Sexual abuse crisis: ‘We have work to do,’ retired St. Cloud judge says

Elizabeth Hayden may be retired from the judiciary but she’s far from done promoting justice. In fact, this retired Stearns County judge’s voice will be heard at the national level as she works to confront the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church as a newly appointed member of the National Review Board. 

The board, comprised of 13 people, collaborates with the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People and the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to review and strengthen policies and procedures to address this crisis. The board was established by the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which the bishops adopted in 2002. 

Elizabeth Hayden was appointed to the Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People and the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. (Kristi Anderson / The Central Minnesota Catholic)

Hayden, a member of St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud, was nominated for the board by Bishop Donald Kettler and subsequently appointed by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, USCCB president. She will serve a four-year term. 

“We have work to do,” Hayden said. “I am ready to learn what I need to know so that I can work toward making some changes. My hope is that by working together, we can review what has been the accepted practices and make the necessary changes to prevent further abuse and offer appropriate reparation to the survivors. In that way, [I hope we can] restore confidence in the Church.” 

Upon her appointment, Hayden flew to Washington, D.C., where she met with staff of the secretariat for an orientation meeting for new members. She and two others learned about their new role and the mission and philosophy of the National Review Board. 

“The work is daunting, but it did not compromise my willingness to jump in with both feet and get to work. I don’t think I’ve ever been part of a board or organization that seems so dedicated, so loyal, so intent on doing a good job. Every voice is heard and every opinion is considered,” she said. “It’s such important work, and I’m honored to be invited to work on something that is so urgently needed right now.” 

Hayden said an interest in justice and other tenets of her faith were fostered by her family at an early age. She grew up in LeSueur, Minnesota, and attended St. Anne’s Catholic School, which also instilled in her the importance of honesty, fairness and integrity. Throughout her education at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, her core beliefs were affirmed. 

“I often look back at The Rule of Benedict and the values that the Benedictine sisters at the monastery lived. I learned so much, experienced so much, and I try to model what the sisters taught me,” she said. 

Hayden graduated from St. Ben’s with a degree in social work. She held positions in a psychiatric hospital, county social services and the state department of residential licensing. 

Her time spent in social work helped her “fine tune” her people skills, an asset she feels assisted her in her legal career and will now help her be an effective member of the review board. She received her law degree from Oklahoma City and served as prosecutor in the Stearns County Attorney’s office for six years before being appointed a district court judge. 

Locally, Hayden is a longtime member of the Diocesan Review Board for the Diocese of St. Cloud. She is currently serving her second term as chair. As the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” indicates, the Diocesan Review Board has a consultative role in advising the bishop in his assessment of allegations of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults by an ordained cleric and the determination of his suitability for ministry. 

“We are in crisis — that’s a given — but I’m tremendously grateful for this opportunity to do whatever I can to move forward.”

“The diocesan review board is made up of mostly lay people and works independently from the diocese,” she said. “We are a separate entity. We work closely with the bishop but the business of the board and the decisions made by the board are not dependent upon the bishop’s approval,” Hayden explained. 

“Bishop Kettler is very concerned about the sexual abuse crisis within the Church and wants us to address this issue both locally and nationally,” she said. “He is very progressive when it comes to this topic — we are doing things that are not required of all dioceses nationally and we are taking extra steps to ensure the safety of the people of this diocese. I’m very proud of the work that is being done by our local board.” 

Bishop Kettler nominated Hayden for the National Review Board for two reasons: her engagement with the local review board and her extensive background in law. He also felt it was important that the Midwest be represented. 

“Her experience and her relationships are what I recognized most,” he said. “And she cares about the Church and wants the best that the Church can do.” 

At the national meetings, which occur four times a year, Hayden’s role will be to “collaborate with the USCCB in preventing the sexual abuse of minors in the United States by persons in the service of the Church,” primarily developing and suggesting changes to the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People on matters of child and youth protection, specifically on policies and practices. 

Among the challenges to be addressed by the National Review Board is the need to take a deeper look into the auditing processes and criteria for dioceses nationwide, Hayden said. There is a need for consistency on the national level to meet the standards required by the Charter. The audit is done by an independent contractor but looks to the board for its processes and parameters. 

“We are in crisis — that’s a given — but I’m tremendously grateful for this opportunity to do whatever I can to move forward,” Hayden said. “It is an incredible responsibility that I am taking very seriously. I will work as hard as I need to [in order to] to do this job because I believe in the Catholic Church and I believe in restoring its integrity. Some hard work and serious reckoning by the Church hierarchy will need to be done. My help on any of this will, hopefully, be part of my legacy.” 

Author: Kristi Anderson

Kristi Anderson is a multimedia reporter for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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