How transparent is the Church?

Patrick M. O'Brien

State of U.S. diocesan response to the clergy sex abuse crisis 

In the midst of this crisis and calls for more transparency, how transparent are U.S. dioceses about their handling of clergy sexual abuse? In this special report, Content Evangelist researchers set out to help diocesan leaders learn what other dioceses are doing to be transparent. How many dioceses have had a review of clergy files and released the names of clergy abusers? How many make it easy to report abuse? How many have a complete online resource for their response? 

Bishops and diocesan leaders are asking themselves what the current moment in the Church calls for.

At the USCCB fall 2018 meeting, the chair of the National Review Board, Francesco Cesareo, Ph.D., offered five key recommendations to increase accountability and transparency.

  1. Increase transparency of how abuse was handled
  2. Review clergy files going back to 1950 and make findings public 
  3. List clergy who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse and how each case was handled
  4. Establish a review process involving laity, such as the review board or an external firm
  5. Increase accountability of bishops
About the research

In light of the five recommendations from the National Review Board, Content Evangelist developed criteria to help diocesan leaders better understand what U.S. dioceses are already doing, or not yet doing, related to implementing those recommendations. 

The goal of this report is to provide diocesan leaders with a sense of what dioceses are doing. Content Evangelist researchers looked at all 197 dioceses in the U.S. by reviewing their websites and making phone calls or email inquiries. From what could be reasonably ascertained from what dioceses are making public, our researchers made a determination of either “yes” or “no” for areas of focus for this study. The research began in February and concluded in April 2019. In that short span, Content Evangelist researchers found that more and more dioceses were publishing names and increasing their responsiveness.

(Changes made by dioceses in these categories after April 2019 are not included in this report.) 

Increased transparency

In order to evaluate transparency in how abuse was handled, Content Evangelist researchers evaluated diocesan websites on several factors: ease of how to report abuse, ease of accessing the victim assistance coordinator, ease of finding information about child protection efforts and, finally, does the diocese have a transparent online response to abuse?

First, how many dioceses are doing the minimum, in accordance with the Charter, to make it easy to report abuse? Most dioceses did well with this: 186 out of 197 dioceses make clearly visible on their diocesan website how to report abuse. Eleven dioceses do not have this information available within three clicks of their homepages. Small text or a link at the bottom of the homepage did not count as “clearly visible.” Next, we looked at how easy it was to access the victim assistance coordinator. For 182 dioceses, that information was available within three clicks. Finding safe environment programming information was also easy to find on 162 out of 197 diocesan websites, clearly visible on the home page. 

Response webpages

38% of dioceses have a dedicated response webpage

A growing trend and best practice is a comprehensive online response to abuse, which we refer to as a “response webpage.” An increasing number of dioceses have become very transparent about how they are handling abuse by gathering many elements into a single online presentation. Elements include reports about how abuse is handled and the status of allegations; a list of abusers; a report on the process for handling abuse; information about how the diocese’s lay review board works; diocesan policies; and pastoral resources for victims and others. If a majority of these elements were present, and the webpage was being updated regularly, we determined the diocese had met our definition of having a response website. Out of 197 dioceses, 74 dioceses met the criteria for having a dedicated response website.

  • 197 total dioceses in the U.S. 
  • 186 make it easy to report abuse online 
  • 74 have a complete response webpage on abuse 
Reviews of clergy files back to 1950

66% of dioceses have had a review of clergy files 

All U.S. dioceses report having a lay review board. Mostly, those boards exist to fulfill the Charter requirement to advise the bishop on whether or not an allegation is credible. Many dioceses are expanding the role of lay review boards to help the diocese become more transparent about the overall process and provide expert, independent review of the policies and processes of the diocese’s response to abuse, including a review of all clergy files. 

Out of 197 dioceses, 130 dioceses either have announced or completed a review of clergy files. Of those 130 dioceses, 21 had either an internal review or the independence of the review was not readily apparent. Independent reviews were either announced or completed by 109 U.S. dioceses, or 55%. Included in that are 64 dioceses where the civil authorities either were invited in to review files or already have reviewed them, or have expressed the intention to conduct an investigation or review of clergy files. States where this has occurred, or is occurring, include Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Pennsylvania. 

  • All 197 have a lay review board 
  • 130 dioceses have had or announced a review of clergy files
  • 109 dioceses have had an independent review of clergy files 
  • 64 dioceses have had or are having civil authorities review files 
Public disclosure of accusations and clergy status

65% of dioceses have published names of clergymen credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor

Some also include other categories of sexual abuse and misconduct.

Content Evangelist researchers found that 129, or 65%, of dioceses have made lists of clergy abusers public online. Presentation of this material varies. Very few dioceses list the names of all clergy who have allegations against them, credible or not. On the opposite side of the spectrum, a few dioceses list only those clergymen with substantiated claims, those having admitted wrongdoing or who have been convicted. 

Most dioceses list those with credible allegations, meaning that the bishop, in consultation with a lay review board, believes the allegation is true. In many reports, it is clearly explained that a name appearing on the list does not mean the cleric has been found guilty in a legal sense. Here, the word “credible” is key. Critics claim dioceses are “covering up for abusers” when they do not release all names of clergy members who have had any allegation, regardless of whether it is credible or demonstrably without any validity or merit. Dioceses do not want to destroy a priest’s reputation

 without cause. That is why many are very clear about why some accused clerics are not named, and the process and rationale for that. 

