Diocesan leaders reflect on significance of Dallas charter
By RENEE WEBB, Globe editor
Since that charter was adopted at the bishops June meeting in 2002 being held in Dallas, it has become known as and is often referred to as the Dallas charter.
Bishop Walker Nickless of the Diocese of Sioux City, who was a priest for the Archdiocese of Denver at that time, pointed out that not long before that meeting of the bishops the national scandal pertaining to child sexual abuse by clergy had erupted in Boston.
Response was necessary
“The bishops knew they had to respond,” Bishop Nickless said. “It was really important for them to show that they cared first and foremost about victims, that children needed to be protected and that credible and accused perpetrators needed to be dealt with in a strong way.”
He pointed out that he had spent 13 years in priest personnel in the Archdiocese of Denver and that meant that he handled many complaints and accusations regarding priests that were both living and dead.
“That was probably the hardest thing that I have ever had to deal with in my job as personnel director in Denver for priests,” he acknowledged. “It helped me realize how horrible sexual abuse is for our young people.”
Bishop Nickless pointed out that the charter was a comprehensive response to the scandal of child sexual abuse by the clergy. Through the charter, the bishops gave clear guidelines and procedures to follow. They also set up an audit to make sure that all dioceses were complying and required steps such as posting information on the diocesan website for those with questions or complaints.
Msgr. Mark Duchaine, vicar general and moderator of the diocesan review board, said that up until that time there hadn’t been any formal or detailed policy for dealing with incidents of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. Every diocese was basically handling those situations on their own, and he noted that in some instances they were doing well and in some instances they were doing poorly.
Shedding light on the problem
“What the Dallas charter did first and foremost was to bring to our attention the fact that we had a tremendous problem on our hands that we had not dealt with appropriately up until that time,” he said. “There were many, many victims of priests throughout the years who had been robbed of the very core of themselves by virtue of this crime perpetrated against them and they were still suffering years and years after the fact. We had to acknowledge that and deal with that.”
They wanted to be certain that the victims were treated justly, compassionately and that they were assisted in terms of healing. It was also important that they received a heartfelt expression of sorrow and an apology from their diocesan bishop or religious superior.
“We also needed to deal effectively with priest perpetrators who had committed these crimes which meant in some instances exclusion from the priesthood or removal from public ministry,” Msgr. Duchaine said. “For even one violation, there was zero toleration even if it happened in the past.”
Another important component of the charter, noted the bishop, was that law enforcement would be contacted immediately if there was a credible accusation and then if accusations were found to be credible the priest could never minister again in public.
“That’s our commitment to parents and others – we take this very seriously,” Bishop Nickless said.
“The charter was a good response to a terrible problem,” the bishop said. “As we’ve seen after 10 years, it has been a model for other churches and organizations. The Catholic Church led the way in trying to set the proper procedures.”
Msgr. Duchaine said the charter set dioceses on a particular course in so far as establishing diocesan review boards and staffing it with competent and committed individuals in a variety of fields – legal, therapeutic, healing ministries – so that diocese could develop their specific policies and procedures to deal effectively with victims and the accused clergy.
When Bishop Nickless came to the diocese, he said he was very pleased to see that a review board had already been established by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, who was then Bishop of Sioux City. The board met regularly to discuss accusations and give recommendations to the bishop as to what to do in certain cases.
The bishop explained that they also established a relationship with Mercy Medical Center and have a victims assistance coordinator that is the first person of contact in case someone is not comfortable talking directly with the diocese – to a priest or the bishop.
“I’ve been very comforted by the fact that the review board we have is very thorough, caring and is always protecting the victim first and foremost,” he said.
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