Priests' Child Abuse: Audit Is Good First Step, but More Is Needed

The Dallas Morning News [Dallas TX]
January 9, 2004

The nation's Catholic bishops have made a good start in auditing their dioceses to see how well they are living up to the child-abuse protection charter adopted in Dallas 1 - years ago. But American Catholics should be careful not to read too much into the audit's finding that 90 percent of the dioceses are carrying out the reforms.

As laudable as the 90 percent compliance rate is, even Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, cautioned the public that the audit isn't meant "to give the impression [that] the bishops have solved the problem."

We liked what one skeptical Catholic commentator, Dominic Bettinelli of the Catholic World Report magazine, said about the audit, which was released earlier this week. He likened it to "Congress reacting to Watergate by examining laws regarding breaking and entering. It wasn't the crime; it was the cover-up."

That observation gets to the heart of what's wrong with the report. The crisis in the church didn't stem from procedural insufficiencies; it came from bishops who cared more about protecting the clergy than the children. The charter has nothing to say about this, and neither does the audit, which only determined if dioceses had formally established procedures called for by the charter.

The audit, which is part of the church's accountability efforts, was conducted by an independent firm under the auspices of the bishop-appointed National Review Board. But while the audit was independently executed, it's important to point out that the bishops decided which diocesan personnel would be interviewed and which documents auditors would see. Also, auditors didn't have the authority to examine religious orders, a big source of the abuse problem

And don't forget that former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a prominent Catholic, resigned from the board after likening some bishops to the Mafia for stonewalling its investigation.

Ultimately, you have to believe that the bishops have changed profoundly if you are going to take comfort from the audit's conclusions. That's a leap of faith that, based on recent history, we aren't prepared to make yet.

True, parts of the audit contained some reason for encouragement. Locally, for instance, it commended the Diocese of Dallas for "an outstanding" sexual-abuse prevention program that "has served as a model for others."

But the audit's shortcomings overshadow those brief moments of hope. Particularly upsetting was the scant attention it gave to the matter of transparency, also called for by the charter. While some bishops recently have announced the number of clerics they consider to have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors over the past decades ? the Dallas diocese says there were 48 instances involving 15 Dallas priests since 1950 ? very few have chosen to release the names of those priests. Some victim advocates say that this violates the spirit of the charter.

We would like the names released, not only for the sake of justice but to protect minors from abusive priests still living. But we don't trust these bishops to provide full disclosure or to judge the credibility of accusations. There has been no more fierce advocate for clergy abuse victims than the Rev. Thomas Doyle, who testified here for plaintiffs in the Rudy Kos case. Father Doyle tells us, "The word of the Dallas diocese as to which cases are credible and which are not is worthless. If they have not been trustworthy in the past, how can they be trusted now?"

With Bishop Charles Grahmann still running things nearly seven years after the Kos trial, we sadly agree. The situation is the same in many other dioceses still run by bishops whose misgovernance was central to the crisis. Ideally, an independent third party would have access to all diocesan records pertaining to clerical sexual abuse and would discern which allegations are credible and whose names should be made public.

That never will happen, which leaves Catholics back where they started: depending on bishops who say, "Trust us." Next up will be two reports from the review board on Feb. 27, one of which will study the size and scope of the scandal, and the other of which will examine the root causes. Those documents may explain why the painful but necessary answer to the bishops' entreaty is, "Not yet."


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