Audit: Church Sex Abuse Policy Has Holes

By Rachel Zoll [Washington DC]
Downloaded January 7, 2004

WASHINGTON - Inconsistent record-keeping and inadequate tracking of accused priests are among factors keeping the U.S. Roman Catholic church from complying fully with a directive designed to stop priestly sexual misconduct.

An internal audit did show that 90 percent of the 195 U.S. dioceses were honoring their pledge to stamp out sexual abuse. But it also demonstrated that the reforms they enacted are not adequate on their own.

The bishops adopted the policy to protect children and restore trust in the church's shattered leadership after a scandal over prelates who sheltered guilty priests.

Bishops will spend the coming months reviewing the policy, which was meant to be revised after two years. The audit said bishops largely were strictly following the current plan, which dictates how priests who molest children should be punished and requires bishops to enact safeguards against abuse.

But the review also turned up another problem: too little comment from victims on how bishops could improve their response to an allegation of priestly sexual misconduct.

The audit, which was overseen mostly by former FBI agents or investigators, said studies were needed to measure whether abuse-prevention programs were effective and were being followed in individual parishes, where most children are involved in the church. The investigators also recommended a survey of the many victims who were not interviewed for the audit to ask them how bishops should handle abuse cases.

Overall, bishops should do more to fulfill their pledge to reach out to victims and their families, through one-on-one meetings and other means, the report said.

"We have a long way to go in that area," said Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI agent and head of the bishops' watchdog Office of Child and Youth Protection, which oversaw the audit.

A potentially more important study, also commissioned by the bishops, is to be released Feb. 27. It will attempt to tally every church abuse case in the country since 1950.

The reforms were drafted in June 2002, at the height of the scandal, which began two years ago this week with revelations about a single predatory priest in the Archdiocese of Boston. It spread to every American diocese, with thousands of new abuse claims across the country.

Among the 20 dioceses judged not fully compliant are the archdioceses of New York; Anchorage, Alaska; and Omaha, Neb. Four dioceses were not audited for various reasons.

Most commonly violated were orders to put child-protection programs in place and to establish codes of conduct and carry out background checks on diocesan workers.

"For the most part, it was not a refusal to adhere to the policies. It was a lack of understanding of how to do so," said William Gavin, a former FBI official whose company, the Gavin Group of Boston, conducted the audit.

Nearly 70 percent of dioceses received at least one commendation for exceptional progress in some area, such as communicating well with parishioners. The Archdiocese of Chicago was praised for its work helping victims obtain counseling.

The investigators, however, also found that some accused clergy could not be located, and that five priests accused in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati still were in ministry at the time of the audit, a violation of the policy. The clergymen have since been removed, and the Cincinnati diocese was deemed to have come into compliance.

Jim Post, president of the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful, created in response to the scandal, said the audit was an important step toward reform.

"The most important thing is the report stresses things that have to be done to create a safer environment in churches and schools," Post said.

Some victim advocates said the bishops had too much control of the study.

Bishops recommended whom the auditors should interview in the diocese. The report also said auditors were unable to view personnel files to determine whether bishops were complying with the policy's ban on transferring offenders among dioceses.

Gavin insisted the audits were comprehensive and accurate. Investigators did not view personnel records because of state privacy laws. Otherwise, he said, "We had free rein."

Church law provides no mechanism to sanction those who don't comply.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.