Diocese Following Abuse Policy

By Mark Reynolds
Providence Journal-Bulletin (Rhode Island)
January 7, 2004

FALL RIVER - Before it could achieve full compliance with a new church policy for protecting children and young people from sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River had to adopt a new code of conduct for clergy and employees.

The local diocese was told to formulate the conduct rules last fall, according to a private audit company that examined compliance with the church's new child protection charter in 191 Catholic dioceses.

The Gavin Group released most of its findings yesterday, revealing that auditors had identified some problems, but that the Fall River Diocese is in full compliance with the guidelines set by the U.S. Conference of Bishops in June 2002.

Those guidelines, part of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, were created by bishops who met in Dallas, amid a public furor over widespread sexual assaults committed by Catholic clergy.

The bishops' charter set up a program for removing problem priests, reaching out to victims and preventing abuse.

It also called for auditors and an Office of Child and Youth Protection to work together to evaluate each diocese's success in following the new charter.

Auditors from the Gavin Group a consulting group spearheaded by retired FBI investigator William Gavin examined the Fall River Diocese between Oct. 20 and 24.

They documented existing policies, interviewed bishops, priests, deacons, clergy, victims, district attorneys, parishioners and others.

The auditors determined that since 2002, the diocese has run an effective program for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse, for providing outreach to victims and for informing civil authorities of sexual abuse allegations.

But the report also says a district attorney "stated his belief that the diocese should have been more forthcoming with information in past years."

A spokesman for the diocese, John Kearns, was unable to provide further explanation on the statement last evening.

Bristol County District Attorney Paul Walsh Jr. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Kearns said he was uncertain about why the auditors had included the statement in their report.

When the issue of sexual abuse in the church burst into a nationwide scandal about two years ago, the diocese sorted through 50 years of records, compiled any relevant information and shared it with district attorneys in the region, Kearns said.

In a news release, the Fall River Diocese emphasized that the overall audit was designed to review the compliance of the nation's dioceses only since June 2002.

During their review in October, the auditors also reported that the diocese had not published "standards of conduct for priests, deacons, diocesan employees, volunteers or any other church personnel in positions of trust who have regular contact with children and young people."

The diocese quickly developed rules of conduct with the help of Catholic Social Services, Kearns said.

The rules of conduct were in place by Dec. 1, as requested by the auditors.

Diocesan priests, teachers and administrators were required to sign the code.

"It's all common sense..." said the Rev. Stephen Salvador, pastor of SS. Peter and Paul parish in Fall River, which runs a school with more than 150 elementary and middle school students.

"We were asked to do it. And I have no problem doing that, neither do the teachers of the school," Father Salvador said.

The auditors also recommended that the diocese develop a program for teaching diocesan schoolchildren how to protect themselves and to give more publicity to its procedures for filing a sexual abuse claim.

Kearns said that all children in diocesan schools had received special training for dealing with sexual abuse, but about 35 percent of the public schoolchildren enrolled in part-time religious education programs have not received such instruction. A uniform training program will help address the gaps, he said.

Kearns has readily provided written copies of the diocese's formal complaint procedure to the media in the past. The procedure for filing a sexual complaint is posted on the diocese's Web site.

The procedure is an outgrowth of an early 1990s scandal involving a former priest, James Porter, who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 28 children.

He was sentenced to 18 to 23 years in state prison. He is scheduled to appeal before a parole board later this month.

The diocese suppressed the scandal until the arrival of Bishop Sean P. O'Malley in 1992.

O'Malley, who is now archbishop of the Archdiocese of Boston, appointed a sexual abuse review board. The board, which is still in existence, includes a priest and six members of the community.

The board is set to review allegations against the Rev. Hernando Herrera, a Seekonk priest who was recently accused of having inappropriate conduct with two minors.

An investigation by the state Department of Social Services has already found insufficient evidence to support the allegations.

Walsh's office is reviewing the case and the diocesan review board will examine it after that, according to Kearns.

Other policies mandated by Bishop O'Malley when he led the Fall River Diocese require all clergy, employees and volunteers to report any allegations of child abuse to authorities.

New personnel in the diocese still receive special training on preventing abuse.

More than 20,000 of them have agreed to criminal background checks.

"The implementation of policies and procedures designed to safeguard children has been a priority in this diocese for ten years," Bishop O'Malley's protege, Bishop George W. Coleman said yesterday.

Audit finds Fall River protecting children


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