Guest Post about Virtus Article on Reporting Up the Chain

Around here, all Catholic teachers, youth leaders, clergy, and parish volunteers know about “Virtus,” a website that offers sex-abuse educational material, for a fee.

VirtusIn order to interact with young people in parish life, we all must read and respond to the articles that Virtus publishes regularly. This on-going education plan is one of the key elements of the strategy for ‘child protection’ devised by Church authorities after the Boston Globe Spotlight scandal of 2002. Every diocese has a ‘child-protection co-ordinator,’ with the task of policing the compliance of everyone who interacts with young people in Catholic parishes. We all have to read and respond to every article by answering on-line questions about it.

No complaints about any of that, in and of itself. Virtus bulletins sometimes have insightful and helpful information. That said, last month’s Virtus bulletin had the following message:

The media has reported sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. It may seem disheartening to us Catholics. But getting the truth out is a good thing, and the Church learns from mistakes that leaders have made in the past. We, the Catholic faithful, are the ‘child protectors.’ If we see something that looks wrong, we must report it up the Church chain of command.

[I would link to the article, so that you could read it for yourself. But the article is not available to the general public, only to paying customers.]

A parishioner and generous volunteer here noticed the hole in the article’s argument, and wrote this letter to the editor of the Virtus bulletins:

Dear editor,

You invited constructive feedback. I hope this is considered constructive.

I was pleased to see an article that touched on the need for accountability and open conversation, and the admission that we Catholics might have this feeling of “when will this all end!”

I also recognize that the intent of these posts is to guide and encourage those in youth ministry to be alert, and know how to identify and address unsafe practices or suspect behavior. I know the purpose is not to address the failings of our leadership.

I would argue, however, that the accountability issue is huge! Why bother reporting something when we don’t believe any good will come of it? Why report up the chain of the church leadership when they are poised to protect the institution, not the child? What assurances do we have that if we report up, and an incident is not addressed, that those in positions of authority will be held accountable?

While the McCarrick report shares more than what was previously known publicly, it still seems vague. The report indicates a flow of information that sadly confirms a behavior of “passing the buck” and a pattern of response that gives preference to testimonials of colleagues rather than believing those who were molested or inappropriately treated. The report shows no ardent desire for the health of our children and the conscience of the Catholic people, who would demand no stone be left unturned!

It saddens me that the McCarrick report explains away the sequence of seemingly lack-luster investigations rather than taking a very different approach. Namely, actually holding those parties who are still in leadership positions accountable, according to their extent of involvement. Some people think they are untouchable. Until that changes, the church, that is the people, will continue to suffer for the sins of their leaders.

I would hope that today an incident report would be properly investigated and not brushed aside. Still, I would err on the side of reporting to the civil authorities, because there is no conflict of interest, as there might be with a parish priest or bishop, archbishop, cardinal, etc.

The net is that we, the people in youth ministry, need to know that a complaint will be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly and properly, and that we will be kept informed (rather than experiencing some mysterious disappearance), regardless of whether it is behavior toward a child, a teenager, or an adult.

And if this doesn’t happen–if we the people have to report up (above the bishop)–we need to know that the bishop will be dismissed for not doing his job!

No excuse is acceptable for ignoring, brushing aside, or disbelieving a report without a proper investigation. No excuse is reasonable for rushing to judgment, when the truth and the health of our children and parishioners is at stake. While there is historical evidence to suggest that some might attempt to libel or discredit vis-à-vis a claim of abuse or inappropriate behavior, it is not reasonable to disregard a claim based on that defense. The field of psychology has come far enough for us to understand that children, in particular, do not lie about such claims.

We also need to know that the behaviors previously present in our seminaries have been eliminated, and that our future priests are no longer being subjected to such inappropriate advances as acknowledged in the McCarrick report. Who in their right mind would allow their child to consider seminary knowing that he might be put into such compromising and humiliating situations?

Thank you for reading this note.

–Bernadette Harmon

Bernadette received a brief, courteous response from the editor. She awaits, however, answers to these questions that she posed in a follow-up e-mail:

If we report something, how long might we expect to wait before getting a response?

How do we know if our report is getting brushed aside?

How long should we wait before escalating?

Should we try discreetly to take video or audio of suspect behavior?

How do we keep ourselves and our family safe if we choose to make a report?

How long should we wait between reporting to the pastor, then later to the bishop or to law enforcement?

What recourse do we have if we are asked not to come back to ministry after making a report or get let go from a staff position?


