Two years ago revelations about a single predatory priest in Boston opened a clerical sexual abuse scandal that would shake the foundation of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church. Since then the church s response, while unacceptable in some areas, does show a marked improvement in the culture of its hierarchy to at least address the problem.
According to a nationwide survey done by a group of independent auditors, 90 percent of the 191 dioceses examined (out of 195) were in full compliance with church policies to stamp out sexual abuse. It showed most bishops were strictly following new church directives on enacting safeguards against abuse and how to punish priests who molest children.
The Toledo diocese was among those found to be honoring the reform policies adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 at the height of the abuse scandal.
Auditors who investigated the Toledo diocese last summer commended it for implementing policies on clerical sexual abuse in 1988 and 1995 and for assigning “highly qualified and experienced former police detectives to investigate allegations against priests.”
However, the outside examiners said, Toledo could improve its compliance with the bishops “zero-tolerance” policy that permanently removes any cleric from ministry who commits even a single act of sexual abuse against a minor. Diocesan officials say their policy has been revised to reflect the recommendation.
William Gavin, a former FBI executive whose company, the Gavin Group of Boston, conducted the audit, said generally that the dioceses found lacking weren t refusing to adhere to church policy but were unsure of how to implement the new reforms.
Victims advocates have plenty of advice in that regard but claim their suggestions are unwelcome or unheeded. Claudia Vercellotti, of the local SNAP chapter (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), said auditors refused to meet with her or any of the group s 21 members. She eventually spoke to them by phone - one of only three of SNAP s 4,600 members nationwide who were interviewed for the survey.
Ironically the report noted the problem of too little comment from victims on how bishops could improve their response to allegations of sexual misconduct against a priest. “We have a long way to go in that area,” agreed Kathleen McChesney, head of the bishops watchdog Office of Child and Youth Protection, which oversaw the audit.
Auditors cited a number of factors from inadequate tracking of accused priests to inconsistent record-keeping that prevent the church from fully complying with its goals to create safer environments in churches and schools. But at least U.S. Catholic officials have a clearer picture of diocesan deficiencies.
The national survey was the beginning. It will be followed by two other studies commissioned by the church not only to gauge its progress - or lack thereof -in dealing with the sexual abuse crisis, but to better define the scope of the problem and its causes.
Toledo s new prelate, Bishop Leonard Blair, issued a statement saying he was pleased with Toledo s progress and pledged “... to do all that is necessary and humanly possible to prevent sexual abuse of minors in the future.”
The long road to restoring trust in the church s shattered leadership will depend on fulfillment of that commitment.