Bishops’ Adviser on Sexual Abuse: ‘How Do We Get Children Safer?’

Al Notzon III discusses the 2012 USCCB audit and recent high-profile court cases.

Al Notzon III, chairman of the USCCB's National Review Board
Al Notzon III, chairman of the USCCB's National Review Board (photo: CNA file photo)

Al Notzon III is the chairman of the National Review Board that advises the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, guidelines and procedures established by the USCCB in June 2002 for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.

The function of the board is to collaborate with the bishops’ conference “in preventing the sexual abuse of minors in the United States by persons in the service of the Church.”

Notzon is also the former executive director of the Alamo Area Council of more than 100 local governments and agencies. He spoke with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond on May 14, following the release of the 2012 report on the implementation of the U.S. bishops’ charter.

Based on research conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the report found six credible allegations against diocesan clergy and one against a member of a religious order or institute committed in 2012.


There were six credible allegations of recent abuse noted in the 2012 report on the implementation of the U.S. bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. But high-profile cases in Newark, N.J., Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Kansas City, Mo., fuel public skepticism about whether the Church is doing enough.

The fact that the numbers — both historic and contemporary — have declined was positive. The great majority of the bishops are doing an outstanding job. Clearly, these are exceptions, and we need to ask: What can we learn from this?

In Kansas City, for example, the issue was the timing of when civil authorities were notified. The diocese has to get that allegation report immediately to the civil authorities, and that allows the authorities outside the institution to investigate the report — someone who is trained and has no personal interest in who the perpetrator is. Any attempt to prevent disclosure works to our disadvantage.

The National Review Board is not an investigative body, but, rather, a policy-review board for advising the bishops.

Regarding Newark, I have read the newspaper accounts. At this time, it’s an item under discussion by the National Review Board, and we’ll look at the issue during our meeting on June 8.

We learn lessons from these cases and provide policies or recommendations to address the issue.


Over the past year, you have strengthened the audit process that documents each diocese’s compliance with the Dallas Charter.

The board has implemented an enhanced-compliance audit that begins with the charter and goes article by article to see if a diocese has fully accomplished those goals. It’s about complying with the spirit as well as the letter of the charter. It is not just a review of numbers.

An example of the change is that, now, the auditors not only ask a diocese, "Do you have a diocesan review board?" They now question the frequency of meetings. That begins to get to the question of effectiveness. Another question is on the number of people involved in youth activities receiving safe-environment training: Now, are there records of attendance being kept?

The board had to solve the problem of state privacy laws before implementing the enhanced-compliance audit. As an example, this meant redacting victims’ names before providing a document.

The board worked with auditors and attorneys to arrive at solutions that would allow access to redacted documents without violating privacy laws.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was helpful in advocating for finding a solution.


In 2011, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was certified to be in compliance with the Dallas Charter, but, during the same year, a grand jury report charged that the archdiocese had allowed priests who were credibly accused to remain in ministry.

The press has covered the report and the subsequent trial, so I will not comment on an individual case, but the auditors will be looking to make sure that all allegations are brought before the diocesan review board for their recommendations to the bishop.

How do we get children safer? We know that we have a societal problem of child abuse. It will be present in every institution of society, and we need to continue to evaluate our efforts on this issue.

Do we have a perfect system yet? No, but the bishops and the National Review Board are continually working to improve the process.


Before the 2011 grand jury report in Philadelphia, some accused priests had already been removed, evaluated and then returned to ministry — only to be removed a second time after the report was released.

One problem in Philadelphia was that other people were making a judgment about whether an allegation was a boundary violation or an abuse issue — without bringing the report to the lay review board. If you don’t give the review board every allegation, they are not being properly used.

During the 2012 meeting in Rome of the English-speaking Anglophone conference, it was made clear that every credible allegation should be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And Pope Francis has stated his concern about the child-abuse crisis in the Church.


A case in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., involved possession of child pornography by a priest. Pornography addiction is pervasive, and it is linked to the sexual abuse of minors. Does safe-environment training include education about the dangers of pornography?

Child pornography has been listed as a violation under the charter. The board is currently addressing this issue.


Boundary violations, as opposed to direct sexual abuse, remain a controversial issue, with some critics asserting that priests should not be removed for this offense. Yet some boundary violations have been linked to credible allegations of abuse.

That is why every diocese is required to have and promulgate their code of conduct or “standards of behavior.” The issue of boundary violations is best dealt with through education and making sure that if warnings are not followed there will be consequences.

To make a larger point: Dioceses have their policies and codes of conduct; we also, hopefully, are able to rely on common sense. One example would be a concern about priests assigned to isolated rural areas with no support and how that can be addressed. Another is the local bishop meeting with major superiors of orders operating within the diocese. Now, with 10 years of experience, there is an increase of awareness for everyone involved, including the bishops.


While the majority of clergy sex-abuse victims are post-pubescent boys, the researchers who completed the second John Jay Report concluded that same-sex attraction was not a significant factor in the crisis. Subsequently, some Church leaders challenged that assessment.

The majority of victims are still post-pubescent males.

The charter recommended strengthening human formation in the seminary and improving screening as well.

When you hire an independent researcher [group], they reach their own conclusions. I don’t agree with their conclusion in this instance — when 83% of cases are male on male.


What have you discussed at past meetings in Rome dealing with efforts to address clergy sexual abuse in English-speaking countries?

We talked about the John Jay study and some of the recommendations coming out of it.

But we also wanted to know what they are doing — it’s not just us talking. We are learning from each other.

In Australia, they did not start out using a legalistic framework, but asked, “How do we approach and assist victims?” In the U.S., at the beginning of the crisis, it was a legally driven process. The Australians reported their system seems to be having a beneficial effect on the issue for both the victims and the Church in Australia, and this was achieved without the costs of litigation.

This is not an argument for smaller settlements, but we have to look at our goal and deal with the fact that the money paid out hasn’t necessarily promoted healing.

The mission of the Church is to provide a safe environment for the children, as well as victim assistance that helps people through the healing process.