The National Catholic Review
Most Dioceses Now Comply With Bishops’ Sexual Abuse Norms

By the end of 2003, nearly 90 percent of U.S. Catholic dioceses were in compliance with the U.S. bishops’ national policy to protect children and respond to sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy, according to the first national audit report released on Jan. 6. On most elements, the report said, 98 percent to 100 percent of audited dioceses were judged to be in compliance with the 17-article Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted by the bishops in June 2002. There were only two mandates on which compliance was lower than 98 percent: having comprehensive safe environment programs in place throughout the diocese (91 percent), and conducting background checks on all church employees and volunteers who work with minors (93 percent).

The audit represents solid progress on the journey toward fulfilling the vision set out by the charter, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said at a press conference on the report’s release. He said the report itself will now become a source of learning about how to build on what we are already doing well and about what more we need to do in order to protect children and young people.

Paraphrasing the declaration made by Winston Churchill after a major Allied victory in World War II, he said, We have not reached the end, or even the beginning of the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning.

The audit consisted of two main sections: a 30-page national report with an executive summary of the study, a report on the audit structure and procedures, an overall analysis of the findings and the general recommendations to the bishops’ conference; and a 388-page section on the audits themselves, summarizing the findings in each diocese. The complete report is on the bishops’ Web site, www.usccb.org.

According to the initial on-site audits, conducted by the Boston-based Gavin Group between June and November 2003, a little more than one-fourth of dioceses were in full compliance on everything. Another two-fifths were basically in compliance but received one or more recommendations to improve their policies or practices in certain areas.

About one-third were given instructions on changes they needed to make in order to come into compliance with the 2002 charter. Many of those that received instructions on some elements of the charter received recommendations to improve their policies or practices in other areas as well.

The report said recommendations were given instead of instructions when implementation of a particular article was incomplete or when significant improvement could be made by an additional or changed procedure.

The report also noted that many dioceses received commendations for the quality of their programs prior to adoption of the charter or for notable actions such as exemplary pastoral outreach and candid, educational communications. Of the 191 dioceses audited, 129, or 68 percent, received one or more commendations.

Dioceses Improve During Audit Process

By the time follow-up reports on audit compliance were completed near the end of 2003, only 20 of the dioceses that received instructions had not yet taken remedial action to correct their noncompliance in those areas. An additional 14 had not yet implemented recommendations for improvement in one or more areas. The recommendations meant the diocese was basically in compliance with the charter but could do a better job by making some changes in certain areas. Any corrective actions taken or reported after Dec. 12, 2003, missed the deadline for inclusion in the report.

Of the 195 U.S. dioceses and eparchies, 191 were audited. Two were not audited because of scheduling difficulties, but they are scheduled for audits this year. The Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, was cooperative, but the nature of current litigation it faced led the auditor and bishop to agree that a full and fair review could not be completed without interference from outside entities, the report said. The California-based Chaldean Eparchy of St. Peter the Apostle, newly formed in July 2002, was not included in the first round of audits.

Difficult Areas

According to the audit report, full compliance with charter requirements proved particularly difficult for dioceses in two areas: implementation of safe environment programs across the diocese, and full background checks on all diocesan employees and volunteers who work with minors.

A complete safe environment program would include training sessions for all church employees and volunteers on the church’s abuse policies, appropriate boundaries to maintain in dealing with minors, and how to recognize and report signs of possible sexual abuse. It would also include parish-based education on sexual abuse for parents and other adults and age-appropriate education for children and youth on recognizing improper conduct and reporting it.

By the time of the final report only 9 percent of dioceses were not in compliance on safe environment programs. Only 7 percent were still not in compliance in the area of background checks on employees and volunteers.

William A. Gavin, president of the Gavin Group, said the audit was initially a source of concern to many bishops, but it turned out to be extremely helpful in demonstrating some deficiencies that were not yet known to them. It provided best practices from bishops and eparchs of other dioceses and perhaps introduced diocesan and eparchial leaders to new ways and methods of achieving results.

Noncompliant Dioceses Say They’re Working to Apply Charter

Several dioceses not in compliance with some aspects of the U.S. bishops’ policies and practices on sexual abuse said they are working to implement them. But a statement from the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., said that while it was in compliance in most of the areas on which auditors focused, it had serious pastoral reasons for not being in compliance with everything that the auditors sought. Meanwhile, an advocacy group of victims of sexual abuse by clergy said the audits were fundamentally flawed because the bishops are judging themselves.

The Lincoln Diocese was cited in the audit report for not participating in a national study to determine the nature and scope of the abuse problem and for not instituting background checks for church employees having regular contact with children. A diocesan statement said it has not participated in the national study, by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, because that study has been found, in the opinion of diocesan officials and others, to contain inherent flaws that make it an inaccurate instrument, and thus is harmful, not helpful, to the proper dealing with the problem of sexual misconduct. The national study, commissioned by the U.S. bishops’ charter for youth protection, is scheduled for release on Feb. 27.

The Lincoln Diocese’s statement also noted that the U.S. bishops’ charter is an advisory document not binding on individual dioceses. Although not bound to do so, the diocese has voluntarily incorporated, or is in the process of incorporating, many of the elements of the non-binding charter, it said. It also said it would continue to comply with all civil and church laws.

Several dioceses were cited for not having safe environment programs that provide training for church employees, parents and children in the prevention of sex abuse of children.

