WASHINGTON (CNS) — When Mike Hoffman decided to contact Archdiocese of Chicago officials in 2006 about how he was sexually abused by a priest for four years while a teenage altar server, he wasn’t sure how his story would be received.
“I wrote one letter and got an immediate letter back and we set a date (to talk),” Hoffman, now 57, told Catholic News Service. “In telling my story, I was not met with confrontation or difficulty. Although I felt anxious, my anxiety was that they would question me and question my character.”
“I was met with compassion, decency and professionalism,” he said.
For that response, Hoffman credits the procedures set up by the archdiocese under the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”
The landmark document, adopted 20 years ago during a widely watched U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops assembly in Dallas, established minimum standards for dioceses and eparchies to follow in response to the clergy sexual abuse scandal that exploded in 2002.
“My experience was modeled after and by and through and within the charter,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman’s encounter with the archdiocese continues nearly 16 years after he revealed his story. He said that while he no longer undergoes therapy paid for by the archdiocese, he continues to receive support from its victim assistance ministry. He chairs the archdiocese’s Hope and Healing Committee, participates in special Masses for survivors, and works with parish-based “peace circles,” discussion groups open to anyone wanting to respond to abuse.
“I still need connection with our local church,” he said, “and they’re doing that, I can faithfully say.”
The archdiocese’s efforts to respond and educate about clerical sexual abuse have touched Hoffman’s family as well. As active members of their Chicago-area parish, he and his wife have undergone safe environment training. His now adult children received age-appropriate training throughout their time in Catholic schools.
The charter — and the accompanying norms approved by the Vatican that govern its provisions under canon law — has been mandated for use by dioceses and eparchies throughout the U.S. It encompasses 17 articles that prescribe specific actions in response to abuse allegations.
The document promotes healing and reconciliation with survivors abused as a minor; identifies procedures for responding to an abuse allegation; sets standards for ministerial behavior and appropriate boundaries; mandates transparency in communicating with the public; requires the permanent removal from ministry of any priest or deacon when an abuse allegation has been substantiated; and establishes of safe environment programs. The charter also launched the bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People to coordinate the response to clerical sexual abuse.
In addition, the bishops established the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection and arranged for an annual audit to be conducted to measure diocesan and eparchial compliance with the charter.
Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, who was editor of Commonweal magazine in 2002, was one of two laypeople invited to address the bishops about their response to the crisis. She recalled telling the bishops how laypeople felt powerless to influence changes in the church and urged the prelates to take substantive action to confront abuse to help rebuild their credibility.
It was a presentation, she told CNS, that she hoped the bishops “would take to heart.”
“In a lot of ways I think the Dallas charter did help the bishops come to grips with some of the issues that kind of had not been properly attended to,” she said.
Journalist Jason Berry, whose investigative work into clerical abuse in Louisiana began in 1985 and continued for more than two decades, described the charter as an important step for the church.
He credited those bishops who have “been sensitized to the plight of survivors” and took extraordinary action to meet “with people they would have not met with before” after the scandal widened.
Despite such positive outcomes, Berry noted that the charter failed to cover bishops, who under canon law come under the purview of the pope when it comes to disciplinary measures for wrongdoing.
It took Pope Francis’ 2019 “motu proprio” “Vos Estis Lux Mundi” — which established procedures for reporting allegations of sexual abuse and for holding accountable bishops, eparchs and religious superiors who protect abusers — to prompt steps toward broader accountability on sexual abuse.
In March 2020, the Catholic Bishops Abuse Reporting Service began. It allows for confidential sexual misconduct allegations against U.S. bishops and eparchs to be made through an online portal or via a toll-free telephone number.
The experience gained under the charter over the past two decades has allowed church leaders to better respond to abuse and the needs of survivors, said Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the USCCB secretariat.
The church has moved forward in collaborating more closely with survivors and their families and has integrated the expertise of “competent laypeople” in its response to sexual abuse, he said.
Deacon Nojadera described how under the charter, church ministers and employees have been empowered with skills and resources. “If there is an allegation that comes forward,” he told CNS, “it is the ongoing, consistent and competent training that will allow us a church to respond in a manner that is courageous, compassionate and trauma-informed.”
In the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the charter’s provisions are seen as “minimal requirements” for any church entity to follow, said Susan Mulheron, chancellor of canonical affairs.
“We’ve really gone beyond the charter,” Mulheron said, explaining that the archdiocesan review board also hears allegations of clergy misconduct beyond sexual abuse. “There’s a lot of benefits that we’ve found to that practice.”
She added, “Our review board, they’re fantastic. They’re an essential tool for us in the archdiocese. They bring that diverse expertise. And it also helps us keep honest and accountable.”
