At least that’s what officials of the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown in Pennsylvania want all of us to believe. Earlier this month, the bishop and the acting U.S. Attorney Soo C. Song held a press conference to announce their collaboration on preventing further child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.
“This is a memorandum of understanding, it is not a court document,” Song said. “What we found is that the diocese was a willing partner.”
While the new partners appear willing to cooperate such ventures in the past in other dioceses have led to frustration on the part of secular authorities. After a withering grand jury investigation which revealed that two former bishops of the small Pennsylvania diocese had cover-up past cases of child sex abuse by priests, the diocese is in sore need of good news. While it is too early to know whether the present bishop is sincere, past announcements, including the Pope’s own commission, have led to recriminations, resignations by lay members, and accusations of obfuscation and secrecy.
During their joint press conference, the US attorney and the bishop announced the following reforms:
- The creation of an independent, multidisciplinary oversight board that will include a former U.S. attorney and a Lutheran clergyman;
- The retention of an outside expert to develop a new, comprehensive child abuse prevention program;
- A reporting protocol that requires the diocese to report allegations of child sexual abuse to law enforcement within 12 hours after receipt;
- Taking immediate steps to prevent any contact with minors by the suspected perpetrators;
- Placing clergy on personnel or administrative leave within 24 hours of notice of a credible allegation of child sexual abuse;
- Counseling and support services for victims by qualified and independent mental health professionals chosen by the victims.
During the press conference, US Attorney Song referred to the reform measures as “unprecedented” which may be true in Altoona-Johnstown but similar measures have been announced and failed miserably in other dioceses around the United States. Time will tell if the parties are sincere and able to work together to protect children. As an attorney advocate for abuse survivors, I’ve learned from experience that the Church is unable and unwilling to police itself.