Abuse Audits up-in-the-Air

By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter [Washington DC]
Downloaded April 7, 2004

An anticipated second round of independent audits designed to test diocesan compliance with child protection policies approved by the U.S. Bishops may not happen.

Under pressure from bishops apparently opposed to outside scrutiny of church governance, the 48-member administrative committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decided last month to defer a decision on whether to proceed with the 2004 audit. The full body of bishops will consider how to proceed at their next meeting, a private "prayer retreat" scheduled for June in Denver.

A first round of audits, released in January, showed that the vast majority of dioceses had established the child protection programs and procedures called for by the bishops in their June 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth." The 12-member National Review Board established by the bishops to oversee the audits and investigate the causes of the clergy sex abuse crisis recommended that the audits be conducted annually.

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The Review Board is "very troubled" by the Administrative Committee's action, said Washington attorney Robert Bennett, a member of the panel. "We feel that the church has made a real positive step toward resolving this problem and we are concerned that if they take a step backward not only will it contribute to more problems but it will cause enormous tensions with the laity," Bennett told NCR.

Bennett expressed concern that a relatively small number of bishops were able to stymie the process. "Part of the problem is that [the bishops] are so concerned about stepping on the shoes of a fellow bishop that they have got themselves in a structural bind where a few people can delay and do things contrary to the will of the overwhelming majority -- and I'm assuming it's a majority -- who want to move forward," said Bennett.

Such a process, said Bennett, makes it "very hard" to establish the procedures that need to be in place "because everything becomes a jump ball -- you never have anything set."

Among the bishops reportedly urging their colleagues to rethink the audit process are New York Cardinal Edward Egan and Lincoln, Nebr., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, both of whom are seen as hostile to the Review Board's role.

In a written statement released to the Washington Post, bishops' conference President Wilton Gregory said the Administrative Committee "strongly reaffirmed" the bishops' support for the Charter.

"It is our conviction that the implementation of the Charter has gone a long way toward restoring to the church in the United States the harmony and peace so deeply disturbed by the crisis of sexual abuse," said Gregory. "However, we are also aware that there is much in the Charter that can receive further implementation, and we have no intention of diminishing our efforts to see that the Charter's goals are fully achieved."

At the Jan. 6 release of the first audit, Kathleen McChesney, Executive Director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, said that "failing to create a long-term plan for accountability and response to the crisis of sexual abuse of children and young people would undermine the substantial efforts that have been made thus far. A short-term solution would be perceived as insensitive to the lifelong pain suffered by victims and as showing an unwillingness to recognize that cases of abuse remain yet unreported, or could occur in the future."


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