Church Audit Still Disputed, Two Years after Settlement
Superior Court Hearing to Be Next Month
By Eric Moskowitz
Monitor [Concord NH]
August 24, 2004
Nearly two years after the state's Catholic leaders avoided criminal charges of child endangerment bysettling with the attorney general's office, a church audit, viewed by many as the centerpiece of the settlement, has still not begun.
A superior court hearing has been scheduled for Sept. 24 in the dispute between the attorney general and the Diocese of Manchester, which disagrees with the state over the extent of the oversight as well as who should cover the cost, estimated at $200,000 for the first year alone.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Will Delker said that the church and state have had a series of productive meetings, and the possibility remains that an agreement could be reached before the court date. "(The diocese is) interested in the outcome of this proceeding, and we hope that we'll be able to move forward in a direction that will satisfy everyone involved, and we won't need to come to formal litigation over this," Delker said.
Church officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment yesterday.
Locally, Catholics who have been staying on top of the matter expressed their frustration with the delay in the audit, which was supposed to begin with a review of any internal church documents or information pertaining to abuse in 2003.
"At this point, I really don't care who pays for it, as long as it's done," said Anne Pullen of Concord, state chairwoman for Voice of the Faithful, an organization of churchgoers that supports the victims and tries to bring change to the church from within. Pullen said she thought the delay in the audit had marred the December 2002 agreement between the church and the state, limiting the value of a settlement that was initially hailed as landmark.
In that settlement, the diocese avoided criminal charges by acknowledging it had protected abusive priests for decades and releasing thousands of pages of records, dating back several decades, showing how the church attempted to handle sexual allegations internally. It also called for the attorney general's office to conduct an annual review of church policies and of new abuse-related documents for five years, through 2007.
That audit is considered crucial because it speaks to the "bottom line" of the safety of children in the diocese, said Anne Coughlin, a Concord Catholic who has been outspoken about the church's mishandling of abusive priests and who has attempted to raise private money to pay for the audit.
"Are kids in this diocese safe? . . . I don't think you can answer that question yes right now," Coughlin said. "There are a lot of unanswered questions that this audit is supposed to answer."
At the end of 2003, the attorney general's office presented the church with a proposal for the international accounting and professional-services firm KPMG to handle the audit. The diocese contended that the state never disclosed at the time of the agreement that the church would pay for the review or that it would be conducted by a consulting party. It filed a motion in May alleging that the state has been the obstacle to completing the audit and urging the court to enforce a state-funded, state-run audit. In a second filing, the church also objected to the state's desire for the auditors to be able to interview people throughout the ranks of the diocese, from top officials to volunteer Sunday school teachers.
The attorney general's office objected on the grounds that state law allows for the hiring of an outside auditor and that it's common custom for the audited party to pick up the tab.
In hindsight, Delker said, things might have worked out better if the state had been more specific about the audit at the time of the agreement.
"(But) I think that's true about almost anything - when you look back in retrospect, there are things that could've been clearer, probably," he said. "But the agreement is still landmark, and I think it accomplished a lot."
Even though the terms of the audit have been in dispute, the settlement has yielded other benefits, he said, starting with the admission of wrongdoing and the release of past documents. Additionally, the church has apprised the state of changes in its policies aimed at protecting children, he said.
The Rev. Tim Thibeault of the Immaculate Conception in Penacook said that he hoped the audit dispute would be resolved, for the sake of both the diocese and the attorney general's office. But generally, Thibeault said, his parishioners have not been talking about the disagreement between church and state. "I think all the people are really concerned about - and they're generally concerned - is they want our church to be a safe place for kids," he said. "And anything we can do to do that, we'll do that."
Even without the audit, Thibeault said the diocese had created "very positive" new policies that could be seen locally, like making sure there are at least two adults in the room with children at all times and performing criminal background checks on all church volunteers working with children.
"I think (people) realize the church is probably a safer place now than it probably ever has been for kids," he said. "(But) it's kind of too bad that they locked the barn door after the horse was stolen."
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