Audit Measures Activities, Not Results
Ninety Percent of Dioceses Found Compliant with Dallas Charter
By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter [Washington]
January 7, 2004
Editor's Note: Watch the NCR Web site and the January 16 print edition of National Catholic Reporter for additional reporting on this issue.
The first of three church-commissioned reports dealing with clergy sex abuse was almost universally acknowledged to be a positive step, though critics warned that the telephone-book-thick audit of 191 dioceses could engender complacency rather than additional action.
Two additional reports commissioned by the U.S. bishops' National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People will be released in late February.
The first, on the "nature and scope" of the crisis, is being conducted by researchers from New York's John Jay School of Criminal Justice. Another study, on the "causes of the crisis," is being prepared by a National Review Board committee chaired by Washington attorney Robert Bennett.
"The audit report released today is a milestone no one should overlook," author William Gavin told a crowded Jan. 6 Washington news conference.
The audit describes diocesan efforts to meet the objectives of 14 of the "articles" adopted by the bishops in June 2002 as part of their "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." The bishops pledged to establish diocesan offices to conduct outreach to abuse victims, develop procedures to deal with abuse allegations (including the establishment of local review boards), promote "standards of conduct" for those "who have regular contact with children and young people," and implement diocesan-wide "safe environment programs."
Further, the charter committed the bishops to institute background checks for all diocesan employees and volunteers and to restrict transfers of suspected clerical abusers.
The audit results, said Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the bishops' conference, "represent solid progress on the journey toward fulfilling the vision set out" by the bishops at their June 2002 meeting. "I believe that these findings show that we bishops are keeping our word," said Gregory.
"The fact that the audit was completed is noteworthy in itself, since it represents the first time bishops and dioceses have opened their doors to the scrutiny of outsiders," said Sue Archibald, president of Linkup, a victims' advocacy organization. "This is a commendable step toward accountability - and a process that we hope will expand and continue."
Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, was critical of the effort, but termed the report a "small step forward."
National church leaders cautioned that the limited scope of the audit - the report enumerates diocesan anti-abuse efforts but does not measure their effectiveness - provides a useful but incomplete tool. "While many people would like to have seen a full accounting of how all bishops dealt with instances of sexual abuse in the past, that was not the focus of this audit," said Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection.
"There is no intention to give the impression," Gregory told CNN's Wolf Blitzer following the report's release, that the bishops have "solved the problem."
Back in their dioceses, however, that was just the impression some were giving. After two years on the defensive, church public relations professionals finally had something with which to work - a document, one that had the imprimatur of "independence," that generally lauded the bishops' efforts.
Two examples from many: "Independent Audit Finds Diocese of Bridgeport in 'Total Compliance' with Dallas Charter" is how that Connecticut diocese headlined the findings, though the word 'total' is absent from the report. Atlanta church officials, meanwhile, heralded "Full Compliance and Commendation Result from Gavin Group Audit," though the archdiocese also received a less flattering "recommendation" from the auditors and the adjective "full" was not a modifier employed by the auditors.
Victims' advocates worried the report would be overplayed. "We fear that some bishops will relax their efforts, having now been deemed 'compliant' by a couple of retired bureaucrats," said Blaine. "Having policies and following policies are distinctly different," she told a Jan. 5 news conference. "It's crucial to remember that for the past decade or more, almost every Catholic diocese in America had written sex abuse policies. The problem was that they were continually ignored."
To conduct the audit, more than 50 investigators employed by the Boston-based Gavin Group (many of them former FBI agents) visited 191 of the country's 195 dioceses. The auditors interviewed local bishops and chancery officials, as well as law enforcement officials, diocesan review board members and some parishioners. A small number of victims and accused clergy also met with investigators.
The audit dealt only with issues that have arisen since the June 2002 approval of the charter.
Bottom line: 90 percent of U.S. dioceses (171) are in compliance with the charter, while the remaining 10 percent haven't met all the objectives but generally get good marks for their efforts. More than 180 "commendations" were issued, typically to dioceses that had developed model programs or demonstrated exceptional transparency, while nearly 300 "recommendations" were made. In addition, 131 "instructions" were issued, of which 81 were addressed by the time of the report's release.
"The areas in which dioceses ? were most successful in implementing the charter were in selecting competent victims' assistance coordinators, establishing diocesan review boards, in reporting cases of abuse to civil authorities, and not entering into confidentiality agreements with victims unless requested by the victims," said McChesney.
The areas of "most difficulty," she continued, 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." An "external study" will be undertaken "for the purpose of identifying better methods for responding to complaints of sexual abuse by clergy and other church personnel," said McChesney.
Gavin said the auditors were unhindered in their investigation. "We had free rein as to where we could look to find answers to our questions." Still, on the question of transfers of known abusers, the report noted that auditors were "unable to review personnel files to verify that no priests or deacons in this category had been transferred for ministry, but relied primarily on the information provided by the diocese/eparchy." Gavin said auditors did not review personnel files due to concerns about privacy.
Meanwhile, in the 18 months since the U.S. bishops adopted broad-based child-protection policies, no one - not even the authors or underwriters of the $1.8 million audit of diocesan compliance released Jan. 6 - is certain how many priests have been suspended or removed from ministry due to "credible accusations" of sexual abuse.
McChesney acknowledged that figures on priest suspensions and removals "are something that people want to know" and regretted that "there are no numbers like that." Future audits, McChesney told the news conference at which the audit report was released, should include information on the number of accused priests and alleged victims as well as the financial costs associated with sexual abuse by members of the clergy.
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