Review board on sexual abuse remains dedicated to safety of children, vulnerable adults
This story is part of an occasional educational series on diocesan safe environment practices.
When the clergy sexual abuse scandal rocked the Catholic Church in America in the early 2000s, the U.S. bishops went to work on creating the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Before the charter was officially adopted in June 2002, Bishop John Kinney had already begun plans to establish a diocesan review board, made up mostly of lay people, to serve as a consultative body to advise the bishop in his assessment of allegations of sexual misconduct of minors by priests and deacons and their suitability for ministry.
The charter stipulates that each bishop must establish a review board.
“The review board is an integral part of ensuring the safety of children and vulnerable adults in the Diocese of Saint Cloud,” said Elizabeth Hayden, current chair of the Saint Cloud Diocesan Review Board. “The members of this board have been and continue to be invested in the ongoing commitment to serve those who have been abused in the past and to implement policies and procedures to prevent, to the best of our ability, any future abuse.”
Hayden, a retired district court judge, is one of 10 current members who make up the diocesan review board. At least five members of the diocesan review board must “be of outstanding integrity and good judgment in full communion with the Catholic Church.”
Additional recommendations include representation from law enforcement, judiciary, health care professionals and mental health care practitioners. Some boards include attorneys, teachers, and victim survivors.
The Saint Cloud Diocesan Review Board includes a parish youth representative, a registered nurse, religious sister/educator, a retired deputy sheriff and a victim survivor representative.
Hayden has been a part of the Saint Cloud Diocesan Review Board for about six years. Her legal background gives her an appreciation for precedent, proof and fairness for all.
“Having a diverse set of board members, we as a collective, bring such a variety of expertise and individual gifts to the table,” Hayden said. “We are looking at our tasks from all kinds of angles of humanity. Each of us appreciates the need for clarity, enforceability and fairness to all parties. We do that by our listening, our writing and our commitment to ensuring the safety of all children and vulnerable adults.”
Ex-officio non-voting members include the vicar general, Father Robert Rolfes, and the Victim Assistance Coordinator, Roxann Storms.
Two permanent positions include a priest representative, Father Tim Baltes, and the Promoter of Justice, Father Robert Harren. The Promoter of Justice is a position within the diocese, which “fosters and safeguards the public good, that is, for the protection of the rights of all concerned and for the good of the Church in general.”
Members are appointed by the bishop for a term of five years, which can be renewed.
As the charter indicates, the 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 suitability for ministry.
When an allegation is made, if the abuse involves a minor or a vulnerable adult and is current or has taken place within the last three years, it must be reported to civil authorities, which includes social services and law enforcement agencies.
Upon receiving a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult that happened at any time by a cleric who is still living, the bishop removes the cleric’s faculties, which means that the cleric is prohibited from performing his priestly duties. If law enforcement begins an investigation, the review board would not conduct its own external investigation during this time so as not to interfere with a criminal investigation. A separate investigation initiated by the diocesan review board may take place after the criminal investigation is completed.
In the six years since Hayden began serving on the diocesan review board, there have been two requests to conduct external investigations of clergy members. The board hired a law firm from the Twin Cities to complete the investigation and provide a recommendation as to the credibility or lack of credibility of the allegations to the board. The board then reviewed the findings and made a recommendation to the bishop.
“The investigations were done absolutely independent of the bishop’s influence. The board read and approved what was done and gave him recommendations on each of the clerics,” Hayden explained.
One of the allegations was not found to be credible. In the second case, the allegations were found credible and the priest’s name was added to the list of clergy likely to have abused minors in the Diocese of Saint Cloud. His faculties had already been removed upon receiving the allegation.
In addition to working with the investigations, the diocesan review board also reviews diocesan guidelines, policies and procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults. As needed, the board makes recommendations to the bishop for change or modification. Some examples include the Sexual Misconduct Policy and the Guidelines for Ethics and Integrity in Ministry. They also assess procedures on how to assist parishes when a priest is removed and establishing guidelines for counseling, therapy and/or spiritual direction for victim survivors.
Benedictine Sister Julie Schleper, who resides at St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, has served alongside Hayden for six years. She believes that the members of the diocesan review board are “approaching their responsibilities with tremendous compassion and sincere effort.”
“I believe that for persons who are open and listening, reading and observing, and aware of the complexity of every situation and experience, diocesan leaders, and especially Bishop Kettler, are doing all that is possible to reach out in understanding and transparency to continue to build trust,” she said.
“We want to build trust,” Hayden added. “We want to do this by educating the public as to processes that are already in place. We want people to have faith in their diocesan leaders and those of us who are volunteers, that we are all taking this seriously.”
Independent and impartial
Hayden, who attends St. Mary’s Cathedral, said her role in being a member of this diocesan review board is to be concerned about the care and safety of all children and vulnerable adults whether in schools, parishes or institutions.
“My allegiance is not to the bishop except that I am on the board and I will fulfill those responsibilities. My role is not to protect the diocese, defend the diocese or to be secretive about any diocesan issues,” Hayden said.
“One thing that impresses me is that, many times, the bishop has come to us and laid out a situation and asked us for our thoughts. We are reassured of our independence when he asks us our opinion on the appropriate response or language in reference to something he is addressing.”
Sister Julie said that during meetings, both the bishop and vicar general excuse themselves when the board discusses investigations.
“They step out so that our action will be entirely independent,” she said.
Each year, a safe environment data report is compiled and sent to an independent compliance auditor, who checks to ensure the charter is being followed. Additionally, an onsite safe environment audit is conducted every three years. Sister Julie was interviewed by the auditor during the last onsite audit, which took place in 2016.
“I remember he asked me if I thought the members of the board speak their own minds when the bishop and vicar are present. They definitely speak their minds, that has been so clear to me,” she said. “Everyone is always so concerned that we are doing the appropriate thing and whether we are doing enough.”
Both Hayden and Sister Julie have the same goal, as do all members of the review board — ensuring the safety of children and vulnerable adults.
“All the procedures and guidelines and policies speak loudly to me of our desire to assure parents and guardians that their children are safe,” Sister Julie said.
“As a board, we have done everything we can think of to put in place the policies and procedures to protect children and vulnerable adults. And the job is never done. We don’t want to leave one stone unturned,” Hayden added. “I want children and vulnerable adults to be safe and I want those people who love those children and vulnerable adults to be confident that they are safe. If we can do anything to prevent abuse, interrupt it or to provide some healing from it, that’s what we are invested in.”