Audit Agreement to Be Tested in Denver

National Catholic Reporter
May 28, 2004

The May 17 announcement that the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse and the lay-run National Review Board investigating the crisis have agreed on a way to continue the audits of diocesan child protection programs (see story) is welcome news. It’s a move in the right direction, a step away from discrediting the process of accountability the bishops themselves instituted in June 2002.

But it is premature to declare the matter settled. The real test comes the week of June 14 when the full body of bishops, meeting in private, will vote to accept, reject or amend the recommendation.

From a bureaucratic standpoint, it’s significant the agreement was entered into with the Ad Hoc Committee, rather than with the bishops’ Administrative Committee or some more representative sample of episcopal opinion. The members of the Ad Hoc Committee, led by St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop Harry Flynn, are exactly those church leaders who have shown themselves most sympathetic to the calls for accountability. Whether they hold sway with their colleagues, particularly the dozens who have strong objections to the audit process, remains to be seen.

The audits, and the follow-ups to the groundbreaking studies the review board released in February, are a starting point, not the finish line. It is true that the procedures are expensive (each diocese gets charged for the cost of having the auditors inspect their programs), time-consuming and cumbersome. And it’s conceivable that at some future point, with careful planning, a different process could be instituted. But to suggest at this moment, as one bishop recently did, that “the bishops need a bit of a break” is to minimize the failures that have occurred and the work of restoring trust that needs to be undertaken.

The bishops will meet June 14-20 in Denver for their quadrennial retreat. This event, designed as a spiritual exercise and not a working meeting, is normally closed to the press and public. This year, however, the bishops will spend a relatively small amount of their time together discussing their relationship with the review board, their commitment to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and the fate of the accountability procedures they instituted two years ago.

We don’t begrudge the bishops the right to pray in private. But those parts of the meeting dealing with issues related to the clergy abuse crisis should be open, so the people of God can view their leaders at work. In this case, a little sunlight could go a long way toward promoting accountability.