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Column: Archdiocese works to provide a safe environment for children

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

The recent reports of sexual abuse of minors by priests in Ireland and many other western European countries have been painful reminders of the clergy sexual abuse scandal that rocked the church in the United States in 2002.

The sexual abuse of a child is a despicable evil no matter who is the perpetrator. Yet, when a child is victimized by someone that he or she had every right to trust (e.g., a relative, a stepparent, or a parent), the consequences of this evil are even more profound. When the perpetrator is not only someone whom children should be able to trust, but also someone who represents God and the church, a child is not only physically violated and emotionally scarred, but his or her ability to turn to God in order to find comfort, strength, and healing can be
seriously impaired.

For the victims of clergy sexual abuse, the church has a responsibility to do everything that we can to assist with their healing. We need to provide them with the opportunity for counseling and therapy that can aid them in overcoming the traumatic emotional and psychological consequences of sexual abuse. We need to pray for these victims and provide every possible spiritual resource to help them experience God’s healing love.

The American secular media, in rehashing what had already been thoroughly reported several years ago, failed to acknowledge all that the church in the United States has done in recent years to protect children. In addition to the zero tolerance policy for those in ministry who have abused a minor, the church has implemented screening and safe environment programs.

In our archdiocese, priests, teachers, staff members, coaches and other volunteers who work with children and youth must participate in a Virtus training program. They must also read Virtus awareness updates and complete questionnaires verifying they have comprehended the information. The archdiocese is regularly audited by an independent firm, staffed mainly with former FBI agents, to verify that we are complying with the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” Even though it was not required by the charter, we authorized the auditors to do spot checks of parishes to verify that the safe environment programs were being implemented effectively in parishes. I am pleased that, again this past year, the archdiocese was found to be in full compliance with the charter.

If anyone in the archdiocese has been abused by clergy, lay staff or volunteers recently or in the past, I urge you to contact the archdiocesan Victims Assistance coordinator, Dennis Schemmel, at (913) 909- 2740. I promise that you will be treated with utmost respect, your concerns will be taken seriously and the response of the archdiocese will be in conformity with the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” as well as our own archdiocesan policies. My goal and the goal of the American bishops are to make our schools and parishes the safest place in America for children and youth.

Frequently, when addressing the priests of the archdiocese, I have reminded them of our solemn obligation to live lives of integrity. We are called to live in a manner consistent with our baptismal and priestly identity. The sexual abuse of a child is contrary to everything we believe as Catholics. Rather than upholding the dignity of every human being, especially the weak and the vulnerable, the sexual abuse of a child preys on the innocent and helpless, violating a child’s dignity in order to satisfy a selfish and perverted desire for pleasure. I take seriously my responsibility to do everything possible to eradicate this horrendous evil from the priesthood and from the church.

It is little comfort that the revelations of the sexual abuse by minors in Europe make clear that this issue is not just a problem for the church in the United States. George Weigel, author and Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, attempted in a recent article to provide some context to the Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal by noting that “the sexual and physical abuse of children is a global plague.”

Weigel writes: “In the United States alone, there are reportedly some 39 million victims of childhood sexual abuse. Forty to sixty percent were abused by family members, including stepfathers and live-in boyfriends of a child’s mother — thus suggesting that abused children are the principal victims of the sexual revolution, the breakdown of marriage, and the hook-up culture. Hofsta University Professor Charol Shakeshaft reports that six to 10 percent of public school students have been molested in recent years — some 290,000 between 1991 and 2000. According to other recent studies, two percent of sex offenders were Catholic priests — a phenomenon that spiked between the mid-1960’s and the mid-1980’s but seems to have virtually disappeared (six credible cases of clerical sexual abuse in 2009 were reported in the U.S. bishops’ annual audit, in a church of some 65,000,000 members).”

These statistics do not in anyway excuse the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, nor do they provide any comfort to their victims. One instance of the sexual abuse of a minor by a Catholic priest is too many. However, they do counter the impression that the sexual abuse of children is unique to or more prevalent within the Catholic Church.

There is no one who has done more to make certain that the church confronts honestly and effectively the issue of the sexual abuse of children by clergy than Pope Benedict XVI. It was under his leadership, when he was prefect for Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that the church streamlined its procedures to remove from ministry priests who had abused a minor. The Holy Father has spoken with great candor about the shame such abuse causes for the entire church as well as his personal concern for victims. The American secular media seems to have forgotten that Pope Benedict initiated a meeting with victims of clergy sexual abuse during his visit to the United States.

There have been a series of articles in the secular media that have attempted to vilify Pope Benedict by implicating him in the failure of the church in the past to respond responsibly to allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests. When you read the facts objectively and examine all that the Holy Father has done to address this issue, it is clear that the opposite is true.

In the archdiocese, we are blessed with extraordinary priests who give themselves heroically in the service of God’s people. The Holy Father, the bishops and our priests are all committed to do everything humanly possible to eliminate this evil from the church. We cannot undo the mistakes of the past, but we are determined to do everything possible to remain vigilant to ensure the safety of all of our children and youth in the present and future.

About the author

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Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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