Archbishop Chaput on the Scandal

The archbishop of Denver addresses issues having to do with clerical sex abuse and the way dioceses should respond to allegations.

Priests aren’t being “thrown under the bus,” if the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” is followed correctly, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver affirmed.

During their spring general meeting in mid-June, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved minor changes to the charter, known popularly as the Dallas Charter, and related norms. The bishops, meeting in Seattle, resisted calls by some victims’ groups for a broader review of their framework for guarding against child sexual abuse by priests and other Church personnel.

Bishop Blase Cupich, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, argued that the recent John Jay College of Criminal Justice report on the causes and contexts of the clergy-abuse crisis, and ongoing annual audits conducted by dioceses throughout the nation, confirmed that the reforms are working and should remain in place. He predicted that the conference would review the framework within two years. In 2010, the USCCB confirmed just seven new cases of child sexual abuse.

Archbishop Chaput has confronted the problem of clergy sexual abuse in his archdiocese. He also addressed the broader impact of clergy misconduct on a global religious order as the Vatican’s U.S. apostolic investigator of the Legion of Christ. He has emerged as one of the Vatican’s “go-to” episcopal investigators.

Last year, when allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors were leveled against two Denver priests, Archbishop Chaput immediately placed each priest on administrative leave. He publicly noted their record of service and stressed the assumption of innocence for the accused. But he also defended his prompt action, describing it as “a necessary course to protect people’s trust in their parish and in the archdiocese. In this case, and in any other such case that may occur in the future, we follow diocesan and national policies that exist to serve the safety of our people and to respect the suffering and dignity of victims. These priorities are vitally important, and they will not change.”

Pope Benedict XVI also appointed Archbishop Chaput to conduct an apostolic visitation of the Diocese of Toowoomba, Australia, after Bishop William Morris drew the Vatican’s scrutiny with the release of a pastoral letter that expressed his openness to ordaining women and married men, if Rome altered its teaching and discipline on these issues. Recently, Bishop Morris was removed from office.

Archbishop Chaput spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond at the U.S. bishops’ meeting.

In a televised interview on 60 Minutes, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, suggested that as the Church continues to grapple with the scourge of clergy sexual abuse a process of purification has taken hold. Your thoughts on his comments?

There is a pervasive fear in the hearts of many priests that they will be unjustly accused. It makes them less free and hesitant with young people. Whenever there is a new outbreak of scandal, it brings all these fears rushing back.

But if these fears are dealt with appropriately, they can draw the priests into a greater trust of God, leading them to be more authentically faithful to their vocation and give themselves over to the Church.

The crisis is an opportunity for humility for the whole Church. Priests must either embrace this difficult experience, or its impact could be spiritually bad for them.

How has your experience as a bishop addressing allegations of abuse against priests in your diocese, and as a Vatican-appointed investigator, honed your understanding of effective leadership in the Church on this issue?

Real leadership is about more than making people feel good about themselves. It also means that you give them guidance and direction in a loving way.

This issue raises a question about being a true father. If a bishop experiences the fatherhood within his own vocation and office, he will not only demand what Christ calls from all of us, but live that call himself.

What I have noticed in investigations is that sometimes Church leaders haven’t been willing to call people to the Gospel, and instead affirm people where they are. It’s hard for any father — whether of a family, a parish or a diocese — to confront this challenge. It requires authenticity; it requires a deep spiritual life.

Some critics say that the Dallas Charter’s “zero tolerance” policy has led Church leaders to throw priests under the bus. Are the rights of priests adequately protected?

I do not think that priests are thrown under the bus. They are removed because they could pose a danger to young people.

If we follow the norms accurately, they do protect the rights of priests. Sometimes a priest will be removed from ministry, but it doesn’t mean he is guilty; it is just that the Church is investigating the situation for the good of the priest and the community. People label this as unfair, but as long as we understand that it’s not a judgment, the rights of the priest are protected.

If a bishop is cavalier, he may also pose a danger to young people. The Holy Father would have to look at that, and I am sure that he would act. If we are serious about protecting children, we may need to be serious about that. The bishop is ultimately responsible.

But it’s also important to recognize that in the Church we also see the bishop as the father of the family of the Church. Fathers can make mistakes and not be removed from their families, and the way to respond is not like hiring and firing in a business.

In the wake of fresh scandals in Philadelphia, critics have asserted the system is still broken and that the Dallas Charter needs to be beefed up. Some experts have suggested that the mandated annual audit needs additional scrutiny, possibly by opening up personnel files to confirm that transferred priests, teachers and others have actually received the safe-environment training, etc.

Part of the difficulty is that the Church is learning to do this. It takes time to know what to do. It has been a time of learning, and that is because no one has done it before at this level. It’s a family. And if you want to see the worst place where this kind of abuse happens, it’s in families.

It’s not realistic to expect perfection. We can have a very good program with good people and mistakes will still be made. When that happens, it’s important not to jump to the conclusion that the Dallas Charter doesn’t work.

The child-protection officer needs to keep the bishop and other people in the loop. The bishop is the final authority, and it’s up to him to make sure that everyone is working together and it doesn’t just become routine.

The required audit is very important. If a bishop follows the requirements of the charter, he will conduct a regular review of new reports and diocesan procedures. That is what the audit does for us. It gives confidence that you did all you could do.

I am satisfied with the audit process. Regarding the suggestion of additional scrutiny and checking up on people, I would hate for this to lead to an atmosphere of suspicion of everyone involved.

At this meeting, the bishops formally incorporated Vatican norms that make the possession of child pornography an actionable offense. There is still debate about how to approach boundary violations, which became a concern after experts learned that sexual predators “groom” prospective victims with affectionate behavior.

It is important that child pornography be included in the norms. Child pornography is a sign of abuse, and it’s important that it be taken seriously.

Boundary violations are a worrisome sign. There are degrees of boundary violations. If there is a pattern, we take it to our team. I have no objection to having boundary violations going to the lay review board.

There are potential dangers with expanding the scope [of actionable offenses]. If any changes are made, the guidelines should be written very clearly so that the bishops and others know what their responsibilities are.

Would you summarize your personal guidelines for handling accusations against priests?

I trust the response team and the child-protection officer — these non-clerical “outside” advisers can give me objective advice; I have determined that they are trustworthy.

The child-protection advisor knows his task: to protect me and my senior staff from clericalism in our judgments. I have never acted contrary to the advice of my response team, and I never will.

I come from a consultative background drawn from the Capuchin tradition. I brought that to my perspective of how things should be run by me as a bishop.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.