Clarity and transparency are essential in this process. Content Evangelist determines that the best presentations of lists are clear about the process and the definition of terms that would place a name on the list. The definition of the term “credible” would appear to be unambiguous— “offering reasonable grounds for being believed.” How to define sexual abuse? Content Evangelist recommends using your diocese’s state statute (see Texas example at left). 

Many dioceses list the status of clerics such as “deceased,” “laicized,” or “removed from ministry.” Many give more detail such as previous assignments, dates of incidents of alleged abuse, date reported to the diocese, and date reported to law enforcement. Many dioceses have an FAQ section. How the names are categorized also varies, with lists being separated by “diocesan,” “extern,” “religious.” Some lists include lay abusers and religious sisters.

Perhaps one of the most sensitive issues is the posthumous accusation of abuse. Up until the current crisis, most bishops have been opposed to releasing a complete list of clergy abusers because of the complexity of this issue. How can it be just for the diocese to publicly name a priest who cannot defend himself? Dioceses have addressed this in a variety of ways. The Diocese of Pittsburgh has a separate category titled, “Clerics who were deceased when an allegation was made against them.” The Archdiocese of Detroit has this designation after the name of the cleric, “Deceased, posthumous credible allegation."

ANALYSIS: 5 ideas for a long-term response to the crisis

Most dioceses have already released the names of abusers. Most express deep sorrow and care for victims/survivors and promise to increase transparency into their processes. But what about when the current crisis passes? What is our long-term approach? 

We can’t escape the fact that these sins and crimes are wounds to the Body of Christ. Therefore, let Christ be our guide. Even the resurrected Christ had visible wounds. We risk repeating the mistakes of the past if we forget them. It is true that a diocese can’t fulfill its mission by constantly being in crisis mode. However, going back to past practices doesn’t seem wise—or even possible. 

Think about how communities and cultures move on after a crisis of this scale. How has Germany addressed its Nazi past, or the United States addressed the stain of slavery, or South Africa addressed apartheid? Likewise, how does the Church move into a long-term strategy of addressing this deep wound to the Body of Christ?

Among diocesan leaders and communicators from across the country, some ideas have surfaced for ways individual dioceses, and dioceses collectively, could begin to look down the road at a strategy. Following are a few of those ideas.

1. Annual Mass of healing and reparation: The Holy See or the USCCB could establish a new feast day or dedicate an existing one, such as the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows or the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, for the healing of those hurt by the Church and the reparation of sins of those in authority in the Church. This has been brought up before, but it’s time for it to happen.

2. Annual audit: Whether the USCCB beefs up the Charter or not, every diocese should commit to an annual audit and publish an accounting of compliance, naming and providing the status of all clergy who have abused children, and disclosing what the financial cost has been. There should be either an external lay group or lay review board preparing annual reports of compliance in the same way we routinely have financial audits reported. These annual audits for every diocese would need to be verifiable and public. When the next crisis comes, we can point to these efforts. As happened in the aftermath of South Africa’s apartheid policy, we also must face the facts about what has gone wrong in the Church and set up systems for accountability.

3. Memorial, prayer garden or monument: Each diocese might create a place for people to go, pray, remember and heal. Let this place be a sign, so that we do not forget or repeat our past sins. Like Germany’s Holocaust museums, monuments and memorials, we, too, must find meaningful ways to remember our painful past.

4. Catechetical content: We need to help future generations understand our past so that it is never repeated. We should teach how our Catholic faith views sin and the need to protect innocent people. Use the scandal, the Charter and these new efforts as an example. We need a long-term approach to this scandal, similar to the way we teach American history. We celebrate American democracy and capitalism in our history classes, but we also teach students about the dark periods of our past—such as slavery and the mistreatment of indigenous peoples. This is critical to walk in the light of truth.

5. Communications: We should make it easy for people to see the scope of our response. Every diocese would benefit from consolidating into one place a single complete response webpage for policies, audits, prayer and healing resources. In FAITH's research, 74 dioceses already have sites like this in place. These online resources would include statements from diocesan leaders about clergy sexual abuse of minors, the Charter, any new document on clergy chastity or bishop accountability, policies on the vetting of clergy, human resources policies, and any other resources to account for the past and convey that we have learned from our sins. We should share the witness stories of victims and cover the annual Mass of healing and reparation.

In the meantime, how do diocesan communicators practically move forward?

First, we have to employ the best of Catholic journalism to help the Church be transparent and truthful in order to re-establish credibility with the faithful. Yes, we need to report the news. Catholic communicators have an obligation to ask bishops, attorneys and chancery officials the hard questions. They have a duty to verify that facts are indeed facts. The truth is always of God and is never something to fear. 

Second, we can’t stop being Church. When crisis erupts again, as we know it will, communicators should not counsel Church leaders to cancel events or circle the wagons. We can’t step away from our mission. We are Christians because of Christ, not because of policies or Church leaders. Now, more than ever, the faithful need witness stories about why Christ matters in each of our lives. Christian witness is still valid and needed now more than ever.