Protecting Our Children

Mark Zimmermann, Editor of the Catholic Standard

February 28, 2002

Catholic Standard Editor Mark Zimmermann wrote his Page 2 column on the topic of child abuse policies in this week’s newspaper:

The recent tide of news reports about tragic incidents of child abuse committed by priests in New England and elsewhere has caused concern and heartache among people in Washington and across the country. Readers have written and phoned me, expressing their worries. In a moving column this week on page 5, Cardinal McCarrick addresses the pastoral side of the pedophilia tragedy.

In this column, I will summarize the archdiocesan policy on protecting children from abuse, to answer the question: Are our children safe? I believe that the Archdiocese of Washington, with its strict policy, is doing everything possible to protect children from child abuse. No known child abusers are ever allowed to work or volunteer at parishes, schools or other Catholic institutions in the Archdiocese of Washington. As the policy describes below, any priests or lay workers or volunteers must undergo a careful screening process and attend annual educational programs designed at preventing child abuse. Prospective seminarians undergo extensive screening and psychological tests to prevent potential abusers from being ordained to the priesthood.

The archdiocese is required to report all allegations involving abuse to civil authorities, and alleged abusers are immediately removed from parishes or schools where they might have contact with children. In 1995, the archdiocese reported all past abuse allegations involving priests to authorities.

Some might wonder: Are our priests good men? Having worked closely with the priests of Washington for the past 17 years, I can say that I am blessed to call so many of them friends, and I am inspired and humbled by the way they devote their lives totally to serving God and our family of faith, each and every day. And I would be honored if my young son would someday grow up to be like them.

On a personal note, as a father and as someone who loves his faith, I am sickened when I hear of any case of child abuse, especially when a priest is involved. Such crimes are indefensible. Over the past years, I have reported and edited stories for our newspaper about the small number of local priests who betrayed their vows. I’ve covered the trial of a pedophile priest and interviewed an abuse victim. Such cases should never be hidden, but should be brought to light, to protect children. As the cardinal notes, we should pray for all those hurt by these horrific acts, the victims first and foremost; the perpetrators who suffer from this sickness; and the community of faith harmed by such acts. All need the healing of Jesus, who suffered on the cross and who rose to bring us new life.

The Archdiocese of Washington developed a comprehensive policy regarding child abuse in 1985, and it is believed to be one of the first dioceses to do so. It updated the policy in 1993. The policy covers “priests, religious, deacons, lay employees, contract workers who have substantial contact with children, and lay volunteers.”

The policy requires that “any instance of known or suspected child abuse must be reported to the civil authority and to archdiocesan authority.” According to the policy, the prime concern of the archdiocese in such cases “must always be the care and welfare of the victim, and we therefore urge cooperation with the investigating authorities. We must also, however, show due respect for the rights of the accused.”

When allegations are made against archdiocesan priests, they are immediately placed on administrative leave and usually referred to a facility for a comprehensive psychological evaluation. If a priest or religious from another diocese is accused of abuse, they are likewise directed to leave archdiocesan facilities. The policy also notes that “when accusations of child sexual abuse are brought against clerics or religious working for the archdiocese, a pastoral team will be immediately activated to respond to the needs of the alleged victim, family, schoolmates, parish members and the accused.”

Lay employees or volunteers accused of abuse are likewise “to be placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigations by civil authorities. The individual suspected of abuse is to be directed to remain away from the school or agency or other location which are the subject matter of the complaint…”

Each year, it is mandatory that the following attend archdiocesan educational programs on child abuse:

· “All clerics, members of religious communities working for the archdiocese;
· “Principals, assistant principals, teachers, guidance counselors, librarians, all volunteers and staff at all levels including aides, janitors and office personnel of all Catholic elementary, middle and high schools operated under the auspices of the archdiocese;
· “Directors, catechists and staff of religious education programs;
· “All archdiocesan personnel providing childcare services under the auspices of the archdiocese;
· “All youth ministers, directors/coaches of children’s activities (e.g., athletics, Scout leaders, choir, etc.) and similar archdiocesan personnel having significant contact with children and who provide such services under the auspices of the archdiocese.”

Each year, children in all grades in Catholic elementary schools in the archdiocese and in religious education programs and in Catholic high schools are to receive abuse prevention education programs that are age-appropriate.

The archdiocesan workers and volunteers described above are required to fill out an informational questionnaire that asks whether civil or criminal complaints involving “alleged sexual misconduct or child abuse” have ever been made against them, and they are asked if they have ever been convicted of a crime other than a minor traffic violation. They are also asked to provide three local personal references.

In addition, the archdiocese requires that salaried employees and volunteers who work with children in the District of Columbia and in Maryland must provide a criminal history record check from civil authorities.

A few years ago, I covered a Mass at a suburban parish, when a young associate pastor had to tell the parishioners that their beloved pastor had allegedly been involved in abusing a child many years earlier. People wept at the news. That young priest’s words still ring true today. In his homily, he said such behavior was “reprehensible.”

The priest said he was “reminded of my own frailty. I have to rely on Christ each day.” And he added, “The only way we can overcome sin is to love… We have received Jesus’ love and forgiveness. May we share that love with others.”

Susan Gibbs
Office of Communications
[email protected]