Most Catholic Dioceses Pass Sex Abuse Audits
By Alan Cooperman
January 7, 2004
Nearly 90 percent of the Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States have fully complied with the rules set by the nation's bishops 18 months ago to prevent sexual abuse of children, auditors hired by the church reported yesterday.
But the other 10 percent -- including the archdiocese of New York and the dioceses of Richmond and Arlington -- have not yet fulfilled instructions from the auditors to address specific shortcomings, such as delays in conducting criminal background checks on church employees.
The president of the U.S. bishops conference, Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., hailed the report as evidence of "solid progress" toward ending the scandal that has rocked the church for two years. "I believe that these findings show that we bishops are keeping our word," he said.
Victims groups reacted skeptically. They noted that the auditors did not have power to comb through personnel records. Rather, the teams of former FBI agents who fanned out across the country relied on interviews with church officials, prosecutors, accused priests and small numbers of victims.
"In most audits, investigators can compel access to objective data -- bank statements, legal documents and the like," said Barbara A. Blaine, founder of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "In this case, the interviewers had to rely largely on subjective material that was given voluntarily, and given by essentially the same men who have, for decades, fought to keep the crimes of clergy concealed."
The church spent about $1.8 million, or just under $10,000 per diocese, to audit 191 of the 195 U.S. dioceses. The consulting contract went to a Boston firm headed by a retired assistant director of the FBI, William Gavin. Of the 54 investigators he hired, 50 were former FBI agents.
Gavin, a lifelong Catholic, said in an interview that he did not make religion a criterion in hiring. Rather, he said, he looked for people who "knew how to probe and ask questions, and keep asking questions, until they get real answers." But he also said the auditors were circumscribed by the voluntary nature of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the sex abuse policy adopted by the U.S. bishops in Dallas in June 2002.
"I performed within the four corners of that charter," he said. "The whole thing was a voluntary process."
Gavin said four dioceses were not audited. Two of them -- St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and the Armenian Exarchate of New York -- were skipped because of scheduling difficulties. A newly created Eastern Rite diocese in San Diego was exempted from the present round of audits, and the diocese of Davenport, Iowa, was dropped because its bishop insisted that a diocesan lawyer be present during all interviews, including with victims and prosecutors.
"I am not going to castigate" the Davenport diocese, Gavin said. "But based on that [condition], I just said we could not conduct a legitimate audit there."
The heart of the Dallas charter was a promise that bishops would permanently remove from ministry any priest or deacon who has ever sexually abused a child. Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI official who is the first head of the church's Office of Child and Youth Protection, said the audits indicated that the overwhelming majority of dioceses are complying with that "zero tolerance" policy.
Just one diocese -- Cincinnati -- was found in an initial visit by auditors last July to have kept priests in ministry despite credible allegations of abuse. Five Cincinnati priests were removed before a follow-up visit in November, McChesney said.
Auditors found 171 of the 191 dioceses in full compliance with the charter. McChesney said most have appointed a victim assistance coordinator, created a lay board to review abuse allegations, promptly reported allegations to police and stopped imposing secrecy agreements on legal settlements.
But many dioceses, she said, have fallen down in other areas, such as outreach to victims and their families; training employees, parents and children to identify and report abuse; and setting codes of conduct for employees who work with children.
To try to ensure compliance with the charter, the bishops in 2002 set up McChesney's office and a national review board of prominent laypeople and charged them with producing an annual progress report. The audits are the backbone of that report, which includes a 388-page breakdown of findings in each diocese.
A separate study -- aimed at determining how many priests have committed abuse and how many victims they have had since 1950 -- is scheduled for release Feb. 27. Church officials said yesterday that they did not know how many priests have been removed from ministry or how many victims have come forward in the past 18 months.
In her recommendations, McChesney called for a study of victims to identify better methods for responding to abuse complaints. She also urged the bishops to try to locate, and keep track of, priests who have been removed because of abuse. And she suggested that future reports should contain the number of allegations, the number of priests removed and the associated costs during the previous year.
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