Child protection expert reviews measures on abuse

Friday, August 16, 2019 - Updated: 1:52 pm

Pittsburgh Catholic Staff Report

An authority on the prevention of child sexual abuse, whom the Diocese of Pittsburgh commissioned to review its pertinent policies and practices over the past decade, has issued his report.

“The Diocese of Pittsburgh has taken early and aggressive steps to protect children in its care. In fact, my overall finding related to their current practices is that the Diocese of Pittsburgh has worked hard in making the diocese an unwelcoming place for child predators,” Shay Bilchik wrote in the executive summary of the report he submitted to Bishop David Zubik on May 8, 2019.

Bilchik, director of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University, is a former prosecutor specializing in cases of child abuse and juvenile delinquency, who later advocated for child victims at the U.S. Department of Justice and served as president and CEO of the Child Welfare League of America.

“It is my conclusion, therefore, that the child protection policies and practices of the Diocese of Pittsburgh are sound and largely implemented with fidelity to the best practice guidance provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops . . . and what are considered best practices more broadly. The evidence to support this conclusion is also demonstrated by the very few incidents of child sexual abuse alleged to have occurred over the past ten years that were associated with diocese-related activities,” he wrote.

He reviewed 10 years ending in June 2018, but mentioned that some key policies and practices were longstanding.

Before the 2002 U.S. Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, “the Diocese of Pittsburgh had already taken steps to ensure the safety of the children in its care, adopting a policy for responding to allegations of clergy sexual abuse in 1986, followed by establishing an Independent Review Board in 1989 and the Office for Victims Assistance in 1993,” he wrote. The Independent Review Board consists of professionals with expertise relevant to child sexual abuse, who advise the bishop on whether an accused cleric is suitable for ministry.

One of Bilchik’s primary recommendations involves developing a more robust child safety protection curriculum in diocesan schools and religious education programs. For a quarter century, child safety has been part of a broader curriculum, The Catholic Vision of Love. Bilchik recommended that the child safety portion of that curriculum be overhauled or supplemented with a program unrelated to instruction in sexual morality.

That is already in the works, said Jane Sarra, head of the Secretariat for the Protection of Children, Youth and Vulnerable Adults, which the diocese established at Bilchik’s recommendation to bring together and expand its child protection efforts.

“We established a committee that is evaluating several national programs on child and youth safety. We have reached consensus on a new program, which we plan to pilot at two sites this fall,” she said.

Bilchik assessed adherence to the U.S. Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

It requires that any priest or deacon who has sexually abused a minor be permanently removed from ministry. “My examination of the policies and practices of the Diocese of Pittsburgh reveals that this provision has been adopted with fidelity during Bishop Zubik’s tenure,” Bilchik wrote. He did not examine any years prior to Bishop Zubik’s appointment.

From 2008-2018, the diocese “did not move any priest or deacon that had committed an act of sexual abuse of a minor to another diocese/eparchy, instead keeping those individuals in residence and away from children,” he wrote.

In his interviews with representatives of Allegheny County Children Youth and Families (CYF) and the Office of the District Attorney of Allegheny County, Bilchik found few allegations of child sexual abuse related to the Diocese of Pittsburgh within the last 10 years. Bilchik reported that a CYF intake manager told him that “he was not aware of any situation where it was discovered that a mandated report was not made by the diocese as required for a current case of child sexual abuse or a situation in which the diocese failed to cooperate in relation to a diocese related allegation.”

His report contained nine recommendations for improvement, including changes to the child safety training program for students. His foremost recommendation was the creation of a secretariat ­­— the highest level of diocesan administration — to coordinate all efforts related to child protection. The secretariat was established before he finished his report, and he expressed confidence that the secretariat will address his other recommendations.

Those include:

• The bishop should continue listening sessions with laity (which Bishop Zubik has promised)

• Closer monitoring of school compliance with training and background checks, including for outside contractors

• Closer monitoring of clergy who were permanently removed from ministry due to a substantiated allegation, but who cannot be dismissed from the clerical state

• Additional child protection training for clergy

• More rigorous follow-up on any deficiencies noted in audits of child protection procedures at specific parishes or schools

• An expanded membership and role for the Independent Review Board.

“All of these recommendations are excellent. We have completed some of them and are actively working implementation of all of the others,” Sarra said.

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