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Diocese sees progress vs. abuse

But N.H. audit still finds issues

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Associated Press / April 2, 2008

CONCORD, N.H. - The latest audit of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester shows "significant progress" in its compliance program to prevent child-sexual abuse, Attorney General Kelly Ayotte said yesterday.

But there are still some issues that need to be addressed, such as ensuring in its policy language that someone accused of abuse is removed when an allegation is reported, she said.

The audit was conducted as part of the state's December 2002 agreement with the diocese, relating to its handling of allegations of sexual misconduct of children by priests. The terms of the agreement included an annual audit of the diocese regarding its compliance with the agreement.

The third annual audit, the result of visits and other interviews conducted by an independent firm from Aug. 13 to Nov. 1 last year, was made public yesterday. .

One more audit remains in the agreement, which unlike past years, the diocese did not challenge. The attorney general's office would have to let the court know whether it wanted to pursue future audits, but if the next one shows the same level of commitment to improve, "we foresee this process coming to an end," said Senior Assistant Attorney General Will Delker.

"I would like to acknowledge and commend the diocese for the significant progress which has been made with the overall compliance program," Ayotte said in a letter to Bishop John McCormack accompanying the audit.

These include the revision of strategic policies, including "Serving Christ, Serving Others - Code of Ministerial Conduct" and the "Screening and Training Protocol," the emphasis on a risk-based approach to the program, and the development and implementation of a new, Web-based safe environmental database that tracks screening and training requirements and verifies a person's eligibility for ministry with minors.

Ayotte also said she was "especially pleased to learn of the positive changes with respect to the tone at the top and oversight of the compliance program," two areas that the last audit identified as needing improvement. The diocesan leadership demonstrated an openness and willingness to cooperate in the audit, and in the next one, she said.

"I am heartened by the letter from Attorney General Kelly Ayotte in which she recognizes our 'shared goal of protecting children from sexual abuse,' " McCormack said in a statement yesterday. "This mutual desire to do what is best for children serves both our state and our church."

Ayotte said the audit, however, still identified "a number of gaps, as well as some opportunities for further enhancements," that need to be adopted for the diocese to have a fully effective compliance program.

For example, the diocese's revised policy language on removing personnel upon receipt of a sexual abuse allegation is still not sufficient, she said.

Currently, the revised policy states that when the bishop "deems an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor to have a semblance of truth, the accused will be placed on precautionary leave pending the outcome of the investigation."

Delker said last year, the diocese made 16 reports of allegations to the attorney general's office. Almost all of those involved priests who were either deceased or already had allegations against them, he said. Three involved nonclergy, lay leaders that were referred to police for investigation; one case ended with insufficient evidence to pursue a criminal investigation.

So far this year, there were six new complaints that the diocese made, Delker said.

One was investigated and ruled to be unfounded; another is under investigation and the remainder involved either deceased priests or priests the attorney general's office had previously known about.

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