our children in our churches and schools.
In the past couple weeks there have been hundreds of national media stories regarding child sexual abuse in the Church. Recently, the movie “Spotlight,” which chronicles the sexual abuse crisis in the Boston area and the journalists who reported it, won the Academy award for best picture. Cardinal George Pell, a leading Vatican official and former Archbishop of Sydney, Australia, testified before the Royal Commission on sexual abuse. A recent grand jury report identified a diocese in Pennsylvania with years of sexual abuse of children by priests and accused the leadership of negligence. All of these accounts, as well as many others, compels our parents and our parishioners to ask if everything is being followed effectively within their diocese and if their school or parish is safe.
As the Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau, I want to assure you that we are doing our utmost to create a safe environment for our children within our parishes and missions in order to assure that the crimes of the past do not happen again.
On the international level, Pope Francis met with victims of abuse during the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and on September 27 the Holy Father met with victims of abuse in the chapel of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia and addressed the bishops from around the world attending that event. In his beginning statements he said, “I continue to be ashamed that persons charged with the tender care of those little ones abused them and caused them grave harm. I deeply regret this. God weeps. The crimes and sins of sexual abuse of minors may no longer be kept secret; I commit myself to ensuring that the Church makes every effort to protect minors and I promise that those responsible will be held to account. Survivors of abuse have become true heralds of hope and ministers of mercy; humbly we owe our gratitude to each of them and to their families for their great courage in shedding the light of Christ on the evil sexual abuse of minors.”
It was Pope Francis who established the Pontifical Commission to address abuse within the Church. In my role as the chairman of the Bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I have had the privilege of meeting a number of these Pontifical Commission members. They are men and women, religious and lay, who are determined to assist the Church in addressing the issue of child sexual abuse by priests and ministers.
On the national level here in the United States, the bishops approved in 2002 the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. In it, the bishops pledged their commitment to reach out to victims of abuse, permanently remove from ministry any ordained minister credibly accused, cooperate with law-enforcement agencies, and do what is necessary to create a safe environment in our Church.
The US Bishops also established a national review board that would assist in the commitment of verifying that the child sexual abuse matters in the Church are handled effectively. This includes contracting with an audit firm that would verify that dioceses across the country are taking the necessary steps of implementing safe environment procedures, effectively handling accusations of abuse and verifying that dioceses are conducting the necessary background checks in order to assure a safe environment.
On the local level in the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska, through our a victims’ assistance coordinator and safe environment coordinator, all volunteers, workers, ministers, priests, deacons and religious have been vetted through a background check and they have gone through training. Our Diocesan Review Board has met on a regular basis, with and without me, in order to provide a very candid critique of our safe environment policies and procedures. It is my policy and responsibility to take before them all issues and allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate sexual behavior. I am pleased that we were given a good report from our last audit (Summer 2015).
The movie “Spotlight” tells of the Boston Globe 2001 reporting of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. If they would ever think of doing a sequel to this movie, it is my hope that they would show a Church reaching out to heal the pain and suffering in the lives of victims, for such abuse leaves wounds for a lifetime. It is my hope that they would show a Church asking survivors of abuse to find the courage to step forward and tell their story. And it is also my hope that they would show a Church filled with millions of people working to create a safe environment – on this last point, the statistics prove it and the precious lives of our innocent children depend on it.