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National data indicates drop in abuse allegations

By JOANNE FOX, Globe editor
(Email Joanne)

Data was recently published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that child abuse allegations against the Catholic Church have fallen to lowest levels.

It’s a report you probably will not see in the secular media, said Colleen Sulsberger, coordinator of the Office of Safe Environment for the diocese.

“The simple answer is that mainstream media is extremely biased against the faith community in general and the Catholic Church in particular,” she said.

Sulsberger acknowledged that sex abuse claims were the worst crisis to have hit the U.S. Catholic Church – probably in its history, but at the least – in the 20th century.

“It destroyed thousands of kids’ lives, cost billions of dollars, and most likely destroyed the faith of thousands of Catholics as well,” she said. “But out of this terrible tragedy in our church has come an awareness, a focus, and a commitment on the part of so many people to do something about child sexual abuse – to try to learn how to prevent it from happening.”

Data reported

The 2013 Audit Report Findings/Recommendations of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People confirms that strides have been made in combating and preventing abuse (Dallas Charter).

In 2013, nearly 70 percent of the new allegations that were reported were for incidents that occurred between 1960 and 1984, and that data was substantiated by the findings from the study . Of the number of credible allegations against priests reported in 2013, 17 percent were unsubstantiated or determined to be false by year’s end. Out of over 40,000 active priests in the U.S. in 2013, only nine credible allegations were received that involved children who were still minors in 2013. The majority of new credible allegations were against clerics who were deceased, laicized, or already removed from ministry.

“This represents the fewest number of allegations and victims ever tabulated since the annual report was first compiled in 2004,” Sulsberger said. “That proves that the Church is doing something right!”

Yet, the majority of secular publications “continue flogging the church and resurrecting stories of clergy abuse that occurred years ago because they think that’s what people want to hear,” Sulsberger added.

“Sexual abuse of children is far more likely to occur in a public school than in a Catholic school, but those stories are rarely, if ever, reported,” she said. “According to themediareport.com, an online news source, in the past three years the New York Times has published 79 stories about priests who have abused children and not a single story about any other cases of child sexual abuse. Yet we know that this is a crime that is rampant in all sectors of our society.”

Pro-active approach

Sulsberger believes the church is doing more than any other organization to create awareness about child sexual abuse.

“The church’s record of aggressive and proactive leadership in protecting children and preventing child abuse is unparalleled,” she said. “Since the abuse crisis in 2002, the Catholic Church has instituted a ‘zero tolerance’ policy regarding sexual abuse. The U.S. bishops have mandated that any credibly accused priest must be removed from ministry, and that law enforcement officials must be notified in every case.”

In addition, the church has provided training to children on how to protect themselves from predators and to adults on the signs of an abuser.

“The church has conducted more than two million background checks on those who will work with our youth and installed Victim Assistance Coordinators in every diocese, who are there to ensure that adult victims of past abuse receive the help they need,” Sulsberger noted.

Annual audits of all Catholic dioceses to monitor compliance with the Dallas Charter are conducted. The annual audit in Sioux City will take place this fall.

“For the last three years, the USCCB has chosen Stonebridge Business Partners, a professional firm out of New York to perform theses audits,” Sulsberger said. “The audit measures how well a diocese has implemented the mandates of the Dallas Charter, and how the diocese has handled any cases of abuse that may have been brought against any of its priests, deacons, or other personnel.”

Audits scheduled

Bishop Walker Nickless is one of only 26 U.S. bishops who have authorized parish and school audits this year.

“I see the parish audits as a tremendous learning opportunity for all of us,” Sulsberger said. “If there is a deficiency in our programs, some sort of gap in the safeguards we have in place to prevent a child molester from getting to one of our kids, I want to know what it is. The auditor’s job is to find those deficiencies, so that we can fix them.”

Every U.S. Catholic diocese is required to have an independent review board, composed of child welfare experts, psychologists, law enforcement officers, attorneys, and those who work in other aspects of child protection. These independent review boards examine claims of abuse brought against clergy, or other personnel working in the diocese, and advise each bishop on how to properly investigate the claims and how to assist the victims and their families. (See related story.)

Sulsberger was particularly proud of strategies the Diocese of Sioux City has implemented to protect children.

“The Dallas Charter was brand new in 2003 and nothing short of groundbreaking in its scope, and yet, every aspect of it was implemented by Bishop Daniel DiNardo,” she said. “There has been unqualified support from Bishop Nickless since his ordination in 2005.”

Every Sioux City diocesan employee must clear a background check, sign a code of conduct, and take a three-hour Virtus training class, an educational program by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group designed to inform participants about abusive situations.

The same requirements are made of every volunteer who works with children, Sulsberger explained.

“Since the creation of my position as Safe Environment Coordinator in 2011, we have continued to improve our documentation and tracking of more than 5,000 active volunteers, clergy, and volunteers in our diocese,” she said. “Since 2003, we have trained more than 17,000 people to recognize the warning signs of a child sexual abuser.”

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