Catholic Diocese Still Falls Short on Abuse, State Audit Says
State: Plan to Protect Children Not Followed

By Eric Moskowitz
Concord Monitor [New Hampshire]
March 31, 2006

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester has failed to ensure that priests, employees and volunteers who work with children have passed criminal background checks or attended training aimed at preventing and identifying abuse, a state audit of the church revealed.

The audit, released yesterday, identified flaws in the Catholic Church's attempt to live up to the terms of the agreement it reached with the state in 2002, a deal that enabled the church to avoid criminal charges of child endangerment despite decades of protecting abusive priests in its handling of sexual-abuse allegations.

The church has taken some important steps to protect children in the three-plus years since the agreement, Attorney General Kelly Ayotte said. But the deficiencies named in the audit - which was delayed nearly a year-and-a-half by a protest from the diocese over the terms and cost - must be addressed immediately. The church has 30 days to come up with a plan to fix the problems or risk facing legal action from the state, said Ayotte, who blamed Bishop John McCormack's administration.

"The fundamental problem appears to be a failure to take responsibility at the top of the diocese," said Ayotte, who submitted the inch-thick audit report to the church earlier this week with a letter listing the specific findings that need to be addressed.

Although Ayotte's five-page letter contained just one paragraph about "commendable steps" the diocese had taken, the church's top official for clergy conduct focused on that line. The Rev. Edward Arsenault mentioned the "commendation" repeatedly during a press conference held by the diocese after the release of the audit. He also prepared an immediate letter to Ayotte saluting her for recognizing "the commitment the Catholic Church in New Hampshire has made to the protection of children and young people."

Arsenault downplayed the deficiencies found by the audit as "administrative details" that the church is trying to address. He also expressed skepticism about the competence of the audit, performed by the international auditing and accounting firm KPMG.

"The KPMG report has a lot of inaccuracies in it," said Arsenault, who is responsible for overseeing the diocese's training and screening programs as McCormack's delegate for ministerial conduct.

For example, Arsenault cited a portion of the report that referred to his role as "advisory."

"That is neither true, nor is it our belief, nor has it ever been. It's a conclusion that was derived by the auditors based on their interview of me," Arsenault said. He called it one of a series of mistakes that cast the whole report in doubt.

Regardless of how Arsenault's role was described, the audit was clear in its assessment of the administration. As part of its December 2002 agreement with the state, the church was supposed to perform criminal background checks on all clergy, employees and volunteers who interact with children. The church also agreed to give "Protecting God's Children"seminars to train the same individuals on how to recognize, prevent and report cases of child sexual abuse.

KPMG found that McCormack's office delegated those roles to the local parishes, schools and youth camps without setting up a method for tracking whether the criminal background checks were performed. The audit recognized that 9,000 people have completed the "Protecting God's Children" training. But the church did not know how many employees or volunteers missed that training or how many people would potentially require it.

Part of the background check involves retrieving a criminal-records report that requires the consent of the person in question. Checking to see if someone is a sex offender is a quick process that anyone with internet access can perform, Ayotte said. Yet in one sample parish studied in the audit, only 16 percent of employees and volunteers who work with children had been checked.

"Something as basic and simple as checking a sex offender registry should be done in every case, without exception," Ayotte said. "To me, that's a basic 101 of working with children."

Arsenault was unable to explain the lack of registry checks. "Because we haven't completed it. That's all I'm going to say," he said. "I'm committed to full compliance. We are working at that."

Arsenault stressed that the audit found no cases where children have been harmed since the agreement was signed. He said the diocese is working to address the deficiencies and recently hired a full-time compliance coordinator to serve as liaison between the bishop and the 117 parishes, 25 diocesan schools and two summer camps in the diocese, a region that covers all of New Hampshire and serves more than 310,000 registered Catholics.

KPMG conducted its research between the spring and fall of 2005, interviewing diocesan and parish personnel, reviewing the records of selected parishes and analyzing background files for all of the state's active priests. According to the final report, 16 priest files (representing 8.4 percent of priests) lacked signed forms that acknowledge understanding of the church's child-protection policies. Nine files (4.8 percent) were missing criminal-background checks.

Arsenault said yesterday that the backgrounds of all of the state's active, assigned priests have now been screened.

But screening and training is more difficult with volunteers than with priests or for staff, he added.

"Volunteers in parishes change every day," he said. "There are new volunteers, there's people who move, there's people who change. . . . This is a large project."

Arsenault said he wasn't trying to absolve the church of its responsibility under the agreement to screen and educate volunteers. But he asked for understanding. "Largely it's associated with privacy issues," he said. "To inquire about someone's background is new for us in the church."

Both Arsenault and Ayotte described the church's compliance with the agreement as a work in progress. State officials can only speculate what the audit might have looked like if it had been performed over a year ago, as planned.

The 2002 agreement contained several components. Among the conditions, the church agreed to four annual reviews of the diocese's compliance with the agreement, with the first audit to begin a year after the deal was signed. But that process was delayed nearly 1?years by a legal battle.

The church accused the state of expanding the scope and the cost of the audit by hiring an outside firm to perform the work. The church also lobbied for control over what questions the auditors could ask and which people they could interview, claiming that a blanket audit would violate its constitutional right to religious freedom.

Ultimately, the two sides agreed to split the $445,000 audit. A superior court judge sided with the state about the nature of the audit, setting the stage for it to begin in 2005.

But the disagreements may not be over. Ayotte and Senior Assistant Attorney General Will Delker said this audit would still be the first of four, and the $445,000 tab would cover the next three - meaning the reviews of the church could run until 2009. "My true hope is that this is the worst audit you see," Ayotte said. "Because if an audit works, and if someone is committed on the other side to being audited, to improvement, then that is what we should see."

But Arsenault said yesterday he understood the original agreement to be a five-year deal that expires at the end of 2007, no matter how many audits had been performed.

That's "the most important question" of the day, said David Braiterman, a lawyer who represented a group of lay Catholics and other concerned parties that intervened last year in the lawsuit over the nature of the audit. Braiterman and a few of his clients attended the attorney general's press conference yesterday, which was open to the public. But they were initially blocked from Arsenault's conference, held nearby at St. John the Evangelist, until some protested.

"I have a right to hear what they say today, and I'm not leaving,"said Anne Coughlin, a Concord Catholic who has been outspoken about the church's mishandling of abusive priests. "I have a right to be here."

Rose Marie Lanier, another Concord Catholic who made it inside the parish hall, said she was disappointed by Arsenault's comments. "I still feel a sense of defensiveness," she said. She thought the accomplishments Arsenault cited paled in light of the deficiencies found in the audit. "We're three years along, you know?" she said.


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