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US bishops renew Dallas Charter with only minor amendments

June 16, 2011

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has voted to renew the sex-abuse policies established in 2002, with only minor modifications.

By an overwhelming vote of 187- 5, the American bishops approved to continue the policies of the “Dallas Charter.” The policies were amended to classify the use of child pornography as a form of sexual abuse, and to require bishops to report allegations of abuse by other bishops.

The USCCB did not address the most pressing complaint about the Dallas Charter policy: that some bishops have continued to ignore or downplay the importance of sex-abuse complaints. Complaints on that score have caused new bursts of controversy in Philadelphia and Kansas City in recent weeks, raising new questions about the effectiveness of the Dallas Charter policies.

But Bishop Blaise Cupich of Spokane, who heads the USCCB committee on sexual abuse, held firmly to the current policy, telling reporters that “it was when the charter was not followed correctly we got into difficulty.” He insisted that the problems would not have arisen if bishops had adhered to the terms of the Dallas policy.

The Washington Post headline on an AP report about the bishops’ deliberations creates an inaccurate impression by suggesting that the bishops were asked to address “loopholes” in the current policy. The main complaint is not a “loophole,” but a central feature of the Dallas Charter, which was recognized by critics from its inception. Although the Dallas Charter sets up norms for the handling of sex-abuse complaints, the individual diocesan bishops are responsible for enforcing those norms, and there are no provisions for sanctioning bishops who fail to carry out this responsibility.

Thus the central weakness of the USCCB policy is the reliance on individual bishops. The episcopal conference has no authority to discipline individual bishops, and so the Dallas Charter cannot be amended in a way that would create new policies for holding diocesan bishops responsible.

To date, the American bishops have shown no willingness to hold themselves accountable by less formal means, by criticizing colleagues who have failed to carry out their duties in protecting young people and disciplining wayward clerics.


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