Maintaining a Safe Environment

Bishop Zurek Discusses the Vatican’s New Norms on Sexual Abuse

(photo: 2008 CNS photo/courtesy of Archdiocese of San Antonio)

Bishop Patrick Zurek has worked with “safe environment” training and application of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People for 12 years while serving as auxiliary bishop of San Antonio and then as bishop of Amarillo, Texas. He serves on the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Bishop Zurek has been the bishop of Amarillo since 2008. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Austin in 1975. He turns 62 on Aug. 17. He spoke about the Vatican’s revised canonical norms that deal with the crimes of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy. The new norms were released July 15.

How do the newly approved norms dealing with clerical sex abuse change the practice of the Church?

Sometimes the law follows practice. In 2001 Pope John Paul II issued Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela. By this motu proprio, the Pope decided to include the sexual abuse of a minor under 18 years by a cleric among the new list of canonical delicts (grave offenses) reserved to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Nine years later, on July 15 of this year, Pope Benedict issued modifications to normae de gravioribus delictis. Many of the changes, or modifications, are codifications of the way the Church was already dealing with grave offenses of the Sixth Commandment by clerics. These norms address sexual abuse and grave external offences against the Eucharist and other sacraments.

Simply put, the norms published this year are modifications to original documents published in the last decades, and they acknowledge what the Church has been doing in practice. Now they have been put into the Church’s legislation for the universal Church.

One specific change is the streamlining of the juridical process to deal with the priest accused of sexual abuse. The law had been very specific on one point: Evidentiary documents with defects (documents not properly prepared) were returned to the local diocese for additional review and correction.

The practice of the Church that is now becoming law directs the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to correct any defect in the documents and not return them to the diocese for correction. This streamlining of the process will save valuable time in dealing with a cleric that has committed a grave offense against a minor or vulnerable adult and makes sure that he will no longer be in a position to harm another person. He will be removed from ministry.

There is a second change that will assist the process. These new modifications also permit laypeople to serve on the tribunals that process these offenses against a cleric. This change allows for a larger pool from which competent experts can be chosen to participate in the process. This simply means that more people will be involved to expedite the process.

There also has been a change in laws dealing with crimes committed by higher Church leaders. The new norms, by papal mandate, grant faculties to the CDF to judge cardinals, patriarchs, nuncios and other persons whose cases are normally reserved to the Pope. In the past, cases involving Church leaders were normally reserved for the Holy Father. Now, the Holy Father has given this responsibility to CDF — though even in the past the Pope asked the CDF to review some cases.

What about the statute of limitations for dealing with these cases, which are often reported decades after the crime was committed?

The new canonical norms extend the statute of limitations for the reporting of crimes from 10 to 20 years after an individual accuser has turned 18. In practice, the Church strongly encourages people to report abuse no matter how long ago it occurred, and it does not consider the length of time that has elapsed as part of the criteria for judging an accused priest. The Church desires justice, healing and reconciliation.

The Vatican wants us to respond to every case of sexual abuse. It appears that the norms intend to remove from ministry any cleric who has abused a minor, no matter how long ago that occurred. The desire on the part of the Church is to create safe environments in all our parishes and institutions.

This change will strengthen the USCCB Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. It tells us that the charter has been very useful and could be extended to the universal Church.

The sexual-abuse scandal has badly undermined the credibility of the Catholic bishops. What’s the silver lining, if any?

Let me tell you a story. A year ago, my diocese was renewing its insurance policy. After some discussion, Lloyds of London invited me to address its underwriters who deal with this issue in preparing insurance contracts for the United States.

I was asked to define the problem, how we got there, and how the Church has tried to address it. I told the underwriters that every time the Church confronted this issue, the number of abuse cases dropped. 1980-81 the bishops addressed the issue concretely. This is when the problem was coming to light. At that time, there was a change in seminary formation policies. There was a new emphasis in priestly formation on the virtuous life needed to live a celibate commitment.

In 1986 the bishops devoted their spring meeting to the discussion of the clerical abuse of minors. This gathering began to look for concrete ways to prevent abuse, remove guilty clerics from ministry and bring healing to the victims. In 1991-92, the conference developed the “Five Principles,” which was clearly an organized, systematic approach for investigating the allegation, removing a guilty priest from ministry and offering counseling and healing to the victim. This was accompanied by other documents: Rebuilding Trust, Vol. I, Vol. II and Vol. III.
This appears clear; directly addressing the problem seems to have had a dramatic effect on limiting the number of new cases. (One could reference the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study to obtain more in-depth information.)

