Dallas Charter at 20: What Have We Learned?

COMMENTARY: Instead of restoring their fatherhood, the charter made bishops adversaries to their priests.

From left, William Gavin, head of the audit firm Gavin Group of Boston; Kathleen McChesney, head of the bishops' watchdog Office of Child and Youth Protection; then-Bishop Wilton Gregory and William Burleigh, a member of the National Review Board, present an audit of 195 U.S. dioceses performed to assess compliance with the 2002 'Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,' during a news conference Jan. 6, 2004, in Washington.
From left, William Gavin, head of the audit firm Gavin Group of Boston; Kathleen McChesney, head of the bishops' watchdog Office of Child and Youth Protection; then-Bishop Wilton Gregory and William Burleigh, a member of the National Review Board, present an audit of 195 U.S. dioceses performed to assess compliance with the 2002 'Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,' during a news conference Jan. 6, 2004, in Washington. (photo: Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

The “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” passed by the U.S. bishops on June 14, 2002, marks its 20th anniversary as one of the most influential initiatives ever undertaken by a body of bishops. Crafted in the white-hot heat radiating from the Boston sexual abuse scandals, the Dallas Charter (and its accompanying “essential norms”) was largely successful, in short order, in getting abusers out of priestly ministry and creating safe church environments for minors. 

So successful was the crisis-response charter that where it varied from universal Church practice and procedures in 2002, the latter came to quickly regard the former as a sort of template. The charter of 2002 was truly a dramatic novelty; 20 years later it is the baseline for how bishops around the world — and even the Holy See — deal with the sin and crime of sexual abuse. 

The U.S. bishops were on retreat last week in San Diego and there will be a measure of satisfaction that the charter accomplished its main purposes. But there will be, certainly, apart from the official agenda, an acknowledgement that rebuilding trust with victims, families, ordinary Catholics and the general public has been partially achieved, but not without cost. Indeed, the steep price to be paid was the breakdown in trust between bishops and their priests. 

The painful surgery of the charter was needed to excise the metastasized malignancy of sexual abuse and cover-up. Now the cancer is in remission. New cases have been extremely rare. 

Yet the therapy left its own wounds, not yet healed, between bishops and priests. Those wounds may never heal, as the charter entrenched, as a matter of positive law, unjust treatment and an erosion of our theology of the priesthood. 


Same Punishment for All Cases 

The centerpiece of the Dallas Charter (so-called because the bishops met in Dallas to pass it) was the “zero-tolerance” policy, now the standard employed rather widely in the Church. Dallas ruled that any priest “credibly accused” of any sexual misconduct with a minor — no matter how long ago and no matter the intervening behavior — was to be deprived of ministry always and everywhere. The New York Times characterized it as the “no-mercy” policy. 

“Ultimately, [the bishops] opted for the no-mercy route despite arguments from some bishops that they should adopt an approach that acknowledges that each case is different, and that some abusers can with therapy be rehabilitated and continue to be of service,” wrote Laurie Goodstein about Dallas.  

The bishops adopted a policy that they would denounce if implemented by any criminal justice system. One offense means permanent expulsion from ministry, no matter the severity, no matter how long ago. The priest accused of imprudently comforting a 17-year-old high school junior 40 years ago gets the same treatment as a predatory serial child molester of the most revolting kind. 

Msgr. Thomas Guarino of Seton Hall has been sounding the alarm on this “dark side” of the Dallas Charter for years now, lamenting that “the contemporary priesthood harbors innumerable chances for rank injustice — and from the Church herself.” 

 “On the basis of a single accusation from thirty or forty years ago, priests are suspended from ministry with their reputations destroyed and their lives in tatters,” Guarino wrote in 2019. “They must forever wear the scarlet letter of abuse pinned to their garb. Do bishops realize that such actions veer closely toward rash judgment, calumny, and slander, all condemned by the eighth commandment?” 

“This entire process has had a devastating impact on priests — who know that they do not have the support of their ecclesiastical superiors and realize they can be deprived of their ministries, their reputations, and their livelihoods in the blink of an eye.” 


The Adversarial Bishop 

A few months ago, at a meeting with deacons in their last months of preparation for priestly ordination, I offered to take questions on any subject. The first question came from a man who said he believed that were he to be in a difficult spot, his bishop would be more likely to throw him under the bus rather than come to his aid as a father and brother. Was he wrong to feel this way? 

I was in his shoes in the spring of 2002. The rector of our seminary, the Pontifical North American College, convoked all the deacons to discuss the enveloping scandal. Msgr. Kevin McCoy, seeking not to discourage us, said that our bishops would not abandon us. When some in our class expressed the contrary view, he asked if others shared their bleak assessment. Out of a class of more than 40, only a handful thought that they could rely upon their bishops.  

Twenty years have passed between then and now. What we only suspected then is now so widespread a view among priests that it is top of mind even for soon-to-be-ordained deacons. The cover-up of sexual abuse and the reckless reassignment of predatory priests happened because bishops had ceased to be fathers to their flocks and become protectors, in an old-boys-network sort of way, of their priests. The horrors of the crisis put an end to that and not a moment too soon. But instead of restoring their fatherhood, Dallas made bishops adversaries to their priests. 

Nowhere was this confirmed more solemnly than in the 2020 “vademecum” or guidelines from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on how to handle sexual abuse cases. The CDF instructed bishops that they are obliged to inform an accused priest, at the very time that the accusation is first received, that he has the right to petition for laicization. The implication could not be clearer — get out now and save everyone a great deal of bother. What was first whispered in Dallas now thunders from Rome. 

It is still common to hear at ordinations the choir sing Tu es sacerdos in aeternum! (You are a priest forever.) 

After Dallas, and after the CDF vademecum, the Church still sings that with her lips, but her heart is no longer in it. More than one bishop has confided — off the record, of course — that he carries laicization papers in his briefcase, and is not looking to save a man’s priesthood, but to get him out of the priesthood. Bishops know that there is something terribly wrong with that, but judge that it is necessary. Perhaps this week in San Diego the bishops might decide that they should no longer sing Tu es sacerdos in aeternum


Cardinal Avery Dulles 

In April 2002, when St. John Paul II convened the sexual abuse summit of U.S. cardinals in Rome, I was (happily) drafted into serving as a temporary secretary for Cardinal Avery Dulles, a man I greatly admired and who had become something of a mentor. I recall accompanying him in his car after the papal address to the cardinals, where John Paul said that there was no place in the priesthood for “those who would harm the young.”  

Cardinal Dulles was nothing if not precise, and he made a key distinction that would not survive Dallas, between those who had done wrong but had repented and converted, and those who were a present danger. Between meetings that week, Cardinal Dulles spoke earnestly about the need for balance between protecting the community and upholding our understanding of the priesthood, all the while manifesting the Church’s role as a “mirror of justice.”  

Two months later in Dallas, balance and justice were no longer priorities. Cardinal Dulles warned of the consequences. 

“[The Dallas Charter] puts a very adversarial relationship between the bishop and the priest,” he said. “The priest can no longer go to his bishop in confidence with a problem that he has. He has to be very careful what he says to the bishop because the bishop can throw him out of the ministry for his entire life.”  

The adversarial relationship is now entrenched. I encounter it when speaking with priests of all ages. And I suspect — though I cannot know — that the increasing numbers of priests who decline episcopal nominations do so in part because they do not care to become adversaries to their brother priests. They do not wish to be instruments of injustice. 

At their retreat in San Diego, the bishops were likely exhorted to care for their priests as dear brothers and beloved sons. It’s the kind of thing bishops always get told. In light of Dallas, though, those pious exhortations might instead be a rather searing examination of conscience.