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  Catholic Bishops to Report on Abuse
But Victims' Advocates Fear Independent Audit Will Understate Problem

By Susan Hogan shogan@dallasnews.com
The Dallas Morning News [Dallas TX]
January 4, 2004

Six months ago, retired FBI investigators began quietly visiting the nation's 195 Catholic dioceses. Their goal was to see how well bishops were complying with the sexual abuse charter adopted in Dallas in the summer of 2002.

The results of the unprecedented audit, paid for by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, will be released on Tuesday. The audit was conducted by the Gavin Group of Boston, which dispersed 54 investigators to see whether bishops were fulfilling the 17 promises they made in the charter.

Bishops say the report card will provide a measure of accountability that American Catholics have demanded in the face of a scandal that has led to the removal of more than 400 priests and bishops over the last two years.

But advocates for sexual abuse victims are wary. Some say the auditors only had access to information provided by bishops the very church leaders whose secrecy allowed the scandal to mushroom in the first place.

"The bishops think this is going to exonerate them," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a priest, canon lawyer and victims' advocate based in North Carolina. "But everybody knows the audits are self-reporting by the bishops, and because of that, the problems will be understated."

Such criticism is premature, said Robert S. Bennett, a prominent Washington lawyer. He sits on the national lay review board created by the bishops to oversee compliance with the sex-abuse reforms.

"We're not law enforcement," Mr. Bennett said. "We can't issue a search warrant. Nonetheless, people are going to see that a very honest, independent and honorable job was done."

The Dallas Diocese declined to comment on the audit until the report is released.

Independent agency

The audit was commissioned by the bishops' Office for Child and Youth Protection, which was created under one mandate of the 2002 charter. Former FBI Agent Kathleen McChesney, who heads the office, said an independent agency was hired to conduct the audit to ensure its credibility.

"We needed people not on the bishops' payroll," she said.

Auditors, many former FBI agents, conducted numerous interviews in each diocese. Those interviewed included bishops, diocesan personnel, abusers, prosecutors and diocesan review board members.

Dioceses handpicked the abuse victims interviewed. Although bishops had said that many of the abuse cases were more than 30 years old, only recent victims were selected for interviews.

That's because dioceses were being evaluated in terms of the charter, which is less than two years old, Ms. McChesney said. She declined to say how interviewees were selected.

"Everything will be made clear when the report comes out on Tuesday," she said.

Some abuse victims, upset with the restrictions on which survivors would be interviewed by auditors, tried to bypass the system. Claudia Vercellotti, from the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, said an auditor talked with her briefly by telephone after she appealed directly to him.

'They were biased'

"The auditors told me that meeting with victims would not be necessary," Ms. Vercellotti said. "With me, they began to defend the diocese when I talked about my abuse. I thought their position was to gather information. It was obvious they were biased."

She said the auditor declined to talk with other victims who wanted a chance to be heard.

Mr. Bennett said the auditors weren't conducting open forums, but following strict, uniform procedures to ensure the validity of their work.

"We had to have a certain integrity with the process," he said. "It doesn't mean that everybody gets to participate in everything."

Leaders of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said only two of its 4,700 members were invited to speak with auditors.

List of questions

One of them was Michael Hunter of Kansas City, who spoke on behalf of his deceased brother, who was abused. Two auditors came prepared with a list of questions that took an hour to answer.

The auditors wanted to know when the abuse occurred, what happened when it was reported to the diocese, and the outcome. Mr. Hunter said the auditors seemed compassionate and their questions were on target.

Even so, he's pessimistic about the audit.

"I took a notebook full of letters from other survivors, but they wouldn't take them," he said. "It made me wonder how much they can learn from hearing only from a small, select group of victims."

Although Ms. McChesney has tried to keep the results confidential until Tuesday, some dioceses have already announced that they passed the audit.

A few of the dioceses that went public have caught the attention of abuse advocates, who say the auditors appear to have been buffaloed.

For example, the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, said it received a glowing review. But A.W. Richard Sipe, a California psychotherapist and former priest who has treated hundreds of sexual abuse victims, said he knows of allegations against five priests from that diocese.

"They're hiding the documents," he said. "The bishops are still covering up. They're still not forthcoming with the truth.

"They're apologizing pro forma to victims because it's the thing to do but fighting in the courts and covering up for priests at every turn."

Another chance

Every bishop had an opportunity to talk with the auditors even if not all appreciated the experience. Some who disagreed with the auditors' evaluations of their dioceses have asked for another chance.

"We'll be doing another audit this year and that will chart the progress," Ms. McChesney said. "We see the implementation of the charter as a process."

Before the audit, each bishop was allowed to review the questions. They were also asked to complete a 40-question form asking details about abuse cases and protocol for responding to complaints.

Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, Texas, who said his diocese passed the audit, thought it strange that auditors didn't want to hear from victims in his diocese or from journalists who had uncovered the scandals nationally.

"I strongly favor the audits because we need this accountability in the church," he said. "They were obviously skilled in investigation and trying to be fair, but I wonder if they went far enough."

He said the auditors interviewed him for 90 minutes. They mostly wanted to know how his diocese went about reporting allegations to civil authorities, he said.

Following mandates

Generally, auditors also have been interested in knowing whether dioceses followed the charter mandates on matters such as establishing local lay review boards to help bishops assess allegations of sexual abuse.

Some victim advocates say the findings of the audit will be meaningless, since bishops are being graded only on whether they implemented the mandates and not on how well they followed them.

"The audits will say, 'We're all doing wonderful now,' while the structures underneath remain the same," predicted Mr. Sipe, who has served as an expert witness for victims in 160 cases of clergy sexual abuse.

Two additional reports on the abuse crisis are scheduled for release on Feb. 27.

The national lay review board commissioned a statistical study of the nature and scope of the crisis, dating to 1950. That study is being compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.

Context of crisis

Also, the board will issue its own report, alongside the statistical study, to provide Catholics with an understanding of the context of the crisis.

The board has interviewed more than 60 people for its study, including bishops, priests, victims and Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston who resigned under the weight of the sex scandal in December 2002.

"We focused on people ... who would have knowledge of the crisis," said Mr. Bennett, who says he's donated more than 2,000 hours of work for the study.

The review board has been widely criticized by victims for being an arm of the bishops, but board members say that characterization is unfair.

In speaking to U.S. bishops in November, Illinois Appellate Judge Anne Burke of Chicago, who heads the board, stressed its independence and professionalism.

"Each one of us is sustained by faith but motivated by justice," she said. "Our work, we hope, will restore confidence and bolster pride in what the church in our nation has committed itself to pursue the vigilant safety of the most vulnerable in our midst."

 
 

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