I ended the presentation with the results of the 2009 USCCB audit. The underwriters were impressed with the number of people who had participated in “safe environment” training, including adults who work with youth and provide catechesis, and the children who benefit from the many programs directed by Church leaders, clergy and laity alike.

In an article published in Psychology Today, Dr. Tom Plante of the National Review Board (NRB), writes:

“Although the stories are horrific to hear, they are almost never about incidents that occurred since the late 1980s. Incidents of abuse in the past 20-25 years are quite rare compared to incidents during the ’60s and ’70s. This is also true for other groups such as school teachers. Incidents since the 2002 crisis in the U.S.A. unfolded are especially rare.”

Did you address the ongoing argument that there is a direct correlation between the homosexual orientation of many perpetrators and the fact that the vast majority of victims have been boys 12 to 17 years old? The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights recently noted this “correlation,” not causation, but that argument has been disputed by some experts.

Dr. Tom Plante of the NRB writes in Psychology Today: “No evidence exists that suggest that sexual orientation, in and of itself, makes someone at risk to commit sex crimes against children or others. Sexual orientation is not a risk factor for crime.”

Addressing the problem becomes a significant factor in bringing it under control.

It’s like marriage preparation: Our research and experience confirms that even one hour of marriage preparation makes a difference in a couple’s marriage. Addressing the problem becomes a significant factor in bringing it under control.

What was the thrust of your presentation to the Lloyds of London underwriters?

I offered an hour presentation, and 30 underwriters were present in the audience. They were attentive, engaged and took many notes. For another hour and a half, I answered questions that reflected the audience’s human and professional interest in ways to address this issue, and I found their concerns very poignant and reassuring.

Afterwards, they told me: “We finally have the whole story. You have filled in gaps and addressed much misinformation.”

I was asked: “Why aren’t the USCCB charter and norms being extended to the universal Church?” I explained that each bishop is independent, but a national conference of Catholic bishops can introduce certain laws and practices. I also told them that the Vatican was probably in the process of making these norms applicable to the entire Church. The underwriters wanted to know how we initially failed to address the problems of these clerical abusers. I told them that the primary difficulty was the therapeutic response of the ’60s and ’70s, as I understand it.

Many Catholics do not find this explanation satisfactory. Once the perpetrators continued to prey upon minors, why did individual bishops still transfer them to new parishes, ignoring the welfare of young people?

I do not have the knowledge to respond adequately to this question.
After the priests were placed in therapy, the therapists would often say that the priest could return to ministry. He was forgiven and healed. The bishops trusted the therapists’ judgment. One therapist told me, “We just didn’t have a handle on dealing with these issues.”
A “therapeutic model” often prevailed in dealing with clerical misconduct. The bishop was expected to “heal” rather than “punish.” An overly optimistic idea of the benefits of psychological therapy guided many decisions concerning diocesan or religious personnel, sometimes without adequate regard for the possibility of recidivism.

But some remained in ministry and continued to commit crimes.

The John Jay study shows that the overwhelming number of abuse cases occurred before 1981. Many fewer occurred after that time. Most of the cases we’re dealing with now are 30 to 40 years old.

In this country, a number of non-Catholic institutions also offer “safe environment” training; some have even asked Catholic dioceses to present this training in their institutions. Despite the very dark cloud around us, other churches and institutions now realize that they also would benefit from “safe environment” training. I would like to see this new awareness extended to the whole world: This is a human problem, not a Church problem. We hope we can be a light and beacon for others who still need to address this issue.

How would you characterize the Church’s unique contribution to addressing the scourge of sexual abuse of minors?

It took time, but we acknowledged the problem boldly. Then we fully committed ourselves to dealing with it by creating a safe environment for minors and streamlining norms for dealing with clerical perpetrators.

When the clerical abuse scandal began to emerge in Europe at the end of last year, the Holy Father’s spokesperson observed that our experience with the charter had been very “useful” in dealing with the problem. The observation acknowledged the power of American audacity: Let’s face this and deal with it to the best of our ability. That’s the contribution that was given in this tragedy. We also have been taught that it will probably never go away. We need to keep this in front of people at all times. We must be ever vigilant.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.