Panel Opposes Delay of Abuse Audit
Lay Catholic Leaders Say Efforts to Heal Wounds 'Just Beginning'

By Guy Kovner
The Press Democrat [Santa Clara CA]
May 15, 2004

SANTA CLARA -- A national panel of lay Catholics charged with investigating the church's sex abuse crisis faces "significant obstacles" in pursuing its work, panel member and former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said Friday.

Panetta, a former Monterey congressman, said the 12-member National Review Board is concerned about the move by more than two dozen bishops to postpone a second audit of how the nation's 195 Catholic dioceses are complying with overhauls adopted two years ago to weed out molester priests.

If the U.S. bishops decide not to proceed with an audit this year "it would be clearly seen all across the country as an additional sign of retreat," Panetta said in a keynote speech at a one-day conference at Santa Clara University.

Bishops were not in attendance at the conference, titled "Sin Against the Innocents," which was designed to shed light on the current status of the church's sex abuse scandal.

Panetta and others said the sex abuse crisis and the Catholic Church's effort to regain the trust of parishioners are not over and the effort to audit compliance must continue.

"I think we are at the beginning, just the beginning," Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told about 250 conference participants.

Both the review board and McChesney's agency were created by the bishops two years ago to deal with the sex abuse scandal, which captured national attention in 2002 after simmering for years in many dioceses, including Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh reported last year that 16 priests had molested 59 children and the diocese had paid settlements to victims of $8.6 million.

Those figures were included in a national report, commissioned by the bishops, that said 4,392 priests had been accused of sexual misconduct from 1950-2002, that 10,667 individuals had made allegations of abuse and that the church had paid more than $740 million in compensation to victims, treatment of priests and legal fees.

Bishops from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Nebraska, Connecticut and Colorado want to postpone the audit process until after a November meeting of bishops.

But Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles has said he and other California bishops want the audit to go on as scheduled.

Mahony, in an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, said the anti-review board sentiment is a "minority view," and he predicted bishops would vote in June to continue with the auditing process.

Walsh, spiritual leader of 150,000 North Coast Catholics, was unavailable Thursday and Friday to comment.

"Sexual abuse by clergy is neither new nor is it over," said panelist A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and psychotherapist, adding that the church's effort to deal with sexual misconduct dates back to the year 306.

"Two years down the road we're still going to be horrified," said Thomas Doyle, a priest, canon lawyer and Air Force officer.

McChesney and Panetta both noted that the national survey found a spike in sex abuse cases in the 1970s and '80s, prompting some -- including conference organizer Tom Plante of Santa Clara University -- to suggest that clerical sex crimes have since tapered off.

"We don't know what the continuing numbers look like," Panetta said, noting that children usually report molestation decades after it happens.

"It is likely to spike again as these victims come forward," he said, in support of continuing audits of the nation's dioceses.

Plante, a professor of psychology, author and counselor, said in an interview he still believes the sex scandal peaked decades ago. Media scrutiny, civil and criminal court cases and better training of priests reduce the likelihood of molesters serving in the church.

"Everybody's watching," Plante said.

McChesney said she expects to undertake a second audit this year, and like Mahony, predicted the matter will be resolved in a bishop's conference in June.

The first audit, conducted last year, found that most dioceses, including Santa Rosa, were in compliance with the sex abuse prevention policy.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or


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