Accountability and vigilance

Photo: Stephen Brashear Photo: Stephen Brashear

We all have to take responsibility for protecting kids, says Archdiocesan Review Board member Joan Cole Duffell

Joan Cole Duffell blew the whistle on a “horrific” priest abuser, taught kindergarteners who were sexually or physically abused, and spent her career with an organization dedicated to keeping children safe from sexual abuse, youth violence and bullying.

As a consultant, she helped the Archdiocese of Boston implement evidence-based training programs to prevent child sexual abuse and establish safe environments, and assisted the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its National Review Board in establishing standards for child-abuse prevention.

So Duffell, who also is married to a deacon, brings a special perspective as a member of the Archdiocesan Review Board that advises the archbishop of Seattle on cases of sexual abuse of minors and violations of archdiocesan Safe Environment policies.

“You can’t prevent this problem just by having one or two people know to report,” said Duffell, a member of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Seattle. “We have to all take responsibility for protecting kids and watching out for this. I think that is our responsibility as Catholics.”

Duffell has worked in many dioceses and said a number of them, including the Archdiocese of Seattle, “are doing good work to try to prevent this problem.” The Archdiocese of Seattle responds rapidly “any time there’s a report or whiff of anything,” she said. “I am impressed with the systemic change that has happened and the vigilance with which the archdiocese continues to focus on this.” (See sidebar.)

Part of that change is the archdiocese’s Safe Environment sexual abuse prevention and education training program (including background checks), required of all clergy and church employees, as well as volunteers working with youth and vulnerable populations. But Duffell believes the problem of sex abuse will persist if the culture of the church — including parishioners putting priests on a pedestal — does not change. “Offenders don’t just groom the child, they groom the community,” she noted.

“We should all take responsibility for trying to change the very culture that made this … such a problem in the first place,” Duffell said. “It’s on all of us to figure out how to change that. Until we do, I don’t believe this problem will be fully resolved. Not that we actually have the power to do that,” she said, but “for me I feel like it’s my job as a Catholic citizen to call that into question and to challenge it.”

Protecting victims, not abusers

The Archdiocesan Review Board is an independent body that confidentially advises the archbishop on issues related to sexual abuse of minors by clergy and religious. The nine board members, many of them with expertise in sexual assault prevention and prosecution, also assist the archbishop in assessing allegations and fitness for ministry.

Duffell, who was appointed by Archbishop Alex J. Brunett in 2006, said the panel includes non-Catholics — unusual for review boards, but good, she said. “It holds the church a little more accountable to have more outsiders, experts who are secular experts.”

A major project for the review board in recent years was advising Archbishop J. Peter Sartain (now retired) when he considered publishing a list of clergy and religious credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors. Although the review board was involved, the decision was ultimately the archbishop’s to make, Duffell said. The list was published in January 2016.

“The list needed to be published, but he needed it to be vetted carefully,” Duffell said. Kathleen McChesney, a retired FBI agent with a background in forensic work, had access to every file and did “a ton of work” to determine who should be included on the list, Duffell explained.

Because McChesney is Catholic, some might question her objectivity. “I don’t question her authority or her expertise or her integrity,” said Duffell, who worked with McChesney in Boston. “Yes, she’s Catholic, but it’s why she cares so much about doing the right thing.”

The review board has advised against opening the abuse files to the public, as some in the community insisted, “because the privacy of the victims is at stake,” Duffell said. Parishes are small communities, and if too many details were released, it would be easy to figure out a victim’s identity, she explained.

“Protecting the anonymity of the victims is really important to us as a review board. It’s not that we’re trying to protect an offender, but we really do need to be careful and not be so cavalier about everything being published,” Duffell said. “We don’t have permission from [victims] to make that information public.”

Social justice background

Duffell, who grew up in a big Catholic family, graduated from Holy Names Academy in Spokane and studied education at Portland State University before joining the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. It was on a JVC retreat in Montana that she met her future husband, Denny Duffell.

Duffell considers herself a product of the 1960s and ’70s: “Question everything, question authority,” she said, noting that she was arrested for protesting the Vietnam War as well as the Trident nuclear submarine base on the Kitsap peninsula. “For me, my spirituality was very tied up with standing up for what’s right socially,” she said.

She and Denny married in 1974. After the birth of their second child (they later had two more), they moved into the Catholic Worker community on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. Denny was working at Immaculate Conception Parish in Seattle’s Central District. For five years, they lived in community, doing hospitality work and providing meals for those in need at the “family kitchen” at St. James Cathedral.

“That was a really important part of our lives,” Duffell said, an expression of their spirituality “being very connected with social justice and solidarity with people in poverty.”

Later, Denny started working at St. Bridget Parish and Joan started teaching. Her first job was at Childhaven, teaching kindergarteners who were in treatment for being abused or severely neglected. The work was difficult. “They had already lived through things that no person should ever have to live through,” she said. “So that was a big wakeup call to me around just what happens to people when they’re abused.”

