WASHINGTON – Roman Catholic bishops (search) have spent more than two years trying to convince parishioners and the public that church leaders have learned the painful lessons from the crisis over clergy sex abuse (search).
At this week's meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (search), some victims and lay people said they saw evidence that the bishops were committed to their reforms, although lay advocates cautioned more changes were needed.
The bishops voted Wednesday to authorize a third round of audits of every U.S. diocese to determine whether they had put in place mandatory safeguards for children and discipline plans for guilty priests.
The bishops also approved collecting data on new abuse claims, litigation and related costs, as a follow-up to their unprecedented statistical accounting on 50 years of abuse cases nationwide that was released earlier this year.
They have hired the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which conducted that research, to manage another study — examining why priests abused children. The new report is expected to be released next October.
Most importantly, a committee overseeing revisions of the child protection plan the bishops adopted at their Dallas meeting in 2002 has recommended preserving a ban on church work for abusive clerics. Church leaders may ultimately reject that recommendation, but analysts say it is significant that the committee has endorsed the policy.
Victims had been worried the committee would recommend easing that rule for guilty priests who had completed therapy.
Susan Archibald, head of the victim advocacy group The Linkup, said she was encouraged by the outcome of the meeting, which is scheduled to end with a private session for bishops Thursday morning.
"Most skeptics felt that given the chance and given the time, the bishops would just keep taking steps backward until we were back where we were 10 years ago," Archibald said. "This indicates a ray of hope that they are taking this more seriously."
Archibald also noted the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, which monitors dioceses, has set up a system allowing victims to submit through a Web site comments on the abuse policy. Those suggestions will be considered in the review, which is scheduled to be completed next June.
Suzanne Morse, a spokeswoman for Voice of the Faithful, the lay reform group created in response to the scandal, said there was reason for optimism after this week's meeting.
"They have recognized that this is an ongoing issue," Morse said. "That is encouraging."
However, Morse raised an issue that has become a chief complaint among critics: that the bishops have not taken steps to determine who among them moved predatory priests from church assignment to church assignment.
Morse's organization and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests have repeatedly demanded that those bishops be publicly identified and forced to step down.
"Bishops are deliberately focusing on the `bad apple' priests, not on themselves, the men who oversee the barrel," leaders of the network said at one of their daily protests outside the bishops' meeting.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who warned bishops of the impending abuse crisis years ago then became an advocate for victims, said he was encouraged by the bishops' commitment to national reforms. Still, he said he remained worried about how they respond to abuse claims and to victims when they return to their own dioceses.
He said bishops needed to work much more closely with victims to help them recover and they should stop declaring their dioceses' bankrupt in the face of abuse claims, because it makes it harder for victims to be compensated for clergy wrongdoing.
Dioceses in Tucson, Ariz., and Portland, Ore., have declared bankruptcy, and the Diocese of Spokane, Wash., said it planned to seek bankruptcy protection at the end of the month. Bishops in all three dioceses have said the abuse claims exceeded their dioceses' net worth.
Said Doyle: "I still don't think these men fully comprehend the damage that has been done."