Mark Chopko’s 2010 letter on how Church has handled the sex abuse crisis

In 1992 Mark Chopko, then the General Counsel for the United States Catholic Conference, sent a letter to Catholic Digest’s sister publication Today’s Parish about how the Church was responding to the clergy sexual abuse crisis at that time. (You can read that letter here.) Mr. Chopko left the USCCB in 2007 and went into private practice. As the editors prepared the July-August issue we asked him to reflect back on that letter and on how the USCCB has responded to the crisis over the past 18 years.


Dear Dan,


Let me start by expressing my appreciation for your constancy of concern about the evil of abuse in the Church and in the larger society and how it may obscure the good.  The Holy Father said it best last week, when he reminded everyone that the Church is dealing with the consequences of sin inside the Church. I would add “sin” to the list of things, that includes “death” and “taxes,” that will always be with us. 


Let me also begin with a word to the victims of abuse: I am deeply sorry for what you experienced and may continue to experience as a result.  In doing my job, I never forget what you have suffered.


Dan, thank you for the chance to reflect on nearly 20 years’ time between letters – In between letters, thousands of complaints have been raised and more than two billion dollars, mostly from the property and resources of dioceses and institutes, has been spent.  In 2002, as I did many times in the years before and since, I spent many long and excruciating days and months dealing with abuse claims.  My unwavering prayer was (and is) in the confidence that God surely had not abandoned His Church or His people.  So I’d rather think of my assurance that all will be well, both in 1992 and today, as a prayer of “hope and faith,” and not naivety or “unfortunate” optimism.


I remember being asked once, “off the record of course”, how all this seemed to me, which I summed up by reference to a movie – “Groundhog Day,” in which the main character is forced to relive a day until he gets it right.  In 2002, I was one of the three staff consultants who assisted the bishop drafters for the Dallas Charter.  Time will tell whether this time it has been made right….. But here are a few reflections about “then” and “now.”


I re-read my 1992 letter which you have posted along with this reflection.  The key themes of that letter still ring true, notwithstanding all that has gone on since.  As I noted then, the Church owes those victimized by abuse a heartfelt and genuine apology and promise of amendment. That is still true. So too is the basic approach outlined in 1992 – respond promptly, make the victim the first concern, remove the offender, cooperate with authorities, and be open with the people.  The intervening years including 2002 confirmed these principles, and the Charter made them meatier, clearer, and broader.


But USCCB policy-making is not mandatory.  That is not a function in the scope of bishops’ conferences. Nonetheless, by 1994, USCCB had published the results of surveys of diocesan policies that included dozens of key provisions. And in 2002 the bishops who approved Charter made promises to each other and to the Catholic people: those who adopted these principles would be accountable to each other publicly.  Bishops have allowed themselves to be audited and those results published. The public can read the reports for themselves. Moreover the Bishops were assisted by the Holy See in accomplishing their work.  There are now binding canonical norms confirmed by the Holy See that also provide stability and consistency to diocesan actions.


In addition, the John Jay College study in 2004 confirmed that the Church had not yet seen the size and shape of the problem in 1992.  The comparatively modest numbers of complaints seen through the early 1990s was dwarfed by what came after.  And after 2002, the quantitative studies authorized in the Charter showed the true shape of the numbers.  The studies showed some other things as well that give all cause for renewed hope.


The approach in 1992 answered the question how would one respond to a complaint about abuse. In 2002, the Charter also outlined express principles towards education and prevention. Again, the work by the John Jay College underlines the singular importance of proactive measures at education of children and our staffs and volunteers, checking background, and other steps. And as noted already, these promises are made and kept by Bishops across the country whose audit results are published annually.


In 1992, the approach in all institutions – and this was no secret – allowed some who received favorable diagnosis, treatment and prognosis to be assigned to internal, usually chancery, work, subject to close supervision.  In intervening years, however, there was little public discussion around the question, and it seemed shocking in 2002 to read what seemed like old stories being recycled about the failures of the Church because some were still in service.  People thought they were reading about a current and ongoing, not a historic, problem of abuse, and it seemed that there was little anyone could do to persuade them otherwise.  But the real story was in the public outcry, which supported the Charter’s demand for permanent removal and which in 2002 led to removal of more than 700 priests who had been working in dioceses, normally in office jobs where they were supposed to have no contact with children. 


Finally, the people rightly expected their Bishops to address serious concerns, and they did.  An important step was taken with the appointment of a special committee of bishops in 1993, led by the very able and caring John Kinney, who became the public spokesperson.  We were also lucky to be served by good leaders in 2002, among them, Harry Flynn and Wilton Gregory, who led by word and deed, and were willing to acknowledge shame and failings in the Church, and ask forgiveness.


I remain actually more optimistic than I was in 1992, not in spite of but because of what was experienced in the intervening years.  People can know the size and shape of the abuse problem in the Church from the raw numbers and audit reports which are publicly reported every year.  No other child-serving institution does that.  And although criticisms are sometimes heard about the data, there is no reported reliable and quantitative contrary information.  The John Jay data validate, in light of recent audit and other data reports, that the Church is dealing with a historic, not a current problem.  That is no comfort to a person who might be abused today, because as all know, one case is one case too many. The interdisciplinary approach begun by the 1993 special committee is now a fixture in the USCCB in the Committee on Protection of Children and Young People, with bishops from every region and a dedicated staff.  There is new emphasis on prevention through specific and ongoing programs, which are also publicly reported. 


I have often wished there would be reporting on all the positive programs that dioceses and religious orders have in place that serve victims, and serve to prevent new ones. If these programs got even half the attention that decades-old claims continue to get, there might be a better public understanding. As one of my former colleagues liked to remind all, the Church is judged by the worst, not the best, cases.  To be sure, I could offer justified comment and critique of the pattern of litigation and its attendant press interest in the worst of stories. But this venue is neither the place nor the time. 


Perhaps the John Jay College study of Causes and Context will shed some new light on the effectiveness of what the Conference began in the late 1980s.  This is a journey after all that has many steps.  I pray for the sake of all and especially the children, as I did 20 years ago, that the Church has found its way.


Mark Chopko

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