Some priests have lost their ministry, and some bishops have lost their credibility over the issue of clergy sexual abuse.
From the national perspective, few priests and bishops were guilty of any wrongdoing in this scandal, but that doesn't matter. They had positions of trust, and they wounded the whole Church. Even more importantly, their sins and mistakes grievously damaged the lives of children and families.
As a result, for much of this year, Church leaders have worked to create a strong, common approach to preventing this kind of tragedy in the future. They've done that under a barrage of very appropriate anger from victims, and frequently not so appropriate contempt from the media. The aftershocks of this scandal will continue for a long time. But I believe the bishops in Washington advanced the good work already done in June to protect children and families.
No one has been more forceful in his feelings about the gravity of clergy sexual abuse than the Holy Father. As John Paul II's delegates, members of the Holy See who participated in discussions with the U.S. bishops had the task of bringing the approach of the Church in the United States into a deeper unity with the universal Church and her law — without undermining the force of the Dallas Charter. I believe they succeeded.
Archbishop Julián Herranz, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, described it this way in a Nov. 14 ZENIT interview:
“There was no intention (on the Vatican's part) to step away from the commitment made by the bishops in June, or to reduce or narrow the avenues available to victims to seek justice and the pastoral care that they require. Rather, it was hoped that by reducing ambiguities and spelling out with greater particularity the fair and proper process to be used in these cases, and thereby grounding the norms in the universal law of the Church, the Church would actually be able to offer even greater protection to children.”
As Chicago's Cardinal Francis George said last week, the revisions to the Dallas Charter remind us that we cannot abdicate our obligations to anyone. We have the duty to protect the rights of the accuser and the accused, the laity and the clergy, the innocent and, yes, even the rights of the guilty. In fact — as more than one canon lawyer has observed over the past few months — it's very odd that in an American culture built on the law, the Church should have the task of explaining and insisting on due process.
Does this mean that the Church is backing away from her intolerance of sexual misconduct — and especially the abuse of minors by clergy? Not at all. A single verified case of sexual abuse of children will bar a priest from ministry permanently.
Does this mean that the sexual misconduct policy of the Archdiocese of Denver will need revision? In some ways probably yes. Meanwhile, policy I issued on Sept. 27, 2002, will continue to guide our actions, within the requirements of Canon Law, and my archdiocese will continue to follow the reporting requirements of Colorado law — which we did even before Colorado law required us to do so.
The role of the Conduct Response Team, and the expanded lay involvement on that team, will also continue. The team has served the people of the Church in Northern Colorado well for more than 11 years. It will continue to do so.
Finally and most importantly, the commitment of the Church in Northern Colorado to provide a safe environment for children and families, and to form her clergy and employees in right Christian conduct, will continue as a matter of principle. And that will not change — now or in the future.
Archbishop Chaput serves in the Archdiocese of Denver.