Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Holy Cross leaders, Catholic community members consider effectiveness of lay review boards in combating sexual assault

In January of 2002, when the Boston Globe Spotlight team released an article exposing the sexual abuse crisis in Boston parishes, the Catholic Church entered a state of deadlock. In response to the mass allegations, Church leaders met in Dallas that June and created the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The charter established several stipulations, including a key way for lay communities to check their clergies’ power: the creation of review boards.

“Article II of the charter asked that every dioceses and group form a review board, and that the majority of its members are to be laypersons not in the employment of the diocese or the religious order,” Fr. Peter Jarret, assistant provincial and vicar of the Congregation of Holy Cross, said. “So pretty much every entity — all the dioceses, religious communities which are broken up into provinces — formed review boards.”

The lay review board lives on in the Congregation of Holy Cross to this day. Its current purpose is to review allegations of sexual assault made against Holy Cross priests and brothers.

The board is mainly made up of lay people who have some expertise in law or psychology, Jarret said. The board includes a psychologist, two attorneys, one former prosecutor, an education [worker] and a mother and Holy Cross parishioner, among others.

“It’s a consultative body to the bishop — or in our case, to the provincial of the United States Province of Priests and Brothers of Holy Cross,” Jarret said. “If one of our members were to receive an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor about one of our members, we would of course inform the authorities right away and remove that person from ministry. But we would use the board to help us investigate, or they would be kind of our sounding board in terms of how to proceed.”

The board members are appointed, not elected, and serve for a six-year term. Jarret said the Holy Cross provincial, or head of the order, is also elected for a six-year term, and another three-year term if he is re-elected, so leadership often tries to coincide board member terms with the term of the provincial.

Jarret said the congregation has very specific procedures to follow when a person comes forward with an accusation against a Holy Cross clergy member.

“We would respond immediately and remove the person from active ministry,” he said. “And then if the person is currently a minor, or it happened when the person was a minor, we would notify the police, the authorities and then work with them to do an investigation. We would usually meet with the person making the allegation and listen to their story, and all that would get written up, and if there’s other people that were involved in terms of someone who witnessed it or had knowledge of it … we write all that up and we would call the review board together and we would present all that to them and they would help us think through it.”

The role of review boards proved particularly influential last year. When allegations against Cardinal McCarrick surfaced in June, the review board in the Archdiocese of New York found the allegations against him “credible and substantiated.” The Pope soon called for McCarrick’s resignation, who forfeited his position as Cardinal later that month.

Jarret said many of the cases the board receives are from many years ago, which he attributes to the Catholic Church’s work to reduce clerical abuse since 2002.

“The Church has done a good job since 2002 in terms of its protection of minors, so many and most of the cases are previous to [2002] and some are back from the 1950s and ’60s, so the priests are deceased,” he said. “Now, we’ll still do a full investigation, but the board is helpful in how to think through that … I think both for us and for most dioceses, really, since the Dallas Charter, there haven’t been many cases, and for us, none since 2002. Even if you look at the Pennsylvania report, they’re pretty much all before 2002. So I think the system is actually working.”

Terry McKiernan, president of, a website that seeks to document all cases of clergy sexual abuse, said new cases of sex abuse are still emerging.

“[While] it is true that I think there are fewer cases, it’s also wise to be wary of that rhetoric — that ‘Oh, these are all old cases.’ There are plenty of new cases,” McKiernan said. “The Church will say, ‘Oh, things have gotten a lot better,’ and that’s to some extent true, but it’s not thanks to them. All of these dioceses that are putting out lists now are putting out lists because the grand jury report in Pennsylvania resulted in all of these attorneys general investigations, and the bishops are really worried about that. There’s also a federal investigation going on right now. So there’s high anxiety among the American bishops.”

McKiernan said it is also necessary to consider how information about sexual abuse is passed from clergy to the boards.

“The second important question is, how do they get the cases, and how do they get the evidence that they are deliberating on? … When the news [of the 2011 Philadelphia abuse scandal broke] there was a grand jury report that revealed that the review board had really performed terribly and there were dozens of accused priests still in ministry,” he said.

McKiernan pointed to a work written by Ana Maria Catanzaro, head of the Pennsylvania review board, in 2011 in which she said her board was alarmed to find they were not already familiar with all the cases the grand jury had reviewed.

“Until the grand jury report came out, the board was under the impression that we were reviewing every abuse allegation received by the archdiocese,” McKiernan said in the work. “Instead, we had been advised only about allegations previously determined by archdiocesan officials to have involved the sexual abuse of a minor — a determination we had been under the impression was ours to make. The board still doesn’t know who made those decisions.”