Later, she took a job with the Committee for Children, a Seattle-based nonprofit that works to prevent child sexual abuse by researching and developing programs that teach “kids and their adults” the skills to identify and report abuse, as well as empathy, social problem-solving and self-management. Duffell began 35 years ago as a community educator and became the organization’s executive director in 2007, a position she held until retiring in September and taking on the role of special advisor.

‘The community is doing its job’

Duffell doesn’t gloss over her feelings about the church’s widespread sex abuse crisis: “I don’t think the bishops have taken enough responsibility for what happened under their watch,” she said.

“I think even 50 years ago, if you knew somebody had sexually abused a child and you just moved him into another parish and didn’t do anything about it, I just think that not only is wrong, it was wrong,” she said. “I just don’t think you get to claim ignorance in that position.”

But she is committed to helping. “If anything, I’m probably more of a pain in the neck than the church would want me to be,” Duffell said. “But I think sometimes it’s when you’re Catholic that you feel you really want to make this better, you want to try to change things.”

Things have changed since Duffell joined the Archdiocesan Review Board.

In the beginning, “there were more cases that we talked about. The volume was really high,” she said. Now, she said, “we don’t have very many cases that are clearly incidences of sexual abuse.” Some reports are about abuses that occurred “far in the past,” involving priests (many deceased) already known to the archdiocese, “but people still come forward.” The review board’s first concern in these cases is for the victims “who have held these painful secrets for so long,” Duffell said.

In the archdiocese, incidents of reported sex abuse that resulted in claims peaked in 1975; although victims still come forward, the most recent reported case was in 2007.

Other reports reviewed by the board involve someone breaking a policy connected to appropriate behavior with minors. It could be something like a parishioner reporting that they saw kids going into the rectory unsupervised, she said.

Though always concerning, hearing reports of those policy breaks is also a good sign, Duffell said. “It means that the community is doing its job. The really important thing is that people are noticing, they know what the policies are, they’re paying attention and they’re saying something. That is critical.”

The other good news, she said, is that the Review Board is being told about these reports and is asked to advise, “and the archbishop has always been responsive to that advice.”

“We really do work collaboratively on these issues,” Duffell said.

She gives credit to the archbishops (and the auxiliary bishops, who attend as often as possible) for attending the meetings, something that isn’t common elsewhere. “Often review boards meet without the archbishop, and I think, ‘Wow, what’s the point?’ You need to build that relationship, you need to be able to give advice and have a sense of back and forth around issues,” she said. “Again, good for Seattle.”

The board had a good experience working with Archbishop Sartain (as well as Archbishop Brunett). They could debate the issues, “but they were good-spirited arguments,” she said. “We didn’t walk away disagreeing. We were able to speak our minds.”

Such positive outcomes are “wholly dependent on the development of trust between the bishop and his review board, and in particular, on lay members’ ability speak openly and plainly in the pursuit of healthy and judicious decision-making,” she said.

The Review Board’s first meeting with Archbishop Paul D. Etienne will be later this fall, Duffell said. She attended his Mass of Reception in June and “came away with a positive initial impression of him.” She finds his proposals on bishop accountability, including creation of a national review board to examine sexual abuse allegations against bishops, “quite practicable.”

Since decision-making authority over bishops “necessarily resides with the Holy See,” Duffell said, she likes Archbishop Etienne’s proposal to make the review board’s recommendations public if no action is taken by Rome.

“Transparency will be key in re-establishing trust among everyday Catholics,” she said.

What is the Archdiocese doing about sex abuse?

The Archdiocese of Seattle began sexual abuse reporting, prevention, training and victim support efforts in the 1980s, years before similar safety and prevention programs became required for all dioceses in the United States. Robust abuse reporting procedures have been in place since 1987.

In 1986, the archdiocese established a formal committee that included lay subject-matter experts in the field of sexual abuse; it was the forerunner to today’s Archdiocesan Review Board, created in 2006 by Archbishop Alex J. Brunett.

The independent nine-member panel reviews all reports of sexual abuse of minors by clergy and religious, as well as violations of the archdiocese’s “Safe Environment” policies, and advises the archbishop on these cases.

All clergy and church employees, as well as volunteers working with youth or vulnerable populations, are required to undergo background checks and complete the archdiocese’s Safe Environment training. First established in 1990, the training has been updated and enhanced several times.

In 2016, after consulting with the Review Board, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain decided to release a list of credibly accused clergy and religious.

A helpline was established to receive reports of clergy sex abuse or misconduct. (Call 800-446-7762 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

When the archdiocese receives an allegation of sexual abuse, it notifies law enforcement and places the accused on administrative leave. After the law enforcement investigation is complete, the archdiocese may hire an independent investigator to conduct a separate investigation.

Results of the investigation(s) are presented to the Review Board for assessment and recommendation.

To help victims, the archdiocese offers to pay for counseling for the victims and family members. In addition, the archbishop offers a pastoral meeting to apologize on behalf of the church and to assist in the healing process.

Learn more about the archdiocese’s sex abuse response and prevention efforts, including the list of credibly accused clergy, at protectandheal.seattlearchdiocese.org.

Northwest Catholic - November 2019

Jean Parietti

Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at jean.parietti@seattlearch.org.