WASHINGTON — Capuchin Father John Pavlik recalls the deep sadness he felt when confronted with an allegation of sexual abuse that involved a member of his religious order.

The accused had died, and the accuser was an elderly woman who resided in a nursing home and had contacted the order for the first time. Father Pavlik checked the priest’s file and found no allegations, but he scheduled a meeting with the woman to hear her story and to ask what the Capuchins could do to offer support.

“I listened wholeheartedly, and, based on my training, I believed what she said,” Father Pavlik told the Register, noting that the woman had been a minor when the priest fondled her during a counseling session.

“She had gone to find assistance from a priest, and, instead, he ends up harming her.”

The woman didn’t want a financial settlement. But she accepted the Capuchins’ offer of counseling and help with medical bills, and the order continued to reach out to her until her death.

Years later, Father Pavlik is still “heartbroken” that the Capuchins’ offer of assistance couldn’t erase the trauma she had experienced long ago and never forgotten.

But the story also serves as a reminder that Father Pavlik, like many superiors of religious orders of men, learned the importance of acting quickly on allegations of abuse and putting victims first.

Now, in his present role as the executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM), he directs an annual review of new information and research that helps members fine-tune the implementation of standards designed to safeguard minors and prevent further abuse.


The Dallas Charter

The standards adopted by religious orders are the same as those spelled out in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. But there is one critical exception: The religious orders allow some members with substantiated sexual-abuse allegations to remain in community, with restrictions — known as “safety plans” — based on the seriousness of the offense and on related evaluations.

“In 2002, religious orders agreed in principle to the Dallas Charter. You could not put someone in the position of trust who had violated that trust in such an egregious manner, so they would be removed from public ministry,” said Father Pavlik.

“What we didn’t agree on was that we would automatically evict people from religious life,” he noted, in a reference to the orders’ decision to allow some members to remain in community under close supervision and in compliance with a safety plan agreed to and closely monitored by the accrediting agency.

In fact, some orders had already acted to remove predatory priests and tighten up behavior guidelines well before the U.S. bishops adopted the zero-tolerance policies of the charter. But others were slow to embrace the guidelines or to implement them consistently.

Before the supervision of offenders was formalized in the wake of the crisis, some superiors failed to protect minors from priests with a record of complaints in their personnel files.

A Nov. 23 Boston Globe story traced the failure of Jesuit superiors in Chicago to remove Jesuit Father Donald McGuire from public ministry, despite receiving repeated complaints about the priest’ s involvement with boys dating back to the 1960s.

Later, Father McGuire’s superiors directed him not to travel with minors, but they did nothing when he violated those orders. He is presently serving a 25-year sentence for abusing two minors.

Citing photocopied documents, the Globe story further asserted that Jesuit Father Richard Geisinger, the canon lawyer recently appointed as the chief prosecutor for clergy-abuse cases sent to the Vatican, knew about the complaints against Father McGuire in 1995 but did not alert authorities at that time or do enough to have him removed from ministry.

Father Geisinger has made no public statements since the controversy erupted. The Register contacted the Jesuits’ Chicago-Detroit province for further clarification but did not receive a response.

The Holy See, for its part, has defended Father Geisinger and said he pushed to have Father McGuire laicized. Meanwhile, advocates for clergy-abuse victims, who have applauded Pope Francis’ efforts to strengthen the Holy See’s response to clergy sexual abuse across the globe, criticized the appointment.


Uneven Record

The high-profile case of Father McGuire points to a looming challenge that will receive more attention as the Pope implements universal zero-tolerance policies for clerical predators and religious institutes that span nations and continents are held accountable for addressing allegations that involve their members.

In February, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston is expected to convene the full meeting of a new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which will direct a worldwide effort to remove priests who have abused children.

But, for now, the story of U.S. religious orders’ struggle to learn from the past and embrace policies that secure the welfare of children offers a salutary example for their brethren in other parts of the world.

Asked to address U.S. religious orders’ evolving response to allegations of clergy abuse, a Curial official, with knowledge of the subject and speaking on background, said the record had been uneven in past decades.

“Many religious orders have done very well dealing with allegations, going well back into the late 1980s and early 1990s,” the official told the Register. “Others have been slower to adopt principles; still others to implement the principles that have been adopted.”

An additional problem that delayed some religious institutes’ full adoption of effective child-protection polices, the Curial official suggested, was that the Dallas Charter and subsequent guidelines from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were primarily designed for dioceses.