Fr. Richard Wilkinson, former assistant provincial and vicar of the Congregation of Holy Cross, said the only documents the Holy Cross review board would not have access to would be the medical documents from the examination priests receive at medical facilities made confidential under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which protects patients’ health information.

“I would share with the board the general observations and recommendations, for instance, if … their initial recommendation is, ‘Yeah, we think he needs long-term [treatment] and this seems not only credible, but very likely, that there are other issues going on with this person — whether it be codependency or co-addiction with alcohol or drugs or something like that,’” Wilkinson said. “But that’s industry standard now … because both pedophilia and hebephilia … that’s a disease that’s usually accompanied by other [markers such as] personality disorders. You want people on your review board that can understand that kind of context of psychological, medical, legal issues.”

Review boards have also received criticism because they're set up to be strictly advisory — meaning bishops, or provincial in the case of Holy Cross, ultimately have control over the boards’ decision-making.

“Once you set it up that way, where the bishop is picking the people and the bishop is getting their advice — but they’re not in any sense an independent body — they are advisory to the bishop,” he said. “Number one, who’s on the review board? Usually the aspiration is these days to make them majority lay, but even if they’re majority lay, if there is a powerful monsignor on the board, what are the dynamics? Some survivors were put on these boards in the early days, and generally they kind of resigned in disgust.”

Kathleen Cummings, associate professor of history and American Studies and director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, also said makeup of the review board members are an important factor to consider.

“Who is the bishop appointing to the lay board?” she said. “Are they people that are going to want to tell him what he wants to hear? Are they going to be people that are going to challenge him on decisions? My guess is most bishops would go with the former. So, people who might be very talented, very faithful Catholics but do not have a history of criticizing the bishop [could be appointed], and I think that is a flaw in the system.”

Wilkinson said in his six years as vicar — in which he attended lay board meetings in place of the provincial — he never once went against the recommendation of the review board, however.

“I found them incredibly helpful, as I often told them, ‘Your questions are very challenging, but that’s what I need to hear,’ because they were very straightforward, they would challenge me. And so number one, you have to have confidence in the board and they have to have confidence in you,” Wilkinson said. “They know the standards, they know the process, they know Holy Cross, they’re committed to Holy Cross — but in a good way of not trying to protect us, but to hold us accountable.”

Jarret echoed Wilkinson’s claim.

“I would say that it’s pretty rare, I don’t even know if I know any case in which, at least in our situation, where we’ve kind of gone against the recommendations of the lay board,” Jarret said.

There has also been some question as to whether the problem of clergy sex abuse is worse in religious orders than with diocesan priest, McKiernan said.

“How can it not be?” he said. “Often the charism of religious orders has to do with the education of young people.

On the contrary, Wilkinson said he believes the community-oriented culture of religious orders allow clergy to watch for warning signs of abuse, as compared to diocesan communities, which are more isolated.

“I think there’s some built-in accountability, safety in living with others,” Wilkinson said. “Whereas a diocesan priest, oftentimes today they live alone … Years ago, they lived in a rectory with maybe three, four more priests, sometimes in the city, and they all had their little suites and came together for meals. But they didn’t pray together, and so there wasn’t as much accountability, unless your pastor had a good eye, I guess.”

Wilkinson said keeping priests accused of sexual assault in a community will ensure they stay supervised.

“I would err on the side of ‘keep [accused priests] accountable’ … so that we can make sure that [they are] never around kids,” he said.

Religious communities also routinely send these clergy members to neighboring dioceses across the globe, making them difficult to keep an eye on, Cummings added.

“A lot of the religious communities have missions abroad in developing countries,” she said. “Imagine, if it’s so hard to figure out where an abuser went within the U.S., imagine if you’re shipping him to … Bangladesh, Uganda?”

Ultimately, Cummings said, much of the problem resides in a Church trapped in a culture of clericalism — in other words, excessive deference to the authority of clergy.

“A lot of people hear clericalism and think only clerics can be guilty of the sin of clericalism,” she said. “But actually, lay people can be, too, when they defer too much to the bishops and priests and things like that … I think one thing is for lay people to realize their own clericalism. When are they giving the priests and the bishops a pass just because they’re priests and bishops?”

McKiernan echoed Cummings's belief.

“There’s still a smugness, there’s still an insularity,” McKiernan said. “… We have to acknowledge that we all participate, in a way, in this clerical culture.”