It was 2003 and I was a young father sending my daughter to a Catholic elementary school. I wanted to be involved in the direction of the school, so I volunteered for the school board for a three-year term. Most meetings were what you would expect: boring discussions of the details of running a small Catholic school. But one evening the topic turned to something far more significant. Our diocese was implementing the “safe environment” policies that came out of the meeting of bishops in Dallas to respond to the clerical sex abuse crisis (the so-called “Dallas Charter”). That evening we were discussing introducing a “talking about touching” program at our elementary school. It was all part of a well-publicized push by Catholic bishops to show that they cared about the abuse scandal and were doing something about it.
The irony: I was living in the Archdiocese of Washington. Our Archbishop was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, now revealed as a predator himself.
Pointing the Finger
I had listened to Cardinal McCarrick make earnest-sounding statements when the clerical sexual abuse scandal first hit the news. He wanted to “protect” children, he said. His way of doing so, however, was to implement policies that introduced inappropriate material to children and looked at lay people, including parents, as the potential abusers. It was classic misdirection: look at all our efforts here…and ignore the scandal at the top of the archdiocese.
When the “talking about touching” program was first introduced, I objected to it strongly. I felt it was inappropriate for a school—especially in a co-ed situation—to talk about this topic in a public setting. Think about it: a teacher, who is essentially unknown to the parents, is discussing topics in a classroom such as who can touch your genitals with a group of seven- and eight-year-old boys and girls. Beyond the obvious inappropriateness of this, it’s also a situation ripe for abuse. If a teacher were an abuser, such a class is fertile ground for finding victims. Is it surprising that an archdiocese that was led by a predator would implement such problematic programs?
Unfortunately, I was one of only two board members who objected. It seemed everyone wanted to “do something.” They wanted to show they cared and were taking action. Further, the archdiocese (led by a predator) pressured schools to implement these programs.
I made the point repeatedly that such topics were more appropriate for parents to teach their children directly. If we wanted to “do something,” then we should provide materials to the parents and let them teach it to their kids at home, as they saw fit. I was then told that the parents could be the abusers and the archdiocese had to protect the children from them! Some other board members even questioned why I would resist this program, with the obvious implication that perhaps I had something to hide.
Needless to say, I left the school board and was homeschooling my children the next year.
Rotten at the Top
Aside from these problematic “talking about touching” programs, my experience also exposed a major flaw in the efforts of the bishops to stamp out abusers. Who is keeping an eye on them? Who is reporting them for abuse? While a suspicious eye was directed at parents, it was the implementors themselves who were engaged in foul play.
The emphasis behind “safe environment” programs is not toward protecting children or, heaven forbid, rooting out sex abusers in our midst. It’s directed toward avoiding lawsuits. This is clear from how silly the implementation can be. A year or so after I left the school board, our homeschooling group wanted to hold a monthly Mass at a local Catholic parish, to be followed by a reception in the parish hall. The pastor was receptive and offered to celebrate the Mass. However, we were told that every adult attending would have to go through the “safe environment” procedures. Note that this event was for families to attend—at no time were children not with their own parents. In typical bureaucratic fashion, archdiocesan officials simply wanted to make sure all their lawyer-directed boxes were checked. (Fortunately, after some pushback we were able to override this silly requirement).
“Safe environment” programs ignore the real problem—homosexual predator bishops and priests—and direct their suspicions elsewhere. Although it was found that the majority of clerical abuse cases were homosexual in nature, the Dallas Charter did nothing to address this pink elephant in the room. Further, it’s clear that nothing in the Charter is directed towards protecting seminarians and young priests from predatory bishops. Yet, if a parent wants to volunteer for an event at a parish, he has to undergo more rigorous background checks than a new FBI recruit.
And while we parents lived constantly under a state of suspicion in the Archdiocese of Washington, a predator was in charge, telling everyone how much he cared about the children. Furthermore, he had all the power behind him to cover up his misdeeds. As we’ve all heard, “everyone” knew of McCarrick’s fondness for young men (and this is true: I heard the rumors as well), yet there was no system in place from the Dallas Charter to do anything about it. Priests were fearful of reprisal and lay people were ignored when it came to accusations against the hierarchy itself.
Dead Letters and Old Boy Networks
If bishops were serious about stamping out abuse, they would look at the actual cause instead of just doing the minimum that lawyers require. What is the actual cause? In most cases it is the extensive homosexual network found in seminaries and chanceries, which allow homosexual men to rise through the ranks (including to the episcopacy) without resistance. Are these really the men who will be best suited to prevent future abuse? Is their judgement about “talking about touching” programs and “safe environment” guidelines reliable?
Until the bishops fight forcefully against the predators in their own midst, the Dallas Charter is a dead letter. And it doesn’t look like that will happen anytime soon. If you look at the episcopal responses to Cardinal McCarrick’s situation, you see lawyerese, feigned expressions of “shock,” and no condemnation of sin. Once you see a bishop actually call out Cardinal McCarrick for what he is—a homosexual predator who abused his position of power and has put his eternal soul in jeopardy—then you will know that perhaps the bishops are serious about cleaning house. Until then, the old boy network will continue to thrive and the young boys will suffer.
Eric Sammons, a former Evangelical, entered the Catholic Church in 1993 and has been involved in Catholic evangelization efforts for over two decades. He is the father of seven children and author of seven books, including The Old Evangelization: How to Spread the Faith Like Jesus Did.