The Archdiocese of New York said the audit recognized that sufficient steps had been taken to establish the program. The archdiocese expects to have the implementation substantially completed by the end of the school year and has contracted a company specializing in such programs to advise it, said an archdiocesan press statement.

The Diocese of Arlington, Va., said it has reviewed several safe environment programs but has not chosen one yet. Arlington was also told to implement criminal background checks on church personnel and volunteers coming into regular contact with children. A diocesan statement said that since the audit was done in September criminal history background checks have been conducted on priests of the diocese.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a victims’ group known as SNAP, called the audits a small step forward but said auditors should have interviewed a greater cross-section of victims. The audits produced some good because some bishops were prodded to do more than they would have done otherwise, said a SNAP statement. But SNAP said it feared that bishops who were praised for compliance will relax their efforts.

Audit Report Includes National Recommendations

As a result of their meetings with bishops, diocesan personnel, abuse victims, law enforcement and social service personnel and other interested persons, the independent auditors came up with a substantial list of nationwide recommendations to improve the church’s response to the sexual abuse issue in the future. Their recommendations included a number of proposals that could strengthen the charter itself or its implementation procedures when the bishops consider possible revisions later this year. At the press conference on Jan. 6, Bishop Gregory said he could not predict exactly how the bishops would implement the more than 60 general recommendations, but he said he believed they would be adoptedif not in their entirety, at least in substance.

The report recommended that the bishops sponsor a new national studyan external study of victims/survivors for the purpose of identifying better methods for responding to complaints of sexual abuse by clergy or other church personnel. At the press conference introducing the report, Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the bishops’ national Office for Child and Youth Protection, said the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse has already reviewed that recommendation and backed it, and her office has been putting together the framework of a study we’d like to do.

Topping the list of recommendations was a proposal to strengthen sexual abuse awareness, prevention and response at the level of parishes, schools and other local church facilities nationwide. This is particularly important because children and young people are most involved in church activities at the parish level, the report said. The report recommended that the bishops’ national office prepare guidelines for dioceses to integrate all aspects of charter implementation at the parish level. It called for dioceses to take affirmative action to achieve such integration where it does not yet exist and urged that a mechanism be established to audit such parish participation in future years.

The report also recommended that the Office for Child and Youth Protection develop and carry out training programs for diocesan review board members and safe environment coordinators.

It said the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse should consider ways to help dioceses determine the appropriate supervision and sustenance that should be provided to priests and deacons who have abused minors. It asked for clarification of the meaning of prayer and penance in the article referring to the lives of priests who were removed from ministry because of abuse but were not laicized.

It recommended that the accused priest be informed of the procedures to be followed during the investigation and that he be kept abreast of the developments. In instances of unfounded allegations, it recommended that the bishop work with the accused cleric and with lay leaders to determine effective ways to restore the accused person’s good name (e.g., through parish visits, letters and public statements).

Among eight recommendations on victim healing, outreach and reconciliation, for example, the report included a suggestion that dioceses support and encourage more research into effective therapies for victims. Another recommendation was that each bishop identify every victim who has not yet met with the bishop or his designee and ask for a meeting.

Among 14 recommendations on response and reporting procedures were proposals to exclude diocesan attorneys and assistance coordinators from membership on diocesan review boards and to inform the complainant promptly of results of an investigation and any actions taken or planned. There were also recommendations to develop national standards for review board deliberations and to identify model board practices and incorporate them into training programs for members.

The report asked bishops to assure that priests do not wear clerical garb, as has happened in a small number of cases in the past year, when appearing as defendants in criminal cases involving sexual abuse of a minor.

The report recommended that the on-site audit procedure used in 2003 be used again for the 2004 audit. It recommended that future annual audits include information on the number of new allegations during the year in each diocese, the number of actions taken against clergy based on admitted or established acts of abuse, the number of victims and financial costs.

Protestants Overtake Catholics in Church Attendance

Historical Gallup Poll data show that Protestants have now clearly overtaken Catholics in church attendance, for the first time in Gallup polling history, said George H. Gallup Jr., chairman of the George H. Gallup International Institute. Although weekly church attendance among U.S. Catholics appears to be on the rebound from an all-time low of 35 percent last February, the level of church attendance by Protestants remains slightly higher, according to poll data released by Gallup.

The data from November 2003 show that 45 percent of Catholics and 48 percent of Protestants say they attend church services weekly. Nine months earlier, the figures were 35 percent for Catholics and 47 percent for Protestants. The latest November figure shows a decided rebound in attendance at Mass, but Catholics still trail Protestants by a small margin, Gallup said. The margin of error for the Nov. 10-12 polling of 1,004 adult Americans was plus or minus three percentage points. Earlier polls had similar sampling error percentages.

Gallup said that although Catholic attendance reached its low point in early 2002 after the emergence of the clergy sex abuse crisis, the decline in Catholic church attendance began long before the scandals.

In 1955, the first year that Gallup began measuring church attendance, 74 percent of Catholics and 42 percent of Protestants said they attended church services each week. By 1969, church attendance was down to 63 percent of Catholics and 37 percent of Protestants. The percentage of Protestants participating in church services each week has remained the same or shown slight increases since then, while Catholic church attendance continued to slide to 52 percent in 1979 and went below 50 percent for the first time in 1992.