4 thoughts on “Guest Post about Virtus Article on Reporting Up the Chain

  1. Bravo, Bernadette!
    Fr. Mark, thank you for sharing her comments. I won’t hold my breath until she gets answers to her questions…if she even gets answers. But good for her for writing to them.

  2. What a well-thought out letter. I hope that she receives more follow-up than a brief note. Until we see evidence that those in the hierarchy give more than lip service, I would go to the civil authorities. Burying criminal activity, to “save” the Church from embarrassment is evil. I would NOT photograph or video someone, as you could be sued. BTW, I took the Virtus class years ago when I was employed by the Church.

  3. Very, very well said.

    If I can add further: what the Virtus folks and the Church don’t get is that The McCarrick Report ITSELF gives plenty of reasons why witnesses or victims of abusive behavior would think twice before reporting it!

    First, the Report proves that the Vatican takes no effective action on anonymous accusations. It starkly declares in note 580 that “anonymous letters have no value.” But every sane person knows that anonymity is a keystone of any whistleblower system. Many such letters, like those from Mother 1, might have lacked enough detail to be actionable. But if the Vatican truly cares about fixing this problem they should be WELCOMING anonymous letters, not disparaging them.

    Second, if anonymity doesn’t work and courageous witnesses are thus forced to provide their names, the Report makes clear that it’s commonplace for the Curia to feed complaints back to the accused! On p. 171, McCarrick claims that when Cardinal O’Connor’s concerns about McCarrick were put in writing to the pope, “I had friends in the Curia and one of them tipped me off about it.” They say this totally without embarrassment! They are unashamed that Rome leaks reports back to powerful clergymen so that they can take action and thwart the investigation, or retaliate against the messenger while there’s still time. They offer no apology because they are not ashamed! No abuse victim or witness can miss the clearly-intended message the Vatican puts between the lines–report up the Catholic chain at your peril!

    Third, the Report says that two bishops (and monsignor) who witnessed McCarrick abusing a young man WITH THEIR OWN EYES in the empty catering hall did NOTHING to remedy the situation. So, if it’s commonplace for bishops to ignore abuse they see with their own eyes, how can anyone seriously believe they will do something about abuse that is related to them only secondhand? It would have been better for victims had they left this sick story out; it only serves to protect the Vatican from blame at the expense of the confidence victims might have that they can come forward.

    Finally, if you can’t trust bishops to act, surely you can trust the papal nuncio, right? No! The Report details how, and again totally without embarrassment, an allegation about McCarrick regarding Priest 2 that then-Bishop Wuerl sent to the nuncio, which might have ended this way back in 2004, was NOT FORWARDED ONTO ROME (p. 227). So, then, is it best just save your pennies so you can hand-deliver accusations to the Roman Curia itself? Well, psychologist Dr. Fitzgibbons tried this concerning McCarrick’s improprieties with Priest 1 way back in 1997, with the same result–no action! (p. 123)

    So, victims are stymied at every turn. Nowhere in the Report does the Vatican apologize for these preposterous behaviors, or renounce them, or say that they’ve changed. So, if other victims of clerical sex abuse are out there, it is sad but true that the McCarrick Report is sure to dissuade them from reporting anything to the Catholic bishops. I hope they still have the courage to do so. Perhaps instead they can turn to a good priest like Fr. Mark, who has proven he will stick his neck out for victims even if it costs him his life’s dream.

  4. Thank you, Judy and Barbara for your appreciation. Barbara, there are some states in which it is ok to record a conversation or video without consent, though given that a minor is involved, that makes it more complicated. If the intent is to gather evidence, and not to use the material nefariously, it might be reasonable. BUT I’m not a legal expert for sure! That’s why I asked the question.

    Michael, your notes are why I responded to the article in the first place. What is our recourse if we think our report is not being addressed?

    Here is the first response I received:
    “Thank you for reaching out and for your feedback. We have updated the article to more clearly state that with suspected abuse, report to the authorities – and for concerning behavior, this should be reported to additional leaders until it is resolved. One positive aspect of the McCarrick report is that people know they cannot always rely on someone in leadership to do the right thing. Which is why we state if nothing happens, communicate to someone else until it resolves. I agree with you that erring on the side of caution and communicating to law enforcement is a great step to take.”

    Here is the second response when I pressed with more specific questions:
    “If you ever have a suspicion of child abuse, you can always go directly to child protective services or local law enforcement. Because reporting laws and processes vary by state, we leave the specific reporting information up to each diocese. I encourage you to contact your diocese for the complete reporting information and processes in your area.”

    I think it’s safe to say that unless I write again, I won’t receive responses to the questions I posed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s