“You are no longer alone.”

That line was written August 27 by the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, in an apology to “survivors of abuse and the families who have lost a loved one to abuse” in one of his several statements regarding the re-emerging clerical sex abuse scandal.

He also referenced the “hundreds of professionally trained staff” who have been “working with the Church to support survivors and prevent future abuse,” and hailed the U.S. Church’s “zero-tolerance” policy, screening and training procedures, victim assistance coordinators, prompt reporting to civil authorities, and lay review boards.

Today, that lengthy list of policy improvements are part of a pattern in dioceses throughout the country. That was not the case before 2002, when the USCCB approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which implemented a series of norms in response to the clerical abuse crisis that began in Boston and spread to other U.S. dioceses.

But in an archdiocese like Los Angeles, which faced its own reckoning in the 2002 abuse crisis, what have been the results?

Accountability in action

One of the norms in the 2002 “Dallas Charter” was that every diocese have a review board composed of several laypeople to help a bishop assess clerical sexual abuse allegations. 

In LA, a precursor to such a board already existed: In 1994, then-Archbishop Cardinal Roger Mahony had created the Sexual Abuse Advisory Board (SAAB), made up of four laypeople and four priests.

Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard “Skip” Byrne, himself a Catholic, was one of the initial members. He remembers it as a relatively informal council that didn’t make recommendations or reach any any formal consensus on cases, but took the confidentiality of victim-survivors and accused priests seriously. 

SAAB eventually became the Clergy Misconduct Oversight Board (CMOB) in 2002. In compliance with the Dallas Charter’s norms, it added several members, shifted the balance in favor of laypeople, and made recommendations on every reported case of sexual misconduct by clergy. After Cardinal Mahony made the board’s original appointments, board members took over the task of naming new members. 

“We tried to a get a cross-section as far as getting women and people of different disciplines and communities within the Church involved,” said Byrne. “We wanted to be as representative of the general population of the archdiocese as possible.”

Since its inception, the scope of CMOB has included clergy misconduct against adults, a feature not included in the Dallas Charter and Norms. 

“Los Angeles deserves a lot of credit,” said former USCCB National Review Board chair Nicholas Cafardi, who noted in a phone interview with Angelus News that SAAB was one of the only such boards in the world when it was created. 

Cafardi, who is dean emeritus of Duquesne Law School in Pittsburgh and a widely quoted expert on Church sexual abuse, pointed out that still today most lay review boards limit themselves to only handling cases of abuse against minors.

“It’s important that we look at abuse against adults, because now we’re starting to hear more and more about abuse occuring in seminaries,” said Cafardi, who added that such abuse can also happen in a parish setting between a priest and a parishioner. 

In 2004, Cardinal Mahony released the “Report to the People of God,” a 25-page document that offered a comprehensive overview of the handling of every credible abuse accusation against clergy and traced the evolution of the archdiocese’s policies regarding clerical sex abuse.

The details were not easy to digest, but in a push for transparency, the report made a point of including case summaries of actual abuses by clergy, identifying the crimes of infamous abusers such as Fathers Michael Baker and George Miller. The report also included a personal apology from Cardinal Mahony, who acknowledged his own “mistakes” in his handling of past cases.

Archbishop José H. Gomez with former CMOB chair and retired Judge Richard "Skip" Byrne and outgoing CMOB chair Judge Fernando Aenlle-Rocha at a Recognition and Appreciation event in April 2018 marking the 25th year of a lay review board in Los Angeles. ALEXANDRA COOPER

‘Constantly evolving’

Part of the institutional shift born from the clerical sex abuse crisis of the early 2000s was the way in which allegations of abuse could be received, processed and reported by the Church. 

Like the CMOB, the Victim Assistance Ministry (VAM) in LA was introduced in 2002 as a direct response to the Dallas Charter and Norms.

Under those norms, the archdiocese reports annually to the USCCB on any allegation received during that year of possible misconduct involving current or past minors, by priests and deacons — whether it is deemed credible or not.

The reports are audited by an external firm hired by the USCCB to ensure an independent and fair accounting of efforts against sex abuse in each diocese. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has been found to be in “full compliance” every year that the audit has taken place.

When someone has an allegation of sexual abuse to report to the archdiocese, that person will ultimately be in contact with Dr. Heather Banis, a trained clinical psychologist who worked in LA-area schools before Archbishop José H. Gomez asked her to take over the ministry two years ago. 

