NEW YORK -- Two victim advocacy groups accused Roman Catholic bishops yesterday of abandoning their pledge to root out sexually abusive clergy by reducing the number of US dioceses that will receive full, on-site audits of their child protection programs next year.
But a spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said the changes were meant only to make the process more efficient, and were not a sign church leaders are backing away from reforms.
Voice of the Faithful, a lay Catholic group, and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said the revisions will undermine whatever trust the bishops have restored in their leadership.
In each of the last two years, the bishops hired an outside auditor who sent teams largely made up of former FBI agents into all 195 US dioceses. Their job was to determine whether the church had put in place the safeguards required under the antiabuse policy the bishops approved in 2002.
Last month, the bishops authorized a new approach to the audits at their national meeting in Washington, D.C. They decided that dioceses found fully compliant twice will not be required to have on-site visits next year. Instead, they can fill out questionnaires that will be sent to the auditors for review.
In the first round of audits, 90 percent of US dioceses were deemed fully compliant. If the same number get identical marks in the second round just being completed, then only a handful of dioceses will be visited, SNAP said.
''We're basically back to square one, where we have no choice but to trust in many of the same men whose repeated deceit and misconduct led to the molestation of thousands of innocent Catholic youngsters," the advocacy group said in a statement.
William Ryan, a spokesman for the bishops' conference, said the bishops were following standard practice for organizations undergoing audits.
''This is in no way a lessening of the bishops' commitment," Ryan said. ''The bishops were determined to get it right, and they are equally determined to keep it right."
SNAP and Voice of the Faithful have asked the National Review Board, the lay watchdog panel the bishops created, to intervene.
Kathleen McChesney, a former top FBI official who is executive director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, which oversees the audits, said the changes have been misunderstood. She said that if auditors find inconsistencies in the questionnaires, they will send teams into those dioceses for an on-site review.
McChesney said the audits will still be effective as long as the bishops continue to authorize them.
The bishops are expected to decide in June whether to approve audits beyond next year.