Catholic Church Continues to Fall Short on Abuse Prevention

By Michael Klazema on 10/15/2020

As chronicled in Oscar-winning movies such as Spotlight, the emergence of the Catholic Church's long struggle with sexually abusive clergy in the early 2000s led many to wonder if a reckoning was at hand. In the years since the initial allegations reached the public, a staggering and disturbing number of victims have come forward—and more do so each year. 

While under fire from the public, the media, legislators, and within, the Church pledged to do more for reform across the 32 archdioceses in the United States. According to new report by think tank Child USA, those efforts have been halfhearted and poorly implemented.

Although the Church formulated policies in 2002 to reduce the risk of abuse by clergy, the implementation of those rules has largely been left to each archdiocese. In all archdioceses except for five, church officials still handle investigations and inquiries rather than impartial outsiders. Child USA raised further concerns about lax implementation of anti-abuse policies, specifically regarding church background checks and other screening measures.

According to the think tank, most archdioceses use pre-employment background checks, similar to the US OneSEARCH, for employees who will work with the church. However, there are no policies in place that require screenings to include state sex offender registries. Priests who come from overseas to work in an archdiocese may also skip any additional vetting. There are no concrete policies governing oversight of priests accused of misconduct.

Critics contend that such policies leave open significant loopholes that could allow for the continued abuse of young children. Even the National Review Board, run by the church's US Conference of Catholic Bishops, identified severe shortcomings in policies across the archdioceses.

Church officials contend that a one size fits all policy would not be appropriate for addressing situations unique to each diocese and point to a decline in the number of reported abuse cases since the adoption of new guidelines. The bishops' conference noted that some dioceses were not carrying out church background checks at all and claimed that a culture of complacency has developed in many areas.

Advocates for abuse victims push for the removal of the statute of limitations to allow lawsuits against the Church to proceed. For parents, uncertainty surrounding their child's safety while under the supervision of church employees remains even if archbishops insist that the risks are minimal. While reported abuse cases have declined, church critics point out that no amount of abuse should be acceptable.

Although the Catholic Church insists that a broad-based policy would not suit the conditions across dioceses, many large businesses do carry out routine screenings as they operate nationwide or globally. Pressure on the Church to strengthen its policies and implement local oversight is likely to continue, and churchgoers may choose to be more inquisitive about what occurs in their diocese.

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