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Archdiocese issues revised clergy code of conduct

Guidelines for respecting personal boundaries and appropriately using technology when communicating with others – especially minors – are key elements of a newly-revised code of conduct for clergy in the Archdiocese of Omaha, effective July 1.

Archbishop George J. Lucas issued the document June 22 to clergy and those preparing for ordained ministry. The full code of conduct can be found on the archdiocese's website.

The code updates and replaces a 2011 code of conduct for ordained ministers, pastoral staff and lay ministers. The updated code applies to all clergy, including bishops, priests and deacons, as well as seminarians and deacon candidates in formation, said Father Scott Hastings, vicar for clergy and judicial vicar for the archdiocese. An updated code of conduct for pastoral staff, lay ministers and others who have contact with minors is being developed. 

“Clergy must bear witness to the mission of the Church through their conduct,” the code says. “They are to keep the moral law of Christ and His Church and to live lives that are consistent with the sacred mysteries they celebrate. As such, this Code of Conduct is a reflection of the trust and confidence placed in Clergy because of this sacramental closeness to Christ and His Church.”

It also states: “Clergy must not engage in physical, psychological, spiritual or sexual harassment of or misconduct with any person, and must not tolerate such harassment by others serving the Church.”

The updated code attempts to address in greater specificity various types of misconduct, Father Hastings said.

“It is a clear update of technology protocols, since technology develops so quickly,” he said. “And it addresses some areas that culturally remain gray areas – issues of boundaries, power differentials, harassment.”

APPROPRIATE BOUNDARIES

When there are accusations of boundary violations, “this is really helpful in trying to determine what those boundaries look like,” Father Hastings said.

The code says, “Clergy will maintain appropriate boundaries in professional and personal relationships, and not use the power inherent in their position to exercise unreasonable or inappropriate authority or expectations over others.”

It also specifically addresses behavior with minors including:

• Not being alone with unrelated minors, “except for sacramental confessions,” and other “common sense exceptions”

• Only engaging in “nonsexual and appropriate” physical contact

• Not traveling alone “with an unrelated minor or vulnerable adult without another safe-environment trained adult present, except in documented emergencies”

• Not sharing or visiting private overnight accommodations of unrelated minors

• Communicating with unrelated minors only for professional reasons, and only with the knowledge of parents or guardians

• Not using “physical force or (using) profane, lewd, demeaning, physically threatening or abusive language”

• Not exchanging expensive or excessive gifts with unrelated minors

• Avoiding behavior “used by adults to develop inappropriate relationships with minors” (grooming), such as singling out minors with gifts, dinners, outings, trips or other special favors

OTHER GUIDELINES

The code spells out guidelines for appropriate behavior during pastoral counseling and spiritual direction, confidentiality of information, and provides detailed guidelines for appropriate use of technology such as email, text messaging, blogs, social media and other means of communication.

It also addresses other types of misconduct such as substance abuse, gambling, public endorsement of or opposition to specific political candidates or parties, and conflicts of interest. While respecting the inviolability of the sacrament of reconciliation, the code also spells out conditions for reporting misconduct.

In May, Pope Francis issued a directive to Catholic dioceses worldwide requiring, among other things, that they create offices or systems for reporting misconduct or abuse, and that clergy and religious must report abuse or cover-ups to their bishop or superior promptly.

The archdiocese’s code of conduct is “in line with what the Holy Father asked us to do, but … we have been in line with that for some time,” Father Hastings said. “This code of conduct is not something brand new; it’s a standard update of something that’s already been in place.”

In 2002, the archdiocese adopted the U.S. bishops’ “Charter for Protection of Children and Young People” as a guide for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy, and in 2004, Mary Beth Hanus was hired to head the newly established Victim Outreach and Prevention Office.

Hanus took part in developing the recent changes to the code, which she said is a step in the right direction for reinforcing accountability.

“There’s more clarity of what’s expected, and I think that helps protect our kids, but it also helps protect our clergy,” she said. “When you really know what’s expected, that always increases accountability.”

VARIETY OF EXPERTISE

In a letter to clergy that accompanied the code’s release, the archbishop said the document was developed by a team that included members of the archdiocesan Review Board, priests, deacons, archdiocesan staff and at-large members representing a “broad spectrum of expertise” including child welfare, education, law, canon law, business and family.

“Anytime we can get people with such a variety of expertise around a table to help us develop best practices, it’s good for the life of the church,” Father Hastings said.

In his letter to clergy, the archbishop also said a description of protocols for how staff will receive and process allegations of misconduct will be issued in the near future.

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