Archdiocese Official Argues That Safeguard Audits Are Insufficient
Audits Are Red Herring to Real Problem, Say Some

By Annysa Johnson
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
June 25, 2010

[Related Documents
PDF: An open letter from Father John Connell
PDF: Addendum to Connell's letter]

Catholic dioceses in Wisconsin and across the country often tout their annual audits by the U.S. Conference of Bishops as proof that they are protecting children from sexual abuse by clergy.

The audits ensure a diocese has in place such safety measures as training, a code of conduct, background checks and a child sex abuse review board, all required by the so-called Dallas Charter, a 2002 document drafted by the bishops conference in response to the clergy sex abuse scandal.

James Connell

But a canon lawyer and vice chancellor in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee alleged this week that the audits are insufficient, saying parameters the bishops conference imposed limit their scope in a way that could endanger children.

"I'm very disappointed," said Father James Connell, who noted that the audits cover only compliance with the Dallas Charter and not the Vatican's essential norms that dictate the procedures for reviewing sex-abuse cases involving children.

The danger, he said, is that priests could be returned to ministry who should not be.

"People in the pews expect that the audit covers everything, and it doesn't," said Connell, a Sheboygan priest who last week issued an open letter to Catholics nationally, accusing the La'Crosse Diocese of violating canon law in the way it vets child-abuse claims.

"I actually feel somewhat deceived by the bishops conference," he said.

Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection for the Washington-based council, said the bishops are likely to take up Connell's concerns, but she could not say when.

She agreed with Connell's assertion that the audit is limited, but declined to comment on his claim that those limits could leave children vulnerable to abuse.

"I'd rather not be second-guessing the canonical application with regard to determining suitability for ministry," she said.

Lower standards

The LaCrosse Diocese has denied in a statement that children are at risk there.

According to Connell, the limits of the audit are illustrated in La'Crosse, which has passed its audits despite a written policy that he says contradicts Vatican law on how preliminary reviews of child-abuse claims are conducted.

Vatican law requires that any case in which a "semblance of truth" to a claim exists - a low standard akin to "probable cause" in civil law, according to Connell - be referred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.

But, according to its website, La'Crosse directs its review board to use a higher standard known as "moral certitude," the canonical equivalent, he says, to "beyond a reasonable doubt."

That creates a higher bar, which makes it more difficult for victims to prevail at the review board, Connell said.

"If La'Crosse did it wrong, maybe there are other dioceses that have it wrong," said Connell, who sits on the Milwaukee Archdiocese's review board. (Connell said Milwaukee uses "preponderance of evidence," a lower standard often described in civil law as a slight tipping of the scale.)

"Whether it's on purpose or inadvertent, somebody ought to be checking to see that the appropriate law is followed," he said.

Red herrings

Kettelkamp, whose office oversees the audits by the consulting firm the Gavin Group, confirmed that the audits cover only the provisions of the charter, and not the Vatican norms.

Assessing review standards and the efficacy of their outcomes "would be a huge task and beyond the scope of the charter," she said.

In La'Crosse, she said, what matters is the standard used by the bishop, not the review board, which is advisory.

A May letter from the diocese to the bishops' National Review Board said the La'Crosse bishop uses a standard of "sufficiently confirmed," but conceded the language is ambiguous and the diocese said it intended to clarify it.

Canon lawyers said Connell raised legitimate concerns, but one questioned whether he had the legal standing to do so.

"The focus on compliance with the charter is a red herring," said Tom Doyle, a retired priest and canon lawyer who has testified against the church in sex abuse trials around the world.

"All the audit does is determine that a diocese has procedures in place. It doesn't look at how those are applied," he said.

Father Phillip J. Brown, associate professor of canon law at The Catholic University in Washington, said the norms are enforceable but not by the bishops conference.

"It would have to be by the universal church authorities," and Connell lacks standing to bring it to them, he said.

"It would have to be someone affected by the matter he's complaining about."


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