Catholic Reforms Show Progress and Problems

Florida Today
January 11, 2004

The sexual-abuse scandal that has shaken the Roman Catholic Church and its faithful to the core the past two years remains an ugly wound, especially to the victims.

Most were boys sexually assaulted by parish priests who preyed on them while senior church officials -- aware of the brutal crimes -- did nothing to stop it, leaving scars of the heart and soul so deep they remain hard to comprehend.

In June 2002, at the scandal's height, American bishops adopted reforms to clear the clerical ranks of pedophile priests and protect children from sexual attack.

The results of the first audit to determine the policy's effectiveness were released last week, and the findings point to both important progress and serious problems the church must immediately confront.

The review -- overseen by a former top FBI official who runs the bishop's Office of Child and Youth Protection -- found 90 percent of the 195 U.S. dioceses in full compliance with the plan.

Among them was the Diocese of Orlando, which received a special commendation and includes about 35,000 Catholics registered with Brevard County parishes.

The Orlando diocese has followed the plan carefully, with more than 43,600 clergy, lay volunteers and church employees fingerprinted though the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or the FBI.

The diocese also was the first in the nation to start background checks and has placed a strong emphasis on reaching out to victims -- both crucial policy mandates.

Nothing less than such strict adherence to the plan is acceptable, and the fact that some dioceses have not yet complied is reprehensible.

Perhaps worse are the major troubles the audit uncovered, which raise questions about its long-term effectiveness:

There is no mechanism to force dioceses that don't fully comply to act in accordance with the policy.

Among the common violations found were a failure to launch effective programs to protect children, and to conduct background checks and establish codes of conduct for lay workers.

The bishops themselves are not doing enough to contact and meet victims.

The implications of these failings are clear:

They leave the door open for more abuse and, in the case of the bishops, reinforce past revelations that they have been more concerned with protecting the church's image than reaching out to victims with understanding and compassion.

The bishops must forcefully solve these problems now and enact tough follow-up monitoring to leave no doubt about their own accountability.

In doing so, they'd move closer to the day when the trust they have lost among many Catholics and non-Catholics alike is restored.


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