January 9, 2004
NATIONAL audit shows that the Catholic Church in the United States has taken strong measures toward ensuring that children are never again sexually abused by priests and others in the employ of the church. The next task for US Catholic bishops is to repeat the audit regularly so all US bishops remain vigilant against abuse.
The audit is intended to verify that bishops in the 195 US dioceses are following policies established by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002. The conference set standards for the prevention of abuse and the dismissal of clerics guilty of this grave offense.
The conference devised a less stringent policy in 1994. This time it put teeth into the standards by creating an Office of Child and Youth Protection headed by a laywoman, Kathleen McChesney. She hired former FBI agents to visit each diocese to verify implementation. This lay involvement is a guard against any repetition of the coverups that were a shameful part of the recent scandal.
Most dioceses have done a solid job of implementing the policies. The auditors specially praise the Boston Archdiocese under Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley for creating a separate support group for abuse victims' parents and for its programs to train church employees and young people against abuse.
The auditors initially found that some dioceses were not fully implementing the policies. These inquiries encouraged many to do better, but 20 dioceses are still not in compliance. These include a nationwide etarchy (the Greek Catholic equivalent of a diocese) with headquarters in Boston that had not conducted background checks on church workers or instituted training programs. The Rev. Andre St. Germain, victims coordinator for the etarchy, said in a phone interview Wednesday that it is making progress on both points. The lack of compliance, however rare, points up the need for for a quick follow-up audit, certainly within a year, as recommended by McChesney in her report to the US Conference of Bishops. Periodic audits ought to be conducted to prevent backsliding.
This year the bishops will review the policies for possible changes. McChesney's office offers revisions that would ensure continuing oversight across the country. The bishops ought to be especially mindful of involving laity down to the parish level. The insights of abuse survivors should be sought as well.
On Feb. 27 the Bishops' Conference will receive a report from its review board that will detail sexual abuse in the US church over the last half-century. This will be a painful accounting, but it should be a reminder of how abuse was allowed to fester in a closed clerical culture. Strong, transparent policies, implemented vigorously now and into the future, will prevent the recurrence of a scandal that has besmirched a great religious institution.
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