A Way for Bishops to Begin Rebuilding Trust

By James E. Connell
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
October 24, 2011

An excellent opportunity exists for the Catholic bishops in the United States to begin rebuilding the people's trust in them that has been severely damaged because of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis. This opportunity is found in the audit process to verify that each diocese actually is in compliance with the requirements of the charter that was originally established by the bishops in 2002 to enhance the protection of children from sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.

Remember, whether committed by force or by seduction, every act of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest is a crime, both in civil law and in church law. So in discussing sexual abuse of minors by priests, we are not talking about the actions of schoolyard bullies. We are talking about the actions of criminals. This must be the starting point for addressing this crisis and scandal in the church.

Therefore, the audit process is a critical component in the church's effort to protect children and young people. Here are six concrete steps to improve the audit process to verify that each diocese in the United States actually complies with the charter.

Invite victims?/?survivors of clergy sexual abuse into the audit planning process, both at the national planning level and at the local diocesan level. Indeed, the charter indicates that outreach to every person who has been the victim of clergy sexual abuse and his or her family is the starting point of the mission of the charter (Article 1). Similarly, the verification of the performance of this outreach should be the starting point of the audits of the charter, and the victims?/?survivors can help.

Inform the local community at large before an audit begins that an audit of the diocese is about to begin and invite interested people, especially victims?/?survivors and clergy who have been accused, to contact the auditor to provide whatever comments the person might choose to make.

Establish that part of what is audited is a Representation Letter, signed by the diocesan bishop, asserting that, to the best of his knowledge, his diocese is in full compliance with the charter. Such Representation Letters are common practice in the audit of businesses because the letter helps to place accountability directly on the chief executive. So it should be for the bishop of each Catholic diocese.

Require that the related Essential Norms be audited along with the charter. While the charter is a profound, important and morally binding document, it does not actually stand as church law. The Essential Norms, however, has been approved by the Vatican as church law to assure diocesan compliance with the charter. However, the scope of the audit as established by the bishops is of the charter only, not also of the Essential Norms. In other words, that which is legally binding on each diocese (Essential Norms) is not audited, while that which is not legally binding (charter) is audited. This must change.

Establish that the auditor is authorized to review all documents directly related to any clergy sexual abuse case, as well as any other documents that the auditor considers pertinent to the audit of each diocese.

Publish the detailed audit report concerning each diocese, including the Representation Letter signed by the bishop, so that the public can have access to each report.

In many ways, the Catholic Church's handling of its clergy sexual abuse crisis has generated scandal. But improving the oversight of the charter and its related Essential Norms by means of strengthening the diocesan audits truly can begin to turn that tide and would provide an excellent opportunity for the Catholic bishops to begin rebuilding trust.


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