WASHINGTON — More than a decade after the clergy-abuse crisis made headlines, Catholics remain aghast when they read fresh reports of predatory priests, innocence lost and ambiguous or inadequate responses from local bishops.

Have we learned anything in the past 11 years?

“Yes,” say two experts who have approached the clergy-abuse scandal from different vantage points.

One man, Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, led the Holy See’s investigation of clergy-abuse cases from his post at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, while the other, Deacon Bernard Nojadera, implemented reforms in the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., before taking up his post as executive director of the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

From 2002-2012, then-Msgr. Scicluna, a civil and canon lawyer, served as the first promoter of justice at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He spearheaded the prosecution of a vast number of clergy-abuse cases, including appeals by priests who contended that they had been wrongly accused.

On Oct. 16, Bishop Scicluna addressed the Canon Law Society of America at its annual meeting in Sacramento, Calif., and used that forum to provide often-pointed reflections about the Church’s ongoing effort to address clergy sexual abuse of minors. Deacon Nojadera outlined his views during an Oct. 21 interview with the Register.

The portrait that emerged from their decade-long effort to address this grave challenge presents a period of radical change within the Church that is still being fine-tuned and evaluated.


Policies, Consistency and Prudence

The zero-tolerance policy regarding clergy sexual abuse of minors has been anchored to a plan of action: prompt removal and reporting of priests with credible allegations, safe-environment training, background checks of diocesan personnel and better seminary screening and formation.

But these experts made clear that prudential judgments by bishops and other mandated reporters continue to play an essential role in assessing and acting on sometimes ambiguous information, which also may involve people they know and like.

From 2002-2012, as the CDF’s first promoter of justice, then-Msgr. Scicluna led the Holy See’s effort to address what he described, during his address before the Canon Law Society, as a “tsunami” of cases forwarded to Rome, beginning in 2002.

In 2010, he helped to construct Church norms that extended the statute of limitations for prosecuting ecclesial crimes and also expanded the definition of such crimes to include the possession, use and distribution of child pornography and the sexual abuse of vulnerable adults.

Bishop Scicluna stated that most “of the serious flaws in the response of the local Churches to the cases of sexual misconduct derive from the disregard for the rule of law and the demands of justice.”

Thus the first and primary lesson learned from the crisis is “that rules will be respected and applied without fear or favor.”

Cases of sexual misconduct should be immediately referred to the Holy See, he said, if they involve “minors and child pornography.”

In a reference to the difficult problem of addressing clergy misconduct that does not involve criminal activity, Bishop Scicluna emphasized that removal from ministry may still be necessary.

“There are situations where the priest concerned has not committed any crimes and has not been accused of misconduct, but, this notwithstanding, his modus operandi, the way he deals with his parishioners, causes a deep malaise and constant concern as to whether a community of the faithful should be entrusted to him,” he said.


Consultation and Prioritizing Children

He also noted the challenge posed by removing priests from ministry and providing a framework for supervisors to consider whether and how they could begin a secluded life of prayer and penance, keeping in mind the “gravity” of the misconduct, his age, health “and the notoriety of his case.”

“A golden rule for the bishop would be to compare notes with other bishops of the region, to learn from the experience of others, to listen to his priests and to his people before deciding, to be humble enough to change a wrong decision for the common good and the good of his priest.”

Bishop Scicluna also reflected on the often-tense relations between bishops and priests that have developed in the wake of the clergy-abuse crisis and the zero-tolerance policy that requires dioceses to promptly report all credible allegations of abuse. Respect for the truth, he said, must guide the bishop-priest relationship, even when that may create a breach.

 “It is never a private matter; it is always ecclesial. The common good of the Church, of the community of the faithful, should be the guiding criterion of our attitudes and our roles,” he said.

During his address, Bishops Scicluna highlighted a primary insight he had gleaned from his years at the CDF: “Any institution, global or local, seeking to develop a strategy for the protection of children and the prevention of child abuse must enshrine pre-eminently the principle that the well-being of the child should be the paramount concern of all.” His talk endorsed programs, like safe-environment training, which empower children to identify, resist and report sexual predators.

