The nation's Roman Catholic bishops will meet in Seattle beginning Wednesday. Ten years since the creation of what is referred to as "the Dallas Charter," we expect to revisit that blueprint for the protection of children in our church and reflect on how it is or is not working.
It was largely in anticipation of that meeting and its attendant publicity that I wrote to my Catholic people hoping to indicate what we have attempted to do locally to protect children, and will, and to be of assistance to victims of sexual misconduct. My first concern must be to the victims who have been so hurt by the actions of a trusted person in their life, and again I deeply apologize. No amount of money spent on counseling, prevention, legal fees or settlement can ever totally heal those hurt.
When we receive any indication of improper sexual misconduct against a minor or a vulnerable adult, we ask the victim to first contact local law enforcement, then utilize the service of our victims' assistance coordinator to begin the process required by the Dallas Charter. The diocesan review board guides the investigation, determines credibility and recommends appropriate actions to me.
To attempt to protect children in the present and the future, the program of creating and maintaining a safe environment has cost the diocese and parishes slightly over $1 million in the last five years. We screen and background check everyone, myself included. We require all who come into contact with children and vulnerable adults to update their awareness of what is required every five years. Our seminaries are far more attentive to watching for signs in our future priests that might indicate an emotional or psychological predisposition to an unhealthy interest in minors.
I hope that it is not too much to believe that the steps taken since Dallas have had a pronounced effect of creating a safe environment for our children.
Ultimately, the Dallas Charter is only as good as the commitment of all dioceses to its implementation, and my instincts tell me that as a church in the United States we are trying very hard. One of our tasks in Seattle will be to review our procedures and suggest changes that may help to make our approach even more effective.
Is the Dallas Charter that we have been operating under perfect? Absolutely not. There is always room for improvement. However, the standards it sets for our churches and clergy are exemplary, I believe, in the United States and represent a giant step in protecting the innocence of our children and the most vulnerable.
My letter to the people noted that a total of 12 priests from the diocese (out of over 5,000 priests that have served or are serving here since our beginning in 1968) have sexually abused minors. One was one too many. But we continue to focus on what can and should be done to improve and provide a safe haven for all of God's people in our churches, schools and institutions.
The crisis involving sexual misconduct with minors in the Catholic Church and the Dallas Charter have changed much in our church. It was often said 10 years ago that "bad times give birth to bad laws." Despite that axiom, I feel that what has come about with the Dallas Charter is indeed something good and positive and perhaps even exemplary among organizations that work with youngsters.
In one of the church's darker moments, I think it can be seen as something positive and a glimmer of hope that the Catholic Church in America has listened to its people and attempted to provide what is necessary to safeguard and protect our children. Hopefully the meeting of the bishops in Seattle will further serve to solidify the Catholic Church's commitment to safeguard and protect our youngest and most vulnerable members.
Robert N. Lynch is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.