Vaguely Reassuring
A Times Editorial

St. Petersburg Times
January 13, 2004

Only two years after America's Roman Catholic Church was rocked by a massive child sex abuse scandal, a commissioned audit shows that nine of every 10 dioceses in the United States have complied with new rules to oust predatory priests. Progress? Yes - but the audit also shows that the bishops are still manipulating the process for bringing abusive priests to light. This issue is not a numbers game for the bishops, but a call for the church to better protect children entrusted to its pastoral care.

The audit was part of the bishops' wide-ranging response to the sex abuse scandal in 2002. Meeting in Dallas, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops crafted a "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." At the center of the protocol was an agreement to remove abusive priests from the ministry. The plan called on the bishops to better screen, manage and counsel priests, to report abuse claims to the authorities and to do a better job of reaching out to victims and their families. Annual audits would monitor compliance.

All 191 of the 194 Roman Catholic dioceses and eastern eparchies in the United States that were audited last year were found to be fully or partially compliant with the Dallas charter. Most - 171 - complied fully, auditors found. Dioceses have improved their procedures for reporting abuse, are more cooperative with civil authorities and have done away with much of the secrecy that enabled serial predators to thrive. The multimillion-dollar civil claims against the church have added to the moral imperative for church leaders to act. The Diocese of St. Petersburg was one of many commended for putting in place prevention policies long before the sex scandal broke. Despite its flaws - auditors were denied personnel records - the effort is important because its keeps public attention on the bishops.

The audit, like the charter, is flawed because it leaves too much power to individual bishops, who operate independently and answer only to the pope. The charter did not go far enough to create a mechanism for judging the bishops' compliance in a uniform way. The bishops are still quibbling over the charter language. Even dioceses that were found to be complying with the charter had widely varying practices for handling abuse claims. Most disturbing, auditors were barred from independently verifying through personnel records whether priests who molested children were shuttled off to other dioceses, as often happened before.

The audit does a good job of pointing out better ways to implement the Dallas charter, and it is blunt in its criticism of the hierarchy for failing to address the sex scandal sooner. The tone is set in the second sentence of the auditor's report: "Surprisingly, the magnitude of this problem has yet to be fully described by the leadership of the Church."

The bishops need to show their commitment by improving protections at the local level - in parishes, schools and other settings where children routinely interact with priests. Parents are not looking for an auditor's test score but for signs that their children are safe in a church environment.


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