The work of the review board

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Ron Riggins, 62, is a husband, a father and a grandfather. He’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg who works as a banking consultant. He heads the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program at Church of the Nativity in Burke and serves on the board of Catholic Charities.

Bringing people into the faith and helping the poor are fulfilling and joy-filled acts of faith for Riggins. But he also serves the church in a role he personally finds challenging — as a member of the diocesan review board. 

The Charter for the Protection for Children, also called the Dallas Charter, was created by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 2002. The charter mandated the creation of diocesan review boards — consultative bodies comprised of a majority of lay men and women not employed by that diocese or eparchy. The group’s objective is to review the diocese’s child protection policies and to advise the bishop in cases of alleged abuse against minors by clergy.

The review board members in the Diocese of Arlington include: Riggins; Dr. Art Behrmann, a psychiatrist; Robert Chirles, former director of Loudoun County Department of Family Services; Linda A. Cullen, former program director of diocesan Catholic Charities Children's Services and a psychological assessor for the diocesan tribunal; Oblate Sister Susan Louise Eder, principal of Holy Cross Academy in Fredericksburg; Robert C. Odle Jr., a retired attorney; Father Lee R. Roos, pastor of All Saints Church in Manassas; and Father Robert C. Cilinski, Episcopal Vicar for Charitable Works and pastor of Church of the Nativity.

Currently, the review board meets monthly to assess the diocesan response to the current crisis, including the review of the clergy files. They are called in as needed to review cases of alleged abuse of a minor by a clergyman after a criminal investigation has been concluded.

The review board members aren’t investigators and their meetings aren’t courts of law, said Riggins. Each session begins and ends in prayer. To ensure privacy for all involved, all the information presented to the review board is given to the members when they gather at the chancery — the diocese’s headquarters. They read over the police reports and accounts from the accuser and the accused. They hear from diocesan employees involved with the case, such as Victim Assistance Coordinator Frank Moncher.

Then, working with the facts they have before them, they discuss the case. Each member brings his or her own perspective to the task. Sister Susan Louise draws on her experience as a religious sister and as an educator and school administrator. “I think it's important the church has an authority structure, but the church is also the people of God, so it's important to have representatives from different contingencies — expertise that wouldn’t necessarily been held by the hierarchy of the church,” she said.

The group faces a difficult task, said Riggins. “Unless there's an admission (of guilt), there’s always an element of gray,” he said. “We have to rely upon those professional investigators and (then) draw a conclusion. Personally, it can be gut-wrenching.”

Though every member is knowledgeable and dedicated, Sister Susan Louise has found they don’t always come to a consensus. “I’ve learned that we all look at things differently. Everyone cares deeply for the church and for the victims, but we may have different opinions about how to meet the needs of the survivors and honor the church,” she said. After the discussion, Bishop Michael F. Burbidge will ask for the opinion of each member. Later, he’ll let the group know his decision.

Based on his experiences on the review board, Riggins urges parishioners to be vigilant. “If we see something that is a little off, that could be misconstrued, we need to say something right away,” he said. Serving on the board has renewed a sense of compassion for the abused. “I pray for the victims regularly. Sometimes I will go to adoration, have a holy hour and just lift all that up in prayer. I pray for the Holy Spirit to lead us to a more purified church.”

Sister Susan Louise has been moved deeply by victim-survivors. “What I’ve learned is how deeply wounded a person is by abuse,” she said. “Until you actually meet someone who has gone through abuse, you don’t realize how deeply it affects somebody.”

Being a review board member is challenging, but the members believe in their work. “It's a very tough thing to have to advise the bishop on, but it's necessary for the church to be purified in order to proclaim the Gospel and not have hypocrisy,” said Riggins. “It's a very dedicated group of lay people (who) are serving on this from various backgrounds. They take this very seriously — this is not some rubber stamp group. We need people to know that there is transparency, that there are third parties looking at this.”

“We’re in a very painful moment,” said Sister Susan Louise. “We have to keep our hope that Jesus is continually opening our minds and our hearts to him, to be his instruments, especially during the difficult times.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018

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