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An incomplete report card on clergy abuse?

RELIGION: Church audit of progress on reforms shows 90 percent compliance; victims' groups question the credibility of the process

The U.S. Catholic Church has come a long way since the Boston Globe broke open the clergy child-sexual-abuse scandal two years ago, showing complicity in cover-up at the top. The Globe's Pulitzer PrizeÐwinning series revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law had knowingly transferred a habitually abusive priest to another diocese without informing officials there about him. It told of 70 Boston-area priests accused of sexual molestation of minors. Other cases emerged across the nation, involving more bishops and dioceses and accusations of abuse. New alleged victims came forward; their lawyers filed thousands of claims against dioceses.

Under intense public pressure, the nation's Catholic bishops met in Dallas in June 2002 and adopted a zero-tolerance sex-abuse policy, the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Among other things, it required removal of guilty clergy from all public ministry and work, criminal background checks of all diocesan priests and lay personnel working with minors, written codes of conduct, and training of workers about how to avoid abuse and report it to authorities when they spot it.

The bishops also created a watchdog Office of Child and Youth Protection and appointed a former FBI agent, Kathleen McChesney, to head it. They set up a lay board to review abuse allegations and called for annual check-up audits to verify compliance with the charter.

For the first audit, they contracted with the Gavin Group of Boston, led by a former assistant director of the FBI and lifelong Catholic, William Gavin, to conduct it. He sent 54 investigators, 50 of them ex-FBI agents, in teams to gather information from the church's 195 dioceses. They collected data from diocesan officials and interviewed bishops, clergy, diocesan staffers, prosecutors, attorneys, anonymous victims who had come forward since 2002, and alleged abusers. The findings were announced at a press conference in Washington last week.

The Gavin report said 90 percent of the 195 dioceses were in compliance with the charter's mandates, though many needed to work at fuller implementation, especially in the area of victim outreach. Of the 20 dioceses not compliant (including New York, Omaha, Anchorage, Memphis, Arlington, Va., and Honolulu), most said they expected to be within several months. The auditors flunked the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa, because they found unacceptable its bishop's insistence that due to ongoing litigation a diocesan lawyer be present during all interviews, including with victims and prosecutors.

To avoid possible legal entanglements themselves, the auditors didn't inspect church personnel records or ask for the names of alleged abusers or their victims. (Doing so would have enabled the investigators to verify whether bishops were transferring offenders between dioceses.) Other than that, Mr. Gavin insisted, "we had free rein." They also didn't examine religious orders like the Jesuits or Franciscans, which account for about one-third of Catholic priests.

Victims' advocacy groups found fault with the Gavin audit. Mark Serrano of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) told reporters he is pleased to see dioceses implementing safety programs. But, he added, "the audit process was simply glorified self-reporting" because the auditors largely "relied on information given to them" by bishops responsible for the mess in the first place.

But Ms. McChesney insisted the report was fair and reliable. Another bishop-commissioned study, scheduled for release next month, will attempt to tally the number of sexual-abuse cases that dioceses processed for the past 50 years, how many priests were accused, and how many were removed from ministry. Some bishops have refused to cooperate with that survey, carried out by the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York City, and have claimed that its methodology is flawed.

Future audits are likely to include the number of allegations, actions against priests, and victims, as well as documentable financial costs-which are multiplying rapidly. Settlements could soar into hundreds of millions of dollars nationwide and force some dioceses into bankruptcy. Diocesan officials attempt to assess which accusations are "credible" and then negotiate settlements, to the chagrin of insurance companies, who would prefer to slug out suspect allegations in court.

In California, at least 800 new cases were filed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline. Some legal analysts said the cases could result in the largest damage award ever against the Catholic Church. The U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned a state law that had erased the statute of limitations for molestation in criminal cases. That left victims with old molestation charges recourse to civil suits only. The state last January lifted for one year the statute of limitations for such civil suits. Previously, and as of Jan. 1, alleged victims could sue only until their 26th birthday or three years after discovering they had emotional problems linked to molestation.

The scandal has taken its toll on all sides. Some church leaders complain about lack of due process for clergy who may be innocent of charges by some supposed victims seeking money from the church. In New York, 69 priests last month signed a petition addressed to Cardinal Edward Egan, who has suspended 14 priests following accusations of molestation. The petition said morale among priests "is at an all-time low," partly because the archdiocese has failed to support its clergy and has given the impression that all men who are accused are "damaged goods."

Edward E. Plowman

Edward E. Plowman