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Posted Wednesday, June 16, 2004 at 4:56 p.m. CDT

Bishops Vote to Continue Audits

By Joe Feuerherd and Melissa Jones
Washington, DC and Denver, CO  

A second round of audits to determine diocesan compliance with church child-protection policies will go forward this year.

Meeting behind closed doors in Denver this week, the U.S. Bishops voted 207-14 to proceed with the audits. The result of the vote was made public on the bishops’ website June 15.

In June 2002 the bishops approved a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which included a provision calling for an annual report on diocesan efforts to combat sexual abuse. The 2003 audit found that the vast majority of dioceses had made progress in establishing programs and procedures designed to protect children.

But prior to the Denver meeting a number of bishops questioned whether the audits were necessary, leading some critics to charge the church was backsliding on its commitment to root out sex abuse in its clerical ranks.

“I do believe that, after such a storm for two years, the bishops need a bit of a break to reflect on all that has happened so that we can move ahead, thoughtfully and prayerfully, instead of rushing in and making a lot of mistakes that we later regret,” Cheyenne, Wyo., Bishop David Ricken said in an April 16 letter to Anne Burke, chair of the lay-run National Review Board created by the bishops to investigate the clergy sex abuse crisis.

More than two dozen bishops – including New York Cardinal Edward Egan, Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali, Newark, N.J. Archbishop John Myers, Omaha, Neb., Archbishop Elden Curtiss, and Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz -- shared Ricken’s concerns. In letters to Bishops Conference President Wilton Gregory, these bishops urged that the 2004 audits be shelved until November, when the full body of bishops could consider how to proceed.

The uproar resulting from the request for delay led the bishops to place the audit question on the agenda of their Denver meeting.  

The overwhelming vote to continue with the audits represent “a clear indication of our commitment to the Charter and to the protection of children and young people, which is the purpose for which we adopted it just over two years ago,” said Minneapolis-St. Paul Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, chairman of the bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.

Burke, who had been harshly critical of the effort to delay the audits, welcomed the decision.

“The National Review Board is pleased with the decision to move forward with the audits and to begin further research into the causes and context of these crimes,” Burke said in a statement released by the bishops’ public relations office. “Working with the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, the National Review Board will continue to promote strong action to protect children and young people in the Church. The message is clear: Children will be safe from harm in the Catholic Church and the bishops and lay people will work on this together,” said Burke.

The significance of the bishops’ action was downplayed by victim advocates.  "This is no surprise,” said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “It is the very least they can do - one more year of minimal self-reports based on minimal self-established criteria,” Blaine said in a statement.

Blaine continued, “The discussion should have been about improving the audits, not about whether to repeat them. Last year's audits focused strictly on paperwork, policies and procedures. Future audits should focus on performance. And each year, the audits should be more extensive, and the standards more rigorous. But few expect to see that happen.”

In addition to proceeding with the audits, the bishops agreed with a Review Board recommendation to proceed with an additional study of the “causes and context” of the sex abuse crisis.

A host of critics are making their presence known outside the hotel where the bishops are meeting.

Boston-based Voice of the Faithful and SNAP, for example, called for the bishops to conduct their discussions regarding clergy sexual abuse publicly. “Secrecy is toxic for the victims and secrecy is toxic for the church,” said SNAP’s Mark Serrano.  

The groups also called for the bishops to add a SNAP leader and a prosecutor to the National Review Board. Pat Clancy of Philadelphia SNAP said a prosecutor would serve as a “voice for the victims” and would maintain an “interest in upholding and enforcing the laws of the land.”

Meanwhile, anti-abortion activist Randall Terry is leading a 50-hour vigil urging the bishops to withhold communion from politicians who “support the murder of unborn children, and to declare to Catholics that they cannot in good conscience vote for any candidate that supports the killing of children by abortion.”

The bishops were expected to hear from Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, chair of their task force on Catholics in public life. McCarrick’s committee is drafting guidelines for bishops designed to assist them in dealing with public officials, particularly those who vote counter to church recommendations.

The task force’s work has taken on added importance over the past few months because pro-life activists and a handful of bishops are calling on church leaders to deny communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians, such as Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2004

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