The calls or emails she gets are not always from the victims themselves. Often, she explained, it’s a friend or a sibling who will want to know what the process is before taking the perceived risk of reporting an allegation. 

“It’s a huge deal to call the Church where you were harmed to ask for help,” admitted Dr. Banis. “There’s a lot of testing the waters to make sure they can talk with me or someone in the Church.”

Banis has seen an uptick this summer in calls from victims who’ve been upset or triggered by the allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the accusations detailed in the Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August. 

“I’m always cognizant that another shoe could drop,” said Banis.

Still, there have been unmistakable changes since the implementation of the Dallas Charter that Banis sees as part of an overwhelming success story.

A recent review of the annual reports submitted to USCCB indicates that during the last 10 years, of the reports which were found to be credible, the archdiocese has received a total of six allegations of current misconduct involving clergy with minors. All of those appear to involve inappropriate comments and possible touching as the misconduct, according to the review.

“It’s very rare for us to get a current clergy-related case, which is a testimony to all the education and prevention, and a testimony to us no longer allowing people in ministry who are at risk of offending,” Banis said. 

From reactive to proactive

Like so many of her fellow Catholics, Joan Vienna found little consolation in the disturbing headlines coming out of places like Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania this summer.

But as discouraging as they were, the stream of news reports are also an encouraging reminder of how far things have come since 2004, when Vienna first started as the head of the archdiocese’s Safeguard the Children program.

“I felt God was calling his people to wake up, to do something in a real meaningful, powerful way,” Vienna recalled feeling when she accepted the job.

Since then, Vienna said, programs such as Protecting God’s Children — the most well-known of the VIRTUS programs — have brought about a shift in efforts to combat and prevent sexual abuse in Church-related settings, while pushing accountability for those in positions of responsibility. That change is largely credited with the significant decrease in child abuse cases involving clergy, teachers and parish staff in Los Angeles and across the country. 

A major part of the shift, Vienna said, has been instilling a mentality best described as “proactive” when it comes to detecting warning signs that prevent the abuse of children before it has a chance of happening.

“Before, it was seeing signs of abuse on a child,” Vienna explained. In other words, “the education was focused on the signs after it happened.”

“VIRTUS focused on being proactive: Looking at things that don’t look right, questioning, not letting things go. That was a huge shift in education.”

For the last 14 years, VIRTUS training has been a requirement for all clergy and other adults working or volunteering for the archdiocese, as well as for all children enrolled in Catholic schools. At first, Vienna admitted, there was some resistance among parish workers to the program.

Part of overcoming misconceptions about the aim of VIRTUS training was stressing that “it’s not a program that we’re doing, it’s a safe environment, a whole mindset, a whole change of perspective,” according to Vienna.

Anita Robinson has been a volunteer VIRTUS trainer since 2005 at St. John the Evangelist Church in South Los Angeles. She gives as many as eight trainings in a year, some of them in other parishes that don’t have their own trainer. 

Over the course of 13 years, she said she’s seen a “paradigm shift from obligation to commitment” in people’s attitudes toward the training.

“In the beginning, most were becoming informed of the program, and the trainings were at a minimal information level. People were there out of obligation to the requirement [from the USCCB].”

“Now, I see volunteers and staff much more actively seeking and participating in the training,” she added. 

For Robinson, trainees have included local college students who’ve showed up out of interest rather than requirement, as well as others who have voluntarily passed on what they learned in trainings of their own.

About 329,000 adults in the LA area have participated in VIRTUS trainings since 2004. Like everyone else, LA’s priests are required to take the Protecting God’s Children course every four years. 

A model for the future?

Today, sex abuse experts such as Cafardi see a largely positive before-and-after story in the Dallas Charter. “From Dallas onward, we treated victims with a lot more respect than before,” said Cafardi. 

“Before Dallas, the priests were favored [in accusations] against their accusers. Dallas changed that,” he explained.

With decades of experience as a judge in Los Angeles, Byrne believes the Church does a far better job of disciplining misconduct within its ranks than other institutions, such as local police departments. 

“I think that the Archdiocese of LA is a model for the country, and even the world,” said the parishioner of Christ the King Church in Hancock Park. “You don’t find this kind of thing happening in Los Angeles.”

Children at St. John the Evangelist parish in South LA distribute “Keep Kids Safe” pinwheels after Mass in April 2018. ST. JOHN THE EVANGELIST

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