The Catholic Church, which was riddled by sexual abuse scandals starting in the early 2000s, now could teach Hollywood a thing or two about how to protect children, a church leader said Thursday.
Edward Mechmann, director of public policy for the New York Archdiocese, told the Catholic News Agency that the church learned from its experiences that the key to combating abuse is combating the culture that allows it.
“In the area of child protection, the corporate culture is the most important element,” Mechmann said. “In the Church, we have successfully made child protection a key part of our regular course of business and we have made it unequivocally clear that any kind of sexual sin against minors is utterly unacceptable.”
He offered the advice as Hollywood and other industries respond to sexual harassment and assault scandals, including allegations made this week against “House of Cards” actor Kevin Spacey. Spacey is accused of making a sexual advance on Broadway and TV actor Anthony Rapp, who was 14 years old when the incident allegedly occurred 30 years ago. Since the accusations, Spacey has apologized for the encounter.
“We have put into place strong policies that are aimed to prevent any abuse,” Mechmann said. “These policies are taken very seriously by the leadership of the Church (laity and clergy alike) who have all demonstrated repeatedly that they are committed to the program. We have demonstrated over and over again that we are open to receiving complaints, we take all allegations seriously, we vigorously investigate them, and we are firm in correcting any problem,” he said.
More than 4,400 U.S. priests have been accused of abusing children between 1950 and 2002. The most notorious was John Geoghan of Boston, who was accused of molesting about 130 people, mostly young boys, between 1962 and 1995. Despite receiving a letter outlining allegations against Geoghan, Cardinal Bernard Law reassigned the priest to another parish. Geoghan was found guilty of molesting a boy in 2002 and was sentenced to prison. Law resigned his position in the church the same year.
Also that year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops created the Charter for Child and Youth Protection. The charter requires dioceses to provide resources to help victims of abuse, and to prevent abuse. Each year, the USCCB releases a report that includes an audit of all abuse cases and allegations, and policy recommendations for dioceses.
“(The guidelines) include measures to promote healing and reconciliation with victims/survivors, guarantee an effective response to allegations, ensure accountability, and protect the faithful in the future,” Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director of the USCCB’s Office of Child and Youth Protection, told the Catholic News. “An annual audit of dioceses by an external firm helps to make sure dioceses are effectively implementing the Charter.
“For example, the audit ensures that: all clergy, volunteers, staff, educators and children are trained to identify and report abuse; all adults with access to children receive background checks; allegations are reported to law enforcement; victim outreach and support is available in every diocese; and offenders are removed from ministry and further access to children,” he said.
The Church continues to face criticism for being slow to act on allegations. In September, Pope Francis told a Vatican commission on sexual abuse that the Catholic church had been slow to deal with the problem, saying: “There is the reality that the church arrived at the consciousness of these crimes a bit late. When consciousness arrives late, the means to resolve the problems also arrive late. I am aware of this difficulty but it is reality and I say it plainly: We arrived late.”
Francis himself said he had regretted that early in his papacy he had kept a priest from being defrocked after it was found that he had committed acts of sexual abuse, according to a report by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The priest was moved out of public ministry, and two years later abused again.
In 2016, the Church said, there were two new substantiated cases of abuse of minors in U.S. dioceses.
“The contrast with the entertainment industry couldn’t be more stark,” Mechmann said. “There is clearly a corporate culture of sexual vice, there is no commitment to cleaning out the bad elements, and they are doing little or nothing to prevent further abuse.”