Why Does the Dallas Charter Exempt Sex-Abusing Bishops?

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by Stephen Wynne  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  July 30, 2018   

Charter that punishes priests but gives bishops a pass drafted by serial abuser Cdl. Theodore McCarrick

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DETROIT (ChurchMilitant.com) - Recent revelations have exposed fatal weaknesses in the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the 2002 set of procedures established by U.S. bishops to combat clerical sex abuse. These flaws, it turns out, were deliberate — designed by serial sexual predator former Cdl. Theodore McCarrick (stripped of his red hat Saturday) and his allies in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  

In June 2002, in the wake of the sex abuse crisis exposed by The Boston Globe, as the U.S. bishops gathered in Dallas to hammer out protocols, then-Cdl. Theodore McCarrick presented himself as a leading voice of reform.

"This crisis is more important than any crisis we've had in my time," he told The New York Times. "Our people are waiting for the bishops to say, OK, we've got it under control, we're on the same page, we hear you and we've listened to you and now you can be sure that this will never happen again.''


In Texas, McCarrick became the architect of the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," referred to as the "Dallas Charter," and the "Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchial Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons," which established provisions for accountability and transparency to better protect minors from predator priests. 

But, together with allies among his brother bishops, McCarrick deliberately diluted the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms, apparently tailoring the documents to protect himself and others like him after decades of abusing seminarians.

No doubt many, if not most, of the bishops who convened in the 2002 Dallas meeting knew that McCarrick had abused seminarians and young priests. Yet, the bishops sat there and said nothing while McCarrick held court on how to put an end to sexual abuse in the priesthood.

In the original draft, the provisions bound all "clerics" — not just priests and deacons, but bishops as well. But that was changed.   

In what is now being described as a "prescient moment," during a review of amendments to the document, Abp. Elden Curtiss, then-head of the archdiocese of Omaha, spoke up, asking why the term "clerics" had been stricken from the text and replaced with "priests and deacons."

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Abp. William Lori of Baltimore

"Bishops are also clerics," Abp. Curtiss noted. 

Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut (now archbishop of Baltimore) replied that the drafting committee "decided we would limit it to priests and deacons, as the disciplining of bishops is beyond the purview of this document."

Church watchers point out that Lori's claim was bogus. Bishops are bound by the same moral, civil and criminal laws that govern priests and deacons. The Dallas Charter was redesigned to exclude bishops from accountability, they say, precisely because the bishops wanted it that way. 

With McCarrick's serial sexual abuse of young men now public, the bishops have lost all credibility over their pledges of "reform" in Dallas. Writing in The Christian Review last week, Jason Kippen observed:

No doubt many, if not most, of the bishops who convened in the 2002 Dallas meeting knew that McCarrick had abused seminarians and young priests. Yet, the bishops sat there and said nothing while McCarrick held court on how to put an end to sexual abuse in the priesthood. The 2002 meeting, far from instigating much-needed healing in the Church, allowed the process to become a mockery of what was called for — true confession and repentance. 

Another of the Dallas Charter's grievous flaws is the fact that it offers people above age 18 no protection from sexual predation. The bishops introduced no norms to shield seminarians, young priests and others from abusers like McCarrick.

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McCarrick with a group of seminarians

Nor was any attempt made to do so, even after payouts in 2005 and 2007 by the diocese of Metuchen and archdiocese of Newark to priests alleging McCarrick abused them during their time in seminary. After the settlements, the Dallas Charter remained untouched and McCarrick remained a cardinal.

But now, Catholics are determined the bishops will be held to account.

In April, Catholic Whistleblowers (CW), a "network of current and former priests, women religious, brothers, deacons and laypersons who actively support survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church," wrote a letter to the USCCB demanding the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms be amended to redress intentional weaknesses. 

"The crisis and scandal in the Catholic Church caused by clergy sexual abuse of minors and of vulnerable adults continues, and trust in the bishops remains damaged," CW warned, adding: "The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the related Essential Norms need substantial revisions."

CW is demanding the USCCB institute a series of major reforms of the Dallas Charter:

  • A commitment to work with lawmakers in all 50 states to reform statutes of limitations, "so that no case of sexual abuse of a minor or of a vulnerable adult can be barred from a court process because of a failure to report the abuse within a prescribed time frame."  
  • A zero-tolerance policy on sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults by clerics, religious and church employees. "This policy," CW stresses, "would apply to bishops, including those who are complicit with any such crime."
  • Redefinition of the term "vulnerable adult" so that "a person who temporarily (= not habitually) lacks the use of reason because of the presence of alcohol, drugs or overpowering intimidation by the abuser would be considered equivalent to a minor." 
  • Expansion of the scope of the Dallas Charter to cover all bishops.
  • A commitment that all clerics and non-ordained, regardless of diocesan or religious community affiliation, "who are currently or ever have served in a diocese and against whom there is a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor or of a vulnerable adult will be named as such on the diocese's website."
  • A revision of the Dallas Charter audit process enabling independent watchdogs to audit compliance; verify that all cases of alleged sex abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult are tackled promptly, with "those cases that are required by church law to be submitted to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith actually are submitted to that Congregations; and conduct "compulsory on-site parish and school Charter compliance reviews."

It remains unclear whether the U.S. bishops have responded to their appeal.

For many faithful Catholics, these reforms are just the starting point. Calls are growing for any bishop who had knowledge of clerical crimes to renounce his office and title and retire to a life of prayer and penance for facilitating the destruction of faith among their flocks.

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