WASHINGTON – Nearly all of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops are carrying out a new mandatory policy they adopted to prevent sex abuse by priests, according to a church audit released Tuesday. Critics said the study was fundamentally flawed.
The review found 90 percent of the 195 U.S. dioceses were fully complying with the plan, which dictates how guilty priests should be punished and requires bishops to take steps to protect children. Among the 20 considered out of compliance are the archdioceses of New York; Anchorage, Alaska; and Omaha, Neb. Four dioceses were not audited.
The prelates commissioned the report from the Gavin Group (search) of Boston, a firm led by former FBI official William Gavin, and the investigation was overseen by Kathleen McChesney, a former top FBI agent and head of the bishops' watchdog Office of Child and Youth Protection (search).
Victim advocates said bishops had too much control of how the audit was conducted, so it should be viewed skeptically.
The bishops recommended whom the auditors should interview. And according to the report, auditors were unable to view personnel files that would verify whether bishops were complying with the policy's ban on transferring offenders from one diocese to another.
"This is the bishops grading themselves based on a test they devised," said Peter Isely, of the Midwest chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (search). "I don't think anyone is going to be too surprised that after years of chronic failure they are now going to tell us they have miraculously become star performers."
However, Gavin insisted the audits were comprehensive and accurate. Investigators did not view personnel records because of "sensitivity to laws and privacy violations that may occur." Otherwise, he said, "we had free rein."
To check on the effort to carry out the reforms, the auditors — mostly former FBI agents or investigators — traveled the country from June to October in small teams, interviewing bishops, diocesan personnel, victims, abusive priests, prosecutors and lay people. The audit is part of the church's plan to prevent abuse.
The review was meant to help enforce the reforms and will be conducted annually. However, there is no mechanism to sanction those who don't comply. Under church law, each diocese is autonomous and bishops answer to the Vatican, not each other.
The bishops adopted the reforms in June 2002, at the height of the scandal, which began two years ago this week with revelations about a single predatory priest in the Archdiocese of Boston. The files showed church officials let the priest serve even after repeated allegations of abuse.
The crisis spread to every American diocese. Since then, thousands of new abuse claims have been made against dioceses across the country.
The policy not only requires bishops to bar guilty clergy from all public church-related work, but put safeguards in place to prevent molestation, such as conducting background checks on all diocesan priests and lay workers and training them to identify abuse.
The most common violations were a failure to implement programs to protect children and establish codes of conduct for and conduct background checks on diocesan workers.
"For the most part, it was not a refusal to adhere to the policies it was a lack of understanding of how to do so," Gavin said.
The auditors also concluded the bishops needed to improve their outreach to victims, required under the policy, by doing a better job of contacting and meeting with victims.
"We have a long way to go in that area," McChesney said.
A second and potentially more important study, also commissioned by the bishops, is scheduled to be released Feb. 27. It will attempt to tally every church abuse case in the country since 1950.