Protecting children: In learning from its mistakes, Catholic Church can be role model Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Jul. 19, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

Editor's View by Mary C. Uhler

Ten years ago in Dallas, Texas, in June of 2002, the United States Catholic bishops passed their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. It was a bold move to deal with the sexual abuse of minors by priests and prevent such abuse from happening again.

As we learn more about the sex abuse scandal at Penn State and reports of incidents involving pornography, rape, and sexual abuse at other colleges and universities, it might be wise for our society to pay attention to how the Catholic bishops have dealt with these issues.

A societal problem

For indeed, sexual abuse is a societal problem. It could be a symptom of a moral decline in our society experienced over many years. Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (issued July 25, 1968) — known more commonly for its teaching on artificial birth control — predicted a “general lowering of moral standards.”

Pope Paul VI said, “Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings — and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation — need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law.”

Providing a safe environment for children

In their 2002 Charter, the Catholic bishops outlined how Church leaders would provide a safe environment for children and young people. It established uniform procedures for handling sex-abuse allegations and adopted a “zero tolerance” policy.

The Charter also required background checks and training in child protection for Church employees. I remember taking part in that training in the Diocese of Madison. It really opened my eyes to how vigilant we must become in being aware of warning signs of possible sexual abuse and taking steps to prevent abuse from happening.

The Charter required dioceses facing allegations made about priests or other Church workers to alert authorities, conduct an investigation, and remove the accused person from duty. The Diocese of Madison has complied with these requirements and has received high marks in audits undertaken through the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection.

Get the word out

Deacon Bernard Nojadera, head of the bishops’ secretariate, told Catholic News Service (CNS) that many Catholics are often unaware that the Church has taken such an active role to stop and prevent abuse. “Word needs to get out about what’s being done,” he said.

He said the general public should also be made aware of the Church’s efforts. “The Church is on the leading edge and needs to share its information and let others know there are valuable things they can learn without the pain the Church had to go through.”

Deacon Nojadera said the Church is taking a more pastoral role in dealing with victims of sexual abuse. Through these efforts, the Church is continuing to restore the trust of people and heal the wounds caused by abuse.

Staying the course

Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet. Ill., who chairs the bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, is grateful to pastors and lay people who have taken a leadership role at diocesan and parish levels to raise awareness of abuse and to put standards of safety and codes of conduct in place to make the Church a safe place for children. “I want to encourage everyone to stay the course,” he told CNS. “We have to make assurances that what happened in the past never happens again.”

I urge everyone in our society — especially those who work with children and young people — to take a look at what the U.S. Catholic bishops have done and are doing to protect children. The bishops’ Web site ( has a page devoted to Child and Youth Protection with many resources, including the 10-year progress report given to the bishops in June. One helpful resource is “Ten Points to Create Safe Environments for Children,” with tips for anyone, including how to recognize warning signs of child abusers.

I believe the efforts undertaken by the Catholic bishops and our Church can be a role model for others as we continue to seek and implement ways to protect children in our society.