The document was adopted unanimously Sept. 27 at the annual plenary meeting of the bishops and establishes national standards which every bishop has pledged to implement in their diocese. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Sex abuse document from Canada’s bishops focuses on victims, urges accountability and transparency

  • October 4, 2018

OTTAWA – Canada’s Catholic bishops’ have released a new document on sexual abuse that calls for accountability, transparency, prevention and healing as first steps to repair the considerable damage inflicted on the Church and society by decades of priestly abuse and coverups by bishops.

“Sexual abuse is a profound contradiction of everything that Jesus Christ represents,” says the document, released Oct. 4 by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).

The document was adopted unanimously Sept. 27 at the annual plenary meeting of the bishops and establishes national standards which every bishop has pledged to implement in their diocese.

It represents the effort of the Catholic Church in Canada’s to “learn from the past; to face the challenge of pastoral conversion; to embrace the need to renew pastoral ministry; and to make visible the truth of God who is loving, forgiving and merciful.”

The 184-page document makes 69 recommendations based on what are called “nine lessons” learned by the bishops over the past quarter century. 

“Chief among these is that victims must come first,” said a statement that accompanied release of the document.

Titled Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse: A Call to the Catholic Faithful in Canada for Healing, Reconciliation, and Transformation, the document is directed at bishops and the leaders of religious communities but also hopes to “stimulate a cultural transformation in attitudes about sexual abuse.”

It builds on the first document of its kind, From Pain to Hope, published in 1992 and updated in 2007, and brings the bishops’ guidelines for dealing with abuse in line with Canadian law and norms of the Holy See.

“Since the publication of from Pain to Hope it has become even clearer that sexual abuse of minors by clergy and religious has had devastating effects, first and foremost on individual victims-survivors and their families, on all members of the Catholic Church — locally, nationally, and internationally — as well as on society as a whole,” the document said.

“As victims have continued to come forward, Church leaders in Canada and elsewhere have had to address not only such feelings but also so many broken lives, as well as their duty to repair the damage to individuals and to communities. They have also increasingly recognized that all members of the Church need healing from the harmful effects of sexual abuse.”

A major focus of the document is implementing protocols to prevent abuse. It calls for measures that are “clear, comprehensive, and accessible.”

“In the wake of the sexual abuse crisis, Church leaders in Canada are being challenged to move beyond a reactive attitude to one which is pro-active and pre-emptive,” the document says. “Local diocesan policies and protocols are seen as indispensable to ensuring safe pastoral environments and in delineating clear measures for responding to allegations. They are also helpful in determining the proper treatment of survivors, offenders and the enquiring public.” 

Many of the guidelines and recommendations have already been implemented over recent years by dioceses across the country. But the document formalizes national standards and received a pledge from bishops across the country to implement them in their dioceses and eparchies. 

Where sexual abuse of minors often was covered up in the past, the bishops have pledged to report all sexual misconduct of minors to civil authorities and to the Vatican. Accountability and transparency are key components of the new guidelines.

Bishops are not immune from accounting for their actions, the document states.

“If in the past there had been an exaggerated sense that the bishop was all powerful, and therefore beyond questioning and reproach, what prevails today is a shared sense of commitment and responsibility to what is held in common.”

The document notes that until the early 1980s most sexual abuse victims were invisible to various civil authorities and to society at large. 

“Individuals who came forward risked bringing shame upon their families and communities,” it says. “It was not uncommon for victims to be blamed and shunned.

“A hostile climate such as this silenced victims and allowed abuse to remain undetected and hidden even for years; it engendered secrecy and denial, prolonged suffering, delayed identification of offenders, perpetuated ignorance, and interfered with the awareness that institutions, which has been established for the welfare of children, could themselves be environments in which sexual abuse took place,” the document says.

The document calls abuse scandals an obstacle to the faithful. “It has led many victims and countless others to reject Christ, the Church, and even God in one way or another,” the document says. 

“For this reason, the Church must regain its credibility by examining its own self-understanding; it must conform itself ever more closely to the model of Christian life as set out in the Gospel.” 

Bishops and major superiors of religious institutions often had an “inadequate understanding of pedophilia and ephebophilia,” states the document. Ephebophilia is the sexual attraction to pubescent boys and girls. According to a John Jay College of Criminal Justice study in the United States, some 80 per cent of sexual abuse in America concerned sexual abuse of teenaged males. The CCCB document makes no reference to the sex of victims or to homosexuality.

Church leaders began relying in the 1970s on the advice of psychologists and psychiatrists and “trusted their recommendations concerning whether to return offending clergy and members of institutes back to ministry.”

These recommendations failed to recognize how difficult treatment of offenders is or how high is the rate of recidivism, the document says.  

“Today, clinicians are better able to distinguish between situational offenders and those with fixed sexual proclivities who would always be at risk of reoffending. This has resulted in more reliable judgments and more appropriate precautions on the part of those responsible for dealing with offenders.”

Not only was there little understanding of the problem of sexual abuse, Church leaders were “ill-equipped to handle allegations and unprepared to accompany survivors on the path to healing,” the document says.

“Some responded inadequately or even dismissively to those coming forward,” it says, noting the responses were uncoordinated and lacking in precision. “Only with the intensification of public pressure resulting from victims, from media coverage, and with a greater willingness to learn from past mistakes, have Church leaders and others come to recognize the need for clear procedures, to help guide them in responding to allegations.”  

The new procedures put pastoral care of victims front and centre, from the moment they make an allegation.

The document also looks at the “evil of clericalism,” that Pope Francis has blamed for a crisis that is engulfing the Church worldwide.

The document describes clericalism as a “focus on the privileges and prerogatives of authority and the expectation of some clergy and religious to be treated as entitled, superior, and untouchable.”

“Many such offenders took full advantage of their authority and social status in order to abuse children within the communities they were meant to serve,” the document says. “The culture of clericalism made it easier for clergy and religious to overcome the resistance of their victims with psychological and spiritual intimidation as well as by physical force.”

“In some communities, this culture and its conditions made Church leaders less vigilant about protecting minors and dismissive of allegations when they arose,” it says.

The document also looks at the shame experienced by clergy and religious who were not involved in sexual misconduct and how the fall-out has damaged to ministry to children. It also looks at how the legal process, both criminal and civil, has sometimes distanced Church leaders from victims. It also tackles the issue of the effect of sexual abuse settlements that have forced the sale of Church property and their effect on the lay faithful. It includes protocols for dealing with those accused of sexual misconduct.

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