Working Hard to Prevent Sexual Abuse – A part of the story that’s not often told.

Twenty-five years ago I had just entered the seminary. It was the Mid-1980s and reports of clerical sexual abuse were emerging. While the vast majority of priests were doing good work, some – even one was too many – had caused significant harm.

I am happy to say that the Archdiocese of Washington was one of the dioceses at the time which took the data of these reports very seriously. Archbishop James Hickey instituted a response in increasing stages to bring about a real prevention of any such behavior going forward. I recall how exhaustive the psychological testing was that I had to undergo before entering the seminary in 1984. Through seminary years careful attention was paid to teaching on the celibate commitment and I remember seminarians being dismissed from Mount St. Mary’s due to infractions of that commitment. Any looking the other way that may have occurred in years past was surely not operative in my seminary years.

When I was first ordained in 1989 the Archdiocese had already instituted a yearly meeting of the priests wherein we were frankly instructed in and warned about any boundary violations and that any credible allegations would be taken very seriously. The attention to this topic annoyed some of the priests who dubbed it the “yearly sex talk.” But it was surely necessary and no one was permitted to miss it. The talks were helpful because they not only reinforced our resolve to ensure safe and proper boundaries in our churches and schools but it also helped us to hold each other accountable and to recognize if brother priests or employees were being inappropriate in any way.

As our sophistication and resourcefulness in this new area began to grow, The Archdiocese of Washington began to expand this training beyond priests and school leaders to increasing numbers of lay leaders and employees. For a number of years we have in place a very expansive program called VIRTUS which you will see described in the CBS video below. It trains anyone in the Archdiocese of Washington (paid or volunteer) who has substantial contact with children to both recognize, and even more importantly prevent sexual abuse. No one is to work with minors unless they have been trained and had criminal background checks done.

I say all this with some pride because I think the Archdiocese of Washington was a leader among other dioceses in this country in the education and prevention of the sexual abuse of minors. We are all well aware that some dioceses did seemingly little in response to the growing crisis. But the Archdiocese of Washington was surely proactive and expansive in its response. Cardinal Hickey was quick to recognize the problem and took it very seriously. He set in motion a process to vigorously address the problem and protect the young. He is gone now but the legacy of his action lives on the programs he initiated long before the Dallas Charter of 2002. Ask any priest of this Archdiocese and they will tell you, we’ve been going to classes and meetings for a mighty long time.

Most recently our efforts have expanded to teach young people carefully on these matters and to give them the comfort and capacity to speak out if they are in any way troubled by the boundaries or behavior of others in this regard. Creating safe environments for children means that it is essential that they feel free to report anything that may concern them in this regard. In the past shame and fear limited reporting. We are trying to eliminate that and keep the door open to any who may wish to express concerns. The Web Page for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Protecting our Children Program is here:

Last night, CBS news ran a story which detailed not only one man’s story of abuse, but also of the Church’s efforts to prevent this sort of thing going forward. (While the news story says these are “new” programs, they have been in place for several years and similar programs are in place nationwide.) In this sense the story is fair. There are real victims who still have a lot of pain. But the Church has responded in many ways and that too is part of the story that needs to be told.

Watch CBS News Videos Online

5 Replies to “Working Hard to Prevent Sexual Abuse – A part of the story that’s not often told.”

  1. Thanks for telling this story. There are are a lot of people who need to see it.

  2. I think one of the most helpful things the Archdiocese can do is to keep speaking about what it’s done/doing. It’s news to me that the ADW began reacting to sexual abuse that long ago- didn’t know that. Their mistake was not being more vocal then, but I also understand that 20+ years ago, society held different beliefs regarding what shouldn’t be discussed in a widely public forum. Back then (and I know this from my own family’s experience), parents were also part of what was not talked about.

    Church leaders needed to grow more media savvy, not so much to protect an image, but to better serve followers. Imagine being a victim of abuse and reading/hearing all the press about known predators, ignoring unthinkable behavior and cover-up’s. Believing the Church ignored one’s abuse perpetuates it. Maybe I’m paying attention more now OR the Church has more recently improved how they respond to attacks.

    And to those who comment about the waste of time it is for parents to do VIRTUS while pedophile priests are the problem- think again. Incidents of abuse are MUCH higher in the general population versus the clergy. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexual approached, most often by someone they know. If the church scandal created the forum by which our children are learning to recognize and speak about what is inappropriate behavior, then something good has come out of something bad.

  3. That was a reasonably fair and balanced story on CBS, Msgr. Our Church has a difficult balance to strike in today’s harsh, anti-religious environment – how best to show that measures are in place to protect children while not appearing to dismiss the crimes that the minority committed.

    There is no option but to be transparent not just with the procedures but with the results – # of cases of church staff/clergy alleged abuse reported, #/% of those cases investigated internally, #/% referred to police/prosecutors, #/% church staff/clergy arrested/charged/convicted/removed from duty, etc. It’s one thing to know that checks are in place, as the CBS piece shows; it’s another to show the results of those checks. By being open with the results, we remove a lot of the ammo that both genuine and bigoted critics use against us.

    1. Doesn’t the Dallas Charter require this reportage? I know that we submit facts for a yearly report and that at the website I reference in the article there are some yearly reports. I’ll have to check into those and see if they have the data you have mentioned.

  4. Very enlightening to hear of your Archdiocese early program – would that more diocese had acted in similar fashion. And it is great that now all of the diocese participate in a program similar to the VIRTUS one. I too acknowledge that parents too would not address this problem – so further agree – something good has come out of the bad.

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