A Culture of Protection

In the past few weeks, we have seen a series of lurid and shocking stories about sexual exploitation in the entertainment industry. Accounts by actresses of disgusting sexual harassment and assault by powerful industry leaders. The continuation of the infamous “casting couch” where sexual favors are the price for advancing a career. Abuse of child actors that is excused, overlooked or explained away. And the conspiracy of silence and retribution that prevents victims from coming forward and allows offenders to act with impunity.

In the Church, we have seen more than our share of this. When the major scandal broke out in 2001, we were all horrified at the extent of child sexual abuse that had occurred, as well as the ineffectiveness (and in some cases culpable inadequacy) of the Church’s response.

But things have changed dramatically in the Church. In creating a safe environment for children, a protective corporate culture is the most important element. In the Church, we have successfully made child protection a key part of our regular course of business and we have made it unequivocally clear that any kind of sexual sin against minors is utterly unacceptable. We have put into place strong policies that are aimed to prevent any abuse. These policies are taken very seriously by the leadership of the Church (the Archbishop, Chancery, pastors, principals, DRE’s, etc), who have all demonstrated repeatedly that they are committed to the program. We have demonstrated over and over again that we are open to receiving complaints, we take all allegations seriously, we vigorously investigate them, and we are firm in correcting any problem.

Like every other diocese in the country, the Archdiocese has put into place comprehensive policies for child protection. We require all those who will be in contact with children to be screened (including a criminal background check) and trained in our policies and in how to recognize and respond to potential child abuse situations. Our policies address a wide range of potential situations, including overnight and day trips, online safety, professional boundaries, and child pornography. We regularly review and adapt our policies to address new situations. And we have a team of retired law enforcement officers who visit our parishes and schools to evaluate the effectiveness of our policies at the local level and to recommend any changes or updates that are needed. We are audited annually by an independent firm hired by the US Bishops’ Conference, and the audit results are submitted to the National Review Board and made public.

We have a zero tolerance policy that applies equally to clergy and laity. All reports of child abuse are immediately reported to law enforcement authorities (typically local district attorneys, state child protection authorities, and local police). We fully cooperate with any law enforcement investigation, conduct our own internal  investigation as well. If it is determined that the allegation is substantiated, then the offender is permanently barred from any ministry. We have also tried to offer some closure and peace to past victims by setting up our Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program.

The net result is a corporate culture in the Church that has demonstrated a clear commitment to child protection, as well as transparency and accountability for how we put that into practice.

The contrast with the entertainment industry couldn’t be more stark. In that world, there is a widespread acceptance and promotion of all kinds of sexual vice, including the gross sexualization of children (especially young girls). There has been no demonstrated commitment to identifying and excluding offenders, and there is no systematic approach to prevent further abuse. Repeated allegations by actors about having been abused as children have been ignored. Known offenders continue to work and in some cases are defended and given prominent honors. And the recent revelations make clear that powerful people in the industry can act with impunity, can intimidate victims into silence, and that there are many people who will turn a blind eye to abuses.

At the root of all of this, of course, it is a question of good and evil, vice and virtue. For all our faults, the Church has always upheld the virtues of sexual purity and chastity. That gives us a guiding star to orient all of our policies and programs. Failure to abide by those high standards is a terrible betrayal, but we can always re-orient ourselves back to the ideal with the help of God’s grace.

The entertainment industry, sadly, is not guided by any such principle. It is the leading promoter of sexual license and immorality, and as a result has created “structures of sin”. Pope John Paul had an important insight into this kind of phenomenon:

“such cases of social sin are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins. It is a case of the very personal sins of those who cause or support evil or who exploit it; of those who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils but who fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; of those who take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world, and also of those who sidestep the effort and sacrifice required, producing specious reasons of a higher order. The real responsibility, then, lies with individuals.” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, 16)

As he also noted, structures of sin “grow stronger, spread, and become the source of other sins, and so influence people’s behavior.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 38)

Corporate culture is rooted in individual actions. When an organization is committed to doing the right thing, the corporate culture will reinforce those efforts and make them more effective. In child protection, there is nothing more important than that.

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