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Spotlight Report

Audit finds safeguards working in US dioceses

Responses cited on abuse; some voice skepticism

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 1/7/2004


Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, hailed the findings during a press conference. (AP Photo)

 Related stories
Boston's internal inquiry continues
Ex-agents faced reluctant aides

 The audit's findings
Some of the recommendations

 Full report
The complete church audit can be found on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at this address:
www.usccb.org/ocyp/audit2003/
report.htm

 Press conference webcast
The results of the audit were announced at a press conference in Washington. The USCCB has provided a video webcast of the event (video requires RealPlayer):
Broadband version
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WASHINGTON -- The Catholic bishops of the United States, whose credibility tumbled after revelations that many of them repeatedly failed to protect children from sexually abusive priests, are honoring a promise to report all allegations of abuse to civil authorities and to remove abusive priests from ministry, according to an unprecedented audit of the nation's largest religious denomination.

The audit, funded and coordinated by the church but conducted by a team made up largely of retired FBI agents, found that about 90 percent of the nation's 195 Roman Catholic and Eastern Rite dioceses are complying with the provisions of the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," the church's plan for preventing future abuse of minors and responding to abuse complaints.

Church officials released the audit yesterday, exactly two years after a report in the Globe about the Archdiocese of Boston's repeated reassignment of abusive priest John J. Geoghan set off a nationwide scandal that led to the ouster of several hundred priests. The crisis also led to lawsuits that have cost the church tens of millions of dollars and to changes in civil and church law aimed at protecting children.

"Two years ago at this time, reports in one diocese of how incidents of sexual abuse of children and young people by priests were handled sparked a crisis that eventually engulfed the whole Catholic Church in the United States," Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. The bishops' charter, he said, set out "the steps to confront the tragic and terrible problem of sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy . . . [and] I believe that these findings show that we bishops are keeping our word."

Victim advocacy groups were skeptical of the process, criticizing the audit as overly dependent on information offered by bishops and other church employees. The auditors, for example, did not have access to church personnel files. The organization Survivors First also said that auditors conducted too few interviews with victims.

"Few church observers could have been surprised by today's self-congratulatory self-evaluation, which shows the bishops continue to place communication over cooperation," said Mark Serrano of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

But the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights dismissed the concerns of "professional victims . . . whom no reforms will ever satisfy." Its president, William Donohue, declared: "If an audit were taken of public school districts throughout the nation, it is not likely they would receive such a glowing report card."

Voice of the Faithful, the lay organization based in Newton, welcomed the audit, but its president, James E. Post, said: "Vigilance and much greater lay involvement are still required. It will take sustained efforts to change a system that has so badly failed children, parents, and the values our church proclaims."

The audit, conducted by The Gavin Group Inc. of Boston, is the first major product of the National Review Board, a panel of laypeople chosen by Gregory to oversee the church's response to the abuse crisis.

The audit's glowing findings were widely expected because its purpose was to help dioceses come into compliance with the charter, and the auditors told diocesan officials when they spotted problems and gave them a chance to fix them. The auditors made 297 recommendations to the dioceses, of which 258 have been fully implemented; the auditors also offered commendations to 129 dioceses to recognize praiseworthy aspects of abuse-prevention programs.

The audit did not examine past conduct of bishops or other diocesan officials, only how well dioceses have complied with the charter since June 2002.

In the charter, the bishops pledged to reach out to victims and their families; respond promptly to abuse allegations; stop the use of confidentiality agreements; report allegations of abuse to public authorities; permanently remove from ministry priests found to be abusive; establish clear standards of conduct for church personnel; and develop communications policies reflecting "a commitment to transparency and openness."

"In its most basic form, what the American public will see when they examine this report is an extraordinary report card," said the lead auditor, William A. Gavin, a former FBI official. "It shows the extent to which the bishops have integrated the good intentions of the Dallas charter into their diocesan administration."

The National Review Board is completing work on a much more sensitive study, to be released Feb. 27, that will describe the scope and nature of sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church in the United States. That study is being conducted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and will mark the first time the church has revealed what its own records show about the number of priests who abused children and the number of children who were abused from 1950 through 2002. The auditors said six dioceses have failed to cooperate with the survey, including the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy in Newton.

In the report released yesterday, the auditors found a handful of serious concerns. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati, according to the audit, had not removed from ministry five priests accused of abusing minors.

A spokesman said the archdiocese delayed removing the priests, who are on leave, because officials were concerned about how their removal would affect a criminal inquiry. He said the archdiocese was always committed to compliance with the charter and has since removed the five priests.

The auditors also found the dioceses of Alexandria, La., and Phoenix were not implementing significant portions of the charter; new bishops are now overseeing those dioceses, and the auditors ultimately found the dioceses in compliance. Twenty dioceses are out of compliance with part of the charter, according to the audit. The Archdiocese of New York was deemed out of compliance because it has not yet implemented a "safe environment program" to screen adults who work with children, create a code of conduct for those adults, and train children, parents, and staff about how to spot and report suspected abuse. The New York Archdiocese is now preparing to implement such a program, according to the audit.

Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI official and now executive director of the bishops' new Office of Child and Youth Protection, said, "The areas in which dioceses and eparchies seemed to have the most difficulty were in conducting meetings with victims-survivors and their families, in identifying and implementing safe-environment training programs, and in establishing codes of conduct for those who have regular contact with youth." McChesney said outreach to victims was often hampered by litigation, while the other weaknesses were caused by limited personnel or resources.

The auditors and the National Review Board yesterday offered 52 recommendations for changes to the charter and norms that are part of church law, and Gregory said he expects most recommendations to be accepted by the bishops.

The board recommended that bishops attempt to locate abusive priests who have been removed from ministry, so that local authorities and other bishops can be notified, and that the bishops discuss what kind of "supervision and sustenance" should be provided to abusive priests who have been removed from the ministry. The auditors also recommended that the bishops commission a study of victims to identify better methods of responding to sexual abuse complaints.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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