“Before 2005, there was some ambiguity about whether the charter and 'Essential Norms' applied to religious institutes,” Capuchin Brother James Peterson, a canon lawyer and civil lawyer, who serves as the assistant to the moderator of the curia and vicar general for canonical affairs in the Boston Archdiocese, told the Register.

“The revised Essential Norms in 2005 removed any ambiguity, and religious institutes were bound to the Charter and the Essential Norms.”

Specifically, the updated policy clarified how the  charter and norms were to be applied within the internal life, autonomy and jurisdiction of the religious institute. But the charter and norms have been in effect for both diocesan and religious institutes since 2002.  

The revised norms made it clear that religious with credible allegations of abuse were also to be removed from public ministry, and the local bishop was to be informed.

“Religious orders generally have autonomy from bishops. They have their own governance, in other words,” said Brother James.

“However, they fall under the bishop when it comes to matters of the apostolate and to public worship. So a bishop can refuse a religious priest an assignment or can refuse to give him faculties, but he is not the superior of the religious and cannot tell them what to do.”

The requirement that religious orders keep the local bishop informed of all allegations involving members under his jurisdiction has provided a measure of legal protection and clarity for U.S. dioceses, which have faced civil suits for alleged crimes committed by religious offenders.

“Victims did sue dioceses [when the allegation involved a religious order] because they didn’t know the difference or distinctions,” said Brother James.


Accreditation Standards, Audits and Safety Plans

In the wake of the 2002 crisis, religious orders turned to Praesidium, an accreditation agency with expertise in child-protection policies for organizations that work with minors.

With ongoing input from the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, religious institutes and experts in the field, Praesidium has developed 25 standards for accreditation and has conducted regular audits that scrutinize compliance with the basic norms, other practices that safeguard minors and individualized safety plans for offenders who remain in their communities under supervision.

Eighty-nine percent of religious men are in U.S. religious institutes that are now accredited. The 11% that aren’t formally accredited include small monastic orders composed of aging religious who say they do not work with children and have no resources to implement the policies, according to Father Pavlik. 

Michael Riley, a senior account manager for Praesidium, told the Register that “two-thirds of the standards [for religious orders] deal with prevention and response and one-third with supervision.”

“Our orders can take advantage of the structure of religious life to help supervise those men [who have been credibly accused or have problematic behavior],” said Riley. “It has involved trial and error and is constantly evolving, with training from experts.”

Supervised offenders are generally placed in provincial headquarters, retirement homes and other settings that do not provide access to minors, noted Riley. The movements of some are tightly restricted and supervised by a designated individual, while others may have more leeway, depending on their offense.

Father Pavlik said he did not know how many offenders were supervised by their communities. But based on the number of individuals who gather for the CMSM-sponsored meetings to address related topics, like recidivism and risk management, he speculated that the number may be in the hundreds.

He also did not have cumulative data on the number of religious men with substantiated allegations before or since the 2002 crisis. The Center for Applied Research in the Apsotolate, a Georgetown University-affiliated research center, provides some figures but does not offer a total. 


A Change in Culture

The larger issue, for Father Pavlik, is the striking change in the culture of religious orders that followed in the wake of the clergy-abuse crisis, marking a new awareness of the trauma inflicted on victims and a firm commitment to protect future generations of children from the scourge of clergy sexual abuse.

“We lived with the shock, the guilt and shame,” he said, noting the slow, painful acknowledgement of the legacy of abuse.

Today, he said, religious superiors have adopted a proactive response to updating standards and deepening their engagement with members of the community to make sure troubled religious don’t fall between the cracks.

“It is an ongoing reality,” said Father Pavlik.

He also suggested that the struggles of U.S. religious orders to come to grips with the problem would now be repeated in other countries where the issue has not yet received the same scrutiny in the public square or the local Church.

“There are still countries where they are not able to acknowledge that something like this can happen,” he said.

“So, in those places, the policies [for the protection of minors] are theoretical rather than real,” he added, suggesting that it would take time for religious orders and other local Church leaders in some countries to embrace the norms and other policies and implement them consistently.

The Curial official, with knowledge of this issue and speaking on background, raised similar concerns.

“I would be very surprised if there are religious institutes in the U.S. that have not faced these issues, given the civil legal climate, if nothing else,” said the Curial official, in a reference to the financial settlements paid out by dioceses and religious orders.

“But, of course, many of the same institutes have houses in different parts of the world, and the larger question could be asked: How do these policies apply to their members more broadly?”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.