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January 10, 2004
Column #1,167

Catholic Bishops Begin To Restore Trust

     America's Catholic Bishops have taken a significant step to restore their tattered moral authority after revelations that many bishops failed to protect children from sexually abusive priests. They issued a credible, independent first year audit by ex-FBI agents on new efforts to report allegations to police, extend help to victims and protect children from further abuse.

     Two years to the day after the Boston Globe published the first of a Pulitzer-Prize winning series of stories on the Boston Archdiocese's transferring of a known pedophile priest from one parish to another, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) issued an unprecedented Report on the Implementation of their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted in Dallas 18 months ago.

     Initially, audits conducted last summer surfaced many shortcomings. The auditors, who were former FBI agents, issued 131 "Instructions" to 57 percent of dioceses if a particular article of the Charter had not been implemented. Another 297 Recommendations were made to two-thirds of the dioceses on issues of incomplete implementation.

     In December auditors checked back, finding most dioceses had come into compliance.

     The result: 90 percent of America's 191 dioceses have fully complied with the rules set by the Dallas charter. The other 10 percent, such as the Archdioceses of New York and Omaha and the Dioceses of Arlington, VA and Lincoln, NE - have not yet addressed such specific shortcomings as conducting criminal background checks on employees.

     The auditors also released 129 Commendations praising innovative procedures or exceptional transparency by two-thirds of the Dioceses.

     For example, The Diocese of Birmingham had not conducted background checks of all diocesan priests and was instructed to do so. But it was commended for an early recognition of the problem of sexual abuse of minors and establishment of a policy to deal with it in 1992.

     In reading the 388 page report on each diocese, I was struck by the thoroughness of the investigation, which usually included interviews with local civil authorities. For example, they found that while Chicago had developed an assistance ministry for victims that became a model for other dioceses, it did not have a published code of conduct for priests and deacons that was quickly put in place.

     Victims groups, however, were not impressed. Barbara Blaine, founder of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said the report was "a step in the right direction, but the standards are so minimal it is almost meaningless. The audits are only looking at whether each diocese has a written policy.

     "It would have been far more effective to see if the policy is being followed. The best way to determine that is to talk to victims. We have 4,600 SNAP members and local groups in 57 cities who asked to meet with the auditors. But only 3 SNAP members were spoken with."

     That's a legitimate complaint. The investigators only talked to victims who came forward in the last 18 months the reason so few SNAP people were interviewed. How can auditors determine the effectiveness of the bishops' goal to provide "outreach to every person who has been the victim of sexual abuse," without talking to a sample of past victims?

     In a somewhat belated recognition, Kathleen McChesney, a retired FBI Assistant Director who was named Director of USCCB's Office for Child and Youth Protection, is creating an external study of victims/survivors to assess the quality of help given them to overcome the trauma of their abuse.

     She has also recommended a mechanism be established "to audit the participation of 19,000 parishes in the implementation of the Charter because children and young people are most involved in church activities at the parish level."

     Peter Steinfels, author of a landmark Catholic book, "A People Adrift," found the report underscored "what an ambitious undertaking this is. I am struck by what they have done and what they openly acknowledge they have yet to do, in moving from 191 dioceses to 19,000 parishes. The church is a leading laboratory for dealing with these issues. I am a one-hour-a-week volunteer tutoring kids in our parish, and my background was checked, with references called.

     "However, 20 percent of women and 15 percent of men have suffered sexual victimization as minors. That is 48 million people," only a tiny percentage of whom were by priests.

     What are other institutions doing to reduce this abuse, such as school systems?

     They need a systematic strategy like that developed by Catholic bishops!

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