When the Ramsey County Attorney's Office filed its civil petition on June 3, 2015, it sought to prevent the Archdiocese from engaging in further acts that would cause harm to or contribute to the delinquency of minors. The means to accomplish this, according to the petition, was for the court to evaluate the Archdiocese's child protection program and identify and develop a plan to address any weaknesses, and for the Archdiocese over a period of years to have to prove to the court's satisfaction that such weaknesses have been addressed and that the program is functioning as intended. The settlement agreement includes provision for the latter, while the stipulations suggest exactly where such weaknesses have been found and how the Archdiocese has proposed to remedy them. On these points, the victory clearly lays with the Ramsey County Attorney's Office.
Yet, the scope of both the court's oversight and the practices and procedures it covers are extremely limited. This is because, as the agreement notes, it pertains only to the Archdiocese's Central Corporation, and does not include the parishes, seminaries, or Catholic schools where, historically, the vast majority of sexual abuse of minors by clergy has taken place. In other words, the provisions of the agreement must be followed by the Central Corporation (the administrative offices of the Archdiocese) but a parish or school can disregard the provisions without fear of consequences beyond a possible letter from the Chancery. While this is extremely problematic, it is not the fault of the Ramsey County Attorney's Office. The civil petition and criminal charges were filed against the Archdiocesan corporation and, as we all know, the Archdiocese has long maintained that its parishes and schools are separately incorporated and not under the control of the Archbishop. The agreement, therefore, represents what could be reasonably achieved within the limits of the law.
The same limits of the law are what has made it possible for the Archdiocese to also claim victory on at least one point. For, in agreeing to the settlement, it avoided any admission of guilt. In fact, as the "recitals" states, the Archdiocese 'denies that it is contributing to a child's need for protection or services', and asserts that it has taken and is taking steps to substantially enhance its safe environment program. In previous posts I have provided many reasons to doubt both of those statements, but avoiding an admission of guilt was undoubtedly a key issue for the Archdiocese. Many of us find that unsatisfying- especially those of us who know that, in fact, the Archdiocese is guilty as hell- but it may also prove advantageous to the victims/survivors of abuse. The lack of a determination of guilt could prove important in the Archdiocese's battle with its insurers, which it hopes will contribute substantially to any bankruptcy settlement.
With this agreement, as with all others, the devil will be in the details. Unfortunately, those details remain in the control of the Archdiocese and so, in my opinion, the settlement is unlikely to really accomplish much toward making the church a safer place for children and other vulnerable people. I continue to be troubled by the Archdiocese's stubborn adherence to categorizing adult volunteers by whether they have 'regular or unsupervised' contact with minors, as parishes have exploited that for more than a decade to avoid the costs and hassle of background checks. I am intrigued by the fact that the Ramsey County Attorney's Office can, under this agreement, recommend appointees to the Ministerial Review Board, and that the names of the actual appointees will be made known to it. However, I think the names of those individuals should be made known to all of us, as is the practice of many dioceses. Moreover, it is significant (but unavoidable given the current hierarchical structure of the Church) that the Ministerial Review Board remains purely consultative. The makeup of such boards has never been in question; what has been problematic was the board's lack of decision making authority and its inability to access information without recourse to the Archdiocese. Those problems are not corrected by this agreement.
Which brings me to my final concern about the agreement, and the one which most epitomizes why this agreement, like all of the other promises made by the Archdiocese on this issue, is likely destined to fail. Ultimately, oversight for the Archdiocese's safe environment program remains in the hands of the Archbishop and the Archdiocesan Corporate Board. For those who are not aware, the corporate board is composed of the Archbishop, key staff members who serve ex officio (the Vicar General, CFO and the Chancellor for Civil Affairs), a priest and five lay people (usually important donors). All of these (with the exception of any auxiliary bishops) are appointed by the Archbishop. The Archbishop retains certain reserved powers, and practically the Board is not involved in the day-to-day governance of the Archdiocese. However, the Archbishop and the ex officio appointees (including, currently, one former employee who is a lay appointee) have always been involved in the day-to-day running of the Archdiocese, including its response to allegations of sexual misconduct by clergy. Meaning that, despite the best efforts of the Ramsey County Attorney's Office, the responsibility for fixing this problem has been left in the hands of the same people that created it in the first place. In order to convince me of the effectiveness of this agreement, the makeup of the Corporate Board has to change completely. The appointment of a new Archbishop will change at these some of these positions, but a leader with a true interest in reform will not delay in making sure that all the others change as well.