Bishops have striven to keep their promise to protect children

As a bishop and as the chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, the editorial "Time to end pattern of deceit, denial" was profoundly painful to read, addressing as it did the betrayal of our children and of our people by some of my brother bishops. One of the particular graces of living the Christian life within the context of community is when brothers and sisters help us to recognize our errors and our sinful behavior so that we can begin to repent and seek God's forgiveness and healing.

We all owe a deep debt of gratitude to the survivors of sexual abuse whose courageous witness has made the church safer by giving rise to an effective child and youth protection program. They remain a top priority, evidenced by the 294 people who came forward in 2014 to report abuse that happened in the past. The problems they faced 30 years ago are not the norm today. Last year, dioceses provided outreach and support to more than 1,700 victims/survivors.

It is also true that many bishops who returned from the bishops' conference meeting in 1992 implemented the five protection principles adopted that year, a decade before the Dallas Charter. They called for victims to come forward for healing, removed priest abusers, cooperated with authorities, implemented safe environment training and were transparent with the public and the media.

Ten years later, the U.S. bishops approved the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to do two unprecedented academic studies of this misconduct as it existed within the priesthood. They also created a National Review Board, a lay board to advise them specifically on the protection of children and they submit to an annual audit for compliance.

The Catholic church is responding with extensive efforts to create a safe environment for our children and young people and the bishops have asked for the active involvement of the whole church. A few notable numbers from the 2014 audit of compliance with Dallas charter:

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  • More than 35,000 priests (diocesan and religious), 16,000 deacons and 6,500 candidates for ordination in the church -- some 99 percent of the men in active ministry -- have been trained on how to spot the warning signs of abuse and what to do if they see them. They have also undergone background checks.
  • More than 160,000 educators and 250,000 employees of Catholic institutions have been similarly trained and checked.
  • 2.1 million background checks have been performed to help ensure those closest to our children are trustworthy.
  • More than 4.4 million children -- 92 percent of the total educated in the church -- have been educated about how to protect themselves.

Nevertheless, this is certainly not a sign that we have somehow put this scandal behind us, nor is it an occasion for self-congratulation. We must remain vigilant. We must not grow complacent. We should not regard the clerical sexual abuse scandal as a distraction from the church's mission, as if, once we have somehow "rectified the problem," we can continue on as before.

Rather, our shepherds, myself included, need to face and repent of the betrayal of trust. Authentic and heartfelt repentance by the shepherds of our church is not a distraction from our mission: It is the mission at this moment in the life of the church and her leaders.

As shepherds entrusted by Christ with God's holy people, we know our accountability to almighty God and we take to heart the words of the prophet Ezekiel:

Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds pasture the flock? You consumed milk, wore wool, and slaughtered fatlings, but the flock you did not pasture. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick or bind up the injured. You did not bring back the stray or seek the lost but ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered for the lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts. They were scattered and wandered over the mountains and high hills; over the entire surface of the earth my sheep were scattered. No one looked after them or searched for them (Ezekiel 34:2-6).

In the Catholic church's sacred responsibility to protect children, we must always do a better job tomorrow than we did yesterday. During the last 12 years of implementing the requirements of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, bishops have striven* to do that and will continue to keep their promise to protect and pledge to heal.

[Bishop Edward J. Burns of Juneau, Alaska, is chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People.]

*The grammatical mistake that appeared earlier in this sentence was a mistake made by the editors, not the author.

This story appeared in the July 31-Aug 13, 2015 print issue under the headline: Bishops have striven to keep their promise .

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