A critical issue in allegations of the sexual abuse of minors is how organizations respond. Too often in the past — in homes, schools, youth clubs, universities, churches, synagogues and mosques — the reaction was a veil of silence and secrecy.
The Diocese of Pittsburgh has publicly published its steps for responding to an accusation of abuse by a member of the clergy since 1993, and has revised the process several times. (See on the diocesan website (www.diopitt.org), “Policy: For Clergy Sexual Misconduct.” Issued: March 1993, revised: October 2002; updated: 2003, 2006, 2008 and April 2014).
In the diocese, the safety of children is paramount. The first priority is the victim, no matter if a child is describing something that happened last week, or an elderly person reveals something that happened 70 years ago. Pastoral and spiritual assistance, counseling and support within the community are primary and offered immediately.
When an allegation is made that a priest or deacon has sexually abused a minor, it is promptly forwarded to the diocesan vicar for clergy. He makes sure that the accusation is immediately turned over to law enforcement. The victim or the family of the victim is also encouraged to report the accusation to civil authorities.
Diocesan officials will then interview the victim as well as the victim’s parents, if appropriate. The accused cleric also will be questioned.
Even if the allegation is deemed doubtful, but not impossible, an accused cleric will be suspended from active public ministry and placed on administrative leave. A full assessment of the allegation will then be undertaken. This takes place even if civil authorities dismiss the accusation.
Diocesan officials do not confuse themselves with law enforcement. The district attorney determines whether a crime has been committed. The bishop — acting on the recommendation of experts who will be discussed below — determines suitability for ministry.
Those experts serve on the Independent Review Board that was created in 1989 to advise the bishop of Pittsburgh on allegations of child sexual abuse. Its members include attorneys, psychologists and others in fields relevant to child sexual abuse, as well as the parents of victims. They receive all the information that diocesan officials have gathered and hear from witnesses.
Involved continuously in this process is the diocesan assistance coordinator. This position — the first of its kind for any diocese — was created in 1993, and has been held since then by Rita Flaherty, a licensed professional social worker. She is often the first person who victims speak with, and may stay in touch with them for many years, if they wish it. She arranges for them to receive counseling from a licensed therapist of their choice, and also ensures that accused clergy receive evaluation and treatment.
Recommendations about the accused priest come from both the Independent Review Board and the Clergy Task Force, a group of diocesan officials who respond to all concerns about serious clergy misconduct. If the bishop accepts a recommendation that a priest or deacon never return to ministry, the cleric can withdraw from priestly ministry or seek a full dispensation from the priesthood.
In any case, the cleric will never serve again. Even if the final penalty of dismissal from the priesthood does not take place, perhaps for reasons of advanced age or infirmity, the priest will not be permitted to celebrate Mass publicly, wear clerical garb or identify himself publicly as a priest.
The diocese has a hotline to receive any calls related to abuse (1-888-808-1235), but also receives allegations through e-mail, or letters or calls from concerned family or friends. In all cases, the assistance coordinator, an ombudsman for the victim, will make every effort to meet with the abuse victim in person at a location convenient for them. Arrangements for the victim to meet with the bishop for a pastoral meeting also will be made.
Assistance to victims over the years has not been a “one size fits all” approach. The assistance coordinator assists victims to find the services they need.
The assistance coordinator is also involved directly at each level in dealing with accusations of sexual abuse. In addition to facilitating outside treatment for priests, she takes part in interviews with the accused and the victims and maintains complete data on victim profiles and services provided, as well as statistics concerning accused priests.
She also compiles the background documents for the Independent Review Board and the Clergy Task Force, the vicar for clergy and the bishop. She works closely with St. Paul Seminary if issues or concerns arise with candidates for the priesthood.
The policies, practices and protections developed and implemented in the Diocese of Pittsburgh have become the blueprint for many public and secular organizations involved with youth for dealing with abuse accusations. They are studied and revised regularly to ensure that protection of our young remains paramount.
Lockwood is former general manager of the Pittsburgh Catholic and diocesan communications director.