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March 15, 2009

Cardinal George tells group: Bishops need your input

By Joyce Duriga


The Catholic Church in the United States has done good work implementing programs to protect children from sexual abuse and to help victims, but it must continue improving its programs and reaching out. That’s what Cardinal George told a group of about 85 representatives from 65 U.S. dioceses who gathered March 1-5 for the National Safe-Environment Leadership Conference at the Westin Hotel in downtown Chicago.

The conference was hosted this year by the archdiocese’s Office for Protection of Children and Youth.

Cardinal George addressed those gathered at an opening reception March 1, saying, “You’re here to help children to be safe in the church and society. That is something that the bishops are committed to by reason of the Charter [for the Protection of Children and Young People], which is now five years old. We promised when we passed the charter five years ago to protect children and to heal victims, and you, of course, are very much central to fulfilling those promises”

The U.S. bishops also promised to reexamine the charter after five years. Cardinal George told the group that he didn’t want that action to be interpreted as a sign that the bishops are “in some sense retrenching. … We most certainly are not. But some will try to say that,” he said.

The charter should be left more or less intact, but parts that aren’t effective or are inaccurate should be examined, he said.

He called upon the group, which is on the front lines of abuse prevention in dioceses, to help the bishops determine which parts should be changed to make the charter more effective. He said canon law has provisions to protect priests from bishops but not the church from hurtful priests or bishops.

“There is a whole area of protection of the church that should be developed,” he said. “Of course, we [American Catholics] are a very small percentage of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world … so we have to really make our case strongly, and we’re doing that.”

Since the charter was implemented, dioceses are now doing background checks of employees, volunteers and others who work with children. Safe-environment training programs were developed and the same groups required to attend. Also, a code of conduct was created.

“All that has happened,” the cardinal said. “That isn’t well known, of course, because there is a public conversation around this entire great tragedy and scandal, which is important and which we should be grateful for that it is a public education. But it is not itself, outside the confines of manipulation from time to time, from various actors in this, who have an agenda other than the protection of children and the healing of victims.

“The help that you are to the bishops, the victims and the good environments you are creating, that is not part of the conversation,” he said.

The positive work that people in dioceses around the country do to protect children and to help victims of clergy sex abuse heal is often not known, and is overlooked by those outside the church, he said. The cardinal added that he hoped by gathering at the conference with leaders in the field of child protection that their work would start to become a part of the public conversation.

“What strikes me as strange is that the statistics on sexual abuse of children are so frightening and yet they haven’t, it seems to me in most cases, created the precautions needed for a safe environment, in many cases,” he said. “Nor have they empowered those who want to heal the victims in a way that makes that healing really possible.”

He encouraged the group to look at how society as a whole might also create safe environments for children and to help those who have been victims of sexual abuse.

“The church has entered this arena of child protection and of reaching out to victims because of you, and have been able to do it and the bishops are grateful,” he said. “You are the new voices speaking on behalf of children in our society.”

The charter is available at