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Many are surprised to learn that the reaction to the sexual abuse scenarios in the Catholic Church was left to the discretion of the bishop or archbishop of the diocese. Many priests who were accused of sexual abuse ended up being moved from parish to parish or compelled to enter psychological treatment. Priests who continued to offend or those whose abuse entered litigation or threatened to be made public were instructed to retire or resign, and, occasionally, they had been laicized. Laicization is the removing of the right to execute clerical tasks.
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A few bishops who covered up for offending priests were also made to retire or resign. It was generally speaking, the responsibility of the individual diocese to settle the claims of the victims of abuse. Some dioceses declared bankruptcy due to the financial load of the settlements.
Until the Boston Globe’s exposure of the scandal of sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese, the episcopal conference had little involvement in addressing sexual abuse incidents. As the scandal evolved and allegations increased, United States bishops felt the call to take coordinated measures to try to handle the situation.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called for more punishment for priests who committed sexual abuse. In June of 2002, they accepted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and promised to create a safe space for all children in church activities.
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They developed universal procedures for handling accusations of sexual abuse against priests and other church staff. Reforms were put in place to involve criminal record checks for all church employees, and dioceses were forced to document allegations to the authorities. They also commissioned research into the abuse situation.
For many years, the Vatican response has been criticized for being very slow-moving. There was no initial response to the Boston Globe story in 2002, but the Vatican monitored the response of the United States bishops. In 2003, a secret document was found that gave guidelines on how to conceal instances of sexual abuse. That same year, Pope John Paul II decreed that people who harmed the young had no place in the priesthood. The Vatican began requiring background checks for church employees and released rules against allowing ordination for homosexuals. Pope Francis implemented the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors in 2014 to focus the church’s efforts to handle the sexual abuse scandal.
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