“It’s a concrete, tangible action that you hope instills peoples’ awareness and confidence that these issues are being addressed,” Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki, said of the charter.
During an interview with your Catholic Herald Thursday, June 21, Topczewski said the archdiocese already had a procedure in place through Project Benjamin, which, according to the archdiocese charter compliance summary, had met with more than 200 victims/survivors of sexual assault between 1994 and 2002.
Pre-charter pastoral approach in place
In 1989, the archdiocese established Project Benjamin to bring together victims’ advocates, health care professionals, judicial and law enforcement representatives and clinical social workers and therapists to assist the church in responding to victims/survivors and to offer recommendations about appropriate policies and procedures. The emphasis of Project Benjamin was on healing.
“We, pre-charter, would’ve had a pastoral approach already in place through Project Benjamin that was well ahead of its time compared to other dioceses in the country,” Topczewski said. “Our office was more designed in outreach to victims than to the civil reporting.”
The charter established protocols such as reporting allegations to the district attorney as soon as being aware of them, relieving the alleged offender from ministerial duties, provide counseling and therapy to victims, and providing “safe environment” training for employees of the archdiocese.
According to the archdiocesan charter compliance summary for 2003, the archdiocese had paid for more than $600,000 in therapy between 1988 and January 2003, and more than 50 victims/survivors had received therapy.
“In spite of the fact that there may be a lot of things that we were doing before the charter, it was kind of still a watershed moment of saying now we have a guiding document that we can always point to,” Topczewski said.
He said the charter is a normal procedure for the more than 200 parishes in the archdiocese to use as a guide when an allegation comes forward.
“Our focus on the charter isn’t a regulatory focus; it’s a ministerial focus,” Topczewski said. “We were already doing it before the charter said, ‘You have to do it.’”
He added that the archdiocese was “light years” ahead of other dioceses in addressing sexual abuse by clergy when the charter was adopted.
Fr. Charles Keefe of Milwaukee Catholic Home and member of the Community Advisory Board, which reviews and improves the response of the archdiocese to those who have experiences or been affected by sexual abuse by church personnel, said the archdiocese has improved how it handles clergy sexual abuse of minors.
“We’ve made some amazing strides in terms of trying to get a handle on the particular problem of the abuse of children,” Fr. Keefe said. “Any kind of clergy abuse that’s been going on we’ve, for one, set up programs to make sure that, even if the individual slides through the legal system on a technicality, we can continue to do our investigation. I think that’s important.”
He said, based on what he’s seen at the Milwaukee Catholic Home and at St. Mary’s Hospital, where he’s a part-time chaplain, the response by residents has been positive.
“They agree that we’ve made strides in terms of trying to get a handle on this,” Fr. Keefe said. “It’s a very difficult problem.”
He added that he sees an opportunity to make greater improvements, but the archdiocese is an example for other institutions to follow.
“We have done an excellent job and I think that it is also demonstrated the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is considered one of the forerunners of dioceses here in the country, as well as dioceses around the world, at looking to us for guidance,” Fr. Keefe said. “It’s a terrible tragedy that we even have to go through this, but recognizing the fact that we did, we are definitely doing our best in terms of it.”
Former Wisconsin Lt. Gov. of Wisconsin Margaret A. Farrow, member of the Diocesan Review Board, which is a consultative body to the archbishop and which oversees the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s response to sexual abuse, said the charter brought awareness to leaders in the archdiocese of what needed to be done to address the problem.
“When the charter was developed and put to the bishops, as I understand it, I remember clearly how (then) Archbishop (Timothy) Dolan was going to make sure we did everything and that the archdiocese and anyone involved was going to do anything to follow it,” Farrow said. “There was total commitment by everyone and a real education for everyone in the Catholic schools and the clergy to know what this was requiring, what kind of scrutinization of personnel now being selected to teach or do anything involving children.”
Farrow has been a member of the board since its inception in January 2003. The “Essential Norms for Diocesan Policies Dealing with Allegations of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Priests or Deacons,” approved by the Vatican in December 2002, requires each diocesan bishop to appoint a review board.
Topczewski said people have become more aware of the charter and the changes being made in the archdiocese since its implementation.
“The problem was recognized, acknowledged and steps (were) taken to address it,” Topczewski said. “It may not have always been the best steps but the best steps available to us at that time.”
Restore priest's good name
One provision of the charter states that if an allegation is unsubstantiated then “every step possible will be taken to restore the good name of the priest or deacon.”
Farrow said it’s not so easy for people to forget about an accusation, even if it’s false.
“It’s difficult for an institution like the archdiocesan church, the administrative side of the church, to be able to wipe this away and say, ‘Never mind, this wasn’t right,’” Farrow said. “You and I both know that if someone is accused of something and proven innocent, the initial accusation is hard to ultimately get rid of, even though the person was proven to be not guilty.”
However, Farrow said, no priest who has been found innocent has said the archdiocese didn’t do everything they could to “restore the good name.”
Incidences of sexual abuse have dramatically decreased over the last 10 years, Topczewski said. He added that the charter remains an important tool in preventing and recognizing sexual abuse.
“The charter, at least in this archdiocese, is an active document that we’re constantly looking at,” Topczewski said. “I know we’re well beyond the requirements of the letter of the law and we’re into the spirit of what can we do better.”
Farrow said she’s optimistic about the future of the archdiocese and the charter.
“I hope there’s a point where we don’t need a review board anymore because the cases have become non-existent,” Farrow said. “But human nature being what it is, I’m experienced and wise enough to know that may not be the case for quite a while.”