Further, he stressed that Catholics at all levels must confront the devastating impact of “child abuse as a tragic wound to the very dignity of the human family.”

As dioceses maintain policies designed to protect children, he said, they should continue to provide strong formation for all individuals working with children and make certain that codes of conduct “specify in a clear way the consequences of misconduct.”


Sharpening Diocesan Protocols

In 2002, when Msgr. Scicluna took up his duties at the CDF, Deacon Bernard Nojadera was appointed to director of the Office for the Protection of Children and Vulnerable Adults in the Diocese of San Jose, Calif., until he was named to the USCCB post in 2011. While serving the diocese, the Navy reserve officer was also a member of the San Jose Police Department’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force and other local private and interfaith oversight groups.

While Bishop Scicluna provided a comprehensive view of the lessons learned after a decade of investigating clergy-abuse cases. Deacon Nojadera focused on the vulnerabilities at the diocesan level.

Dioceses have different procedures for how allegations are received, processed and reported to police and child-protection services. But Deacon Nojadera emphasized that dioceses must clarify and formalize such procedures and mandated reporters should be confident about responding quickly when an allegation is received.

“Having the policy in place is great. Knowing what to do and how to carry out policies is the problem,” said Deacon Nojadera.

“We are getting better about calling the police. But sometimes, there is a lack of confidence about carrying that out.”

He recalled his past experience supervising psychology interns, who were required to report suspected child abuse to the local child-protection office.

“It is nerve-racking, it is frightening to call child-protection services, so some interns doubted their own judgment.”


Dealing With Shock

It can be the same for some mandated reporters in dioceses, and Deacon Nojadera noted that individuals are under even more pressure when they know the person who has been accused of abuse.

“It is a shock, and that is where the training comes in. If you have run drills, and you know who to call and what forms to fill out, you have the confidence that comes from good training.”

If the welfare of children is understood to be the primary concern of everyone in the Church, he added, then the mandated reporter can make that call.

At times, he acknowledged, a bishop can experience the same sense of shock, because the “relationship with his priests is a special bond, a paternal relationship. But it has to be about the victim first.”

In recent years, allegations involving child pornography have posed a fresh challenge to dioceses. Some high-profile cases made headlines because dioceses allegedly did not notify authorities quickly because of doubts about whether the images constituted child pornography.   

Deacon Nojadera said that even if diocesan personnel are not sure what the images involve, they should immediately contact law enforcement and let them pick up the materials and examine them. Further, he said, all communications with local authorities should be documented.

When dioceses implement child protection policies in a consistent and reliable manner, Deacon Nojadera concluded, it provides a sense of responsibility and safety. “Everybody knows, including the alleged victim and the accused, that implementing the protocol will take a specific amount of time,” he said.

“If you are constantly shifting your rules of engagement, it creates uncertainly, and no one has confidence in the system.”


Never Let Down the Guard

So have we learned lessons from a decade of protecting children and investigating clergy sex-abuse cases?

Again, the answer is: “Yes.” But Bishop Scicluna and Deacon Nojadera make it clear that the Church cannot afford to let down its guard for a moment.

Bishop Scicluna offered a final lesson learned from the clergy-abuse crisis by Catholic priests like himself, who have committed no crimes but share in the public ridicule and attacks fostered by the scandal.

He likened his decade-long labors as the moderator of justice at the CDF, reviewing reams of horrific details of crimes, as a walk up Calvary, and it prompted frequent contemplation of the crucified Christ.

“We complain of the fact that we are singled out for ridicule when we fall short so miserably of the high ideals which the Roman Catholic priesthood still represents,” he acknowledged. “And then we realize that the fundamental background to the scandal is the very sanctity of the priesthood, which a few betray so egregiously to the detriment of the good name of the many.”

Said Bishop Scicluna, “We realize that the sexual abuse of minors committed by clergy … is an expression of the anti-Gospel, a betrayal of the message of compassion and love which has endowed the fabric of the Church over the centuries with so much sanctity, with so much splendor.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.