Following the Dallas meeting, the bishops also introduced the lay-led National Review Board, which collaborates with them in their response to abuse. It continues to provide updates to the bishops on progress in addressing abuse and recommendations for charter improvements.
Francesco Cesareo, who is retiring June 30 as president of Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts, chaired the National Review Board from 2013 to 2020. His tenure was the longest of the eight laypeople who have held the post throughout its 20-year history.
He helped craft the most recent update of the charter in 2018, a process that took five years to complete because of a lengthy legal and canonical review.
The changes tightened requirements for all individuals working with children while clarifying language in several articles.
Cesareo credited the charter for setting standards for dioceses in their response to abuse allegations. NRB members, he said, wanted to partner with the bishops to ensure that the response to allegations was effective and consistent.
For all the good accomplished under the charter, the NRB continued to urge that language be made more prescriptive and less ambiguous in some areas, Cesareo said. The concern focused on how bishops could interpret some sections of the charter differently and have their dioceses still be found in compliance with it.
Cesareo pointed to the need for diocesan review boards to investigate all allegations rather than just those referred by a bishop and that such boards be required to meet regularly rather than only when a bishop forwarded an allegation. The NRB also wanted to introduce specific language pertaining to boundary violations and clarity on safe environment training, he said.
“The NRB was pushing the idea that the charter was a living document and just like a living document it needs to evolve based on the experience of the church and based on what the bishops were confronting because otherwise the charter was not going to address new realities,” Cesareo told CNS.
Another update of the charter has begun. The bishops’ voted during their fall general assembly in November to begin the process this year rather than wait until 2025.
Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, chairman of the Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, told the assembly that several factors necessitated the new timeline.
They include changes in the Code of Canon Law regarding penal sanctions in the church that took effect in December; Pope Francis’ “motu proprio”; and the case of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
Discussions began in May, Deacon Nojadera said.
For Sara Larson, executive director of Awake Milwaukee, a three-year-old organization focusing on sexual abuse in the church and support of survivors of clergy sex abuse, the work ahead will be crucial.
She suggested that church leaders broaden their support for survivors, whether specified in the charter or through diocesan victim assistance ministries.
“We’re walking really closely with a diverse group of survivors who are teaching us a lot about this issue and what we still need to do as a church,” Larson said of her organization’s efforts.
Among the concerns Larson identified as coming from survivors is the long-standing lack of trust in church leaders. She also said many survivors with whom she has worked feel the church fails to uphold the commitment to their well-being as expressed in Article 1 of the charter.
“Many people have therapy costs covered and that is valuable. But in very few places is there anything offered to them beyond funding for therapy,” Larson said.
“Even among those who have good intentions, if they are not trained in trauma-informed care and are not empowered to offer anything beyond funding (for therapy), that often feels very lacking to those who are really looking for more support and more healing beyond that,” she explained.
Larson encouraged the church to move beyond a “check-the-box mentality” during the annual audits under the charter.
“The Dallas charter has really a lot of important provisions, but we really need to start thinking about going beyond the bare minimum,” she said. “Instead of asking are we meeting the requirements of the Dallas charter, we need to be asking what is God telling us to do in the church to create safer environments for all of God’s people and create safer environments for all of those who have been harmed.
“In my mind, what we really missed as a church is this deeper call to a change of culture and change of heart. That can’t be met or measured by policies and procedures. That’s a much deeper call to conversion,” Larson said.
Mulheron, the St. Paul and Minneapolis archdiocesan official, said that in talking with other diocesan chancellors and bishops, she has found they are taking the charter’s provisions seriously, are committed to compliance during annual audits and want to do what’s best for abuse survivors.
She said the check-the-box mentality seems to arise from frustrations in the audit process because of imprecise language in the charter, a point to which Cesareo, the past NRB chairman, agreed.
“It’s not fair to say dioceses are simply checking the box in terms of a commitment to a safe environment for children. I can’t conceive of a diocese that doesn’t believe in that and doesn’t take it seriously,” Mulheron said.
She called for the charter to “raise the bar” on how dioceses commit to supporting and engaging their review boards, based on her experience in St. Paul and Minneapolis.
“We know there are so many qualified laypeople who are eager to give their talent and their time to help in this area. Your review board is only going to be as good as your diocese supports it and encourages it and empowers it. That’s an area where the charter could raise the bar and let those review boards shine and lead the way,” Mulheron said.
Hoffman, the abuse survivor from Chicago, invited Catholics -– leaders and people in the pews alike — to review the charter and examine what it means to the life of the church.
“Major anniversaries are an important time to retell a story and to revisit and renew the commitment,” Hoffman said.
“We literally do evolve as people and we do evolve as church. So I’d like our priests and all other staff and all of us to evolve together. … Twenty years later, we’re not the same people we were when this thing (the charter) was published,” he continued.
“To keep evolving is where we should focus.”