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Posted January 7, 2004

Sex Abuse Audit Report and National Recommendations

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

The nationwide audit of sexual abuse policies and practices of Catholic dioceses went beyond assessing each diocese's current performance against the standards of the bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."

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.

Its 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.

It also recommended that the bishops sponsor a new national study -- "an external study of (voluntary) victims/survivors for the purpose of identifying better methods for responding to complaints of sexual abuse by clergy or other church personnel."

Justice Anne M. Burke, an Illinois Appellate Court judge and acting chairwoman of the National Review Board that oversees the bishops' compliance with the charter, said the board "concurs with the recommendations" outlined in the report and urges the bishops' conference to adopt them.

The audits of 191 U.S. dioceses were conducted by the Boston-based Gavin Group, composed chiefly of former FBI agents, between June and November 2003.

Most of the report on the audit findings, released in Washington Jan. 6, was devoted to assessing each diocese's performance in light of the current charter.

In an important eight-page chapter at the end of Section One, however, the report says the audit process also helped uncover additional ways to make church environments safer for children and improve the church's response to victims and their families. It said stronger ways to assure future accountability were also found.

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.

It recommended that the bishops' national Office for Child and Youth Protection 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. It urged that a mechanism be established to audit such parish participation in future years.

It also suggested identifying and instituting national effectiveness measurements for safe environment programs within the next two to three years.

It 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 noted that the Chicago Archdiocese has already conducted training conferences for victim assistance personnel from other dioceses and suggested that the national office work with the archdiocese to provide more training for victim assistance coordinators across the nation.

It said the national office should also identify "model forms, checklists and record-keeping systems" for dioceses to use on matters relating to child abuse and its prevention.

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 added that information on church policies in this area should be communicated to the people.

The report noted that aside from safe environment guidelines developed by the national office and the language of the charter itself dioceses do not have written standards for implementing the charter. It recommended that the national office develop such standards, adding that these would have helped both the dioceses and the auditors in 2003.

The audit report had more than 50 specific recommendations on the charter's 17 articles, highlighting additional ways to strengthen the charter or improve its implementation.

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.

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 additional assistance to bishops on ways to assure that priests from foreign countries accepted for ministry in the United States have not been accused or found guilty of abusing minors.

Other recommendations addressed particular issues in reporting allegations to civil authorities, communications, investigating allegations, safe environment programs, the ongoing role and effectiveness of the youth protection office, background evaluations of employees and volunteers, transfer of clergy, cooperation with religious orders of men, seminary formation and cooperative research on child sexual abuse.

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.

It suggested that these yearly data be gathered and maintained by the national office.

On the recommendation for a national study of victims' views on church handling of their cases, the study noted that auditors had interviewed some victims and the findings were valuable. But it said that tight time schedules and the limited mandate to audit diocesan performance since the charter led the audit teams to restrict their victim interviews to those who reported the abuse after the charter was adopted.

It said a broader study could uncover valuable information on the church's best responses to victims following an allegation.