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 Washington Notebook

December 1, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 43

Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


"The last two years we've had the audits in all of our dioceses, and they were a lot of work, took a lot of time, a lot of energy, not only for the dioceses but also for auditors who came and spent the whole week with us. ... So I'm grateful ... for a simplified procedure that will be much easier to fulfill. I think it will also ensure that the dioceses are following the policies adopted."

Michael Sheehan,
Archbishop of Santa Fe, N.M.

 "Self reports, especially by bishops on these issues, are virtually worthless. It's like telling grade school kids that they can give self report cards."

David Clohessy,
executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)


Most abuse audits to be 'self-reported'; Hayes resigns; Speaking to the scholars

By Joe Feuerherd

Fewer dioceses will be visited next year by auditors hired to determine diocesan compliance with church child protection programs than underwent on-site inspections in 2003 and 2004. Instead, beginning next year, dioceses judged compliant with the U.S. Bishops' 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People can choose to "self-report" their findings.

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The new methodology, approved by the bishops at their November meeting, is, according to its proponents, a natural and welcome evolution in the three-year-old audit process. Critics, however, say the bishops' are backsliding, institutionalizing a retreat from pledges of accountability they made at the height of the clergy sex abuse crisis in 2002.

The first round of audits, conducted in 2003, found 90 percent of U.S. dioceses in compliance with the charter, which calls on dioceses to establish offices to conduct outreach to abuse victims, develop procedures to deal with abuse allegations (including the establishment of local review boards), promote "standards of conduct" for those "who have regular contact with children and young people," and implement diocesan-wide "safe environment programs." Further, the charter committed the bishops to institute background checks for all diocesan employees and volunteers and to restrict transfers of suspected clerical abusers.

For 2005, the bishops will require full-scale audits only for those dioceses judged "non-compliant" in 2004; "focused on-site audits" will be conducted in those dioceses with specific deficiencies in their programs. The remainder of the dioceses can report their findings to the Boston-based Gavin Group, the firm hired to conduct the reviews, or they can request an on-site review.

To some victim advocates the new procedures reek of continued cover-up. "Self reports, especially by bishops on these issues, are virtually worthless," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "It's like telling grade school kids that they can give self report cards."

Not so, says Sheila Horan, deputy director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection. The new process, she said, "will be a combination of on-site, self-audits, and targeted audits for specific areas that may not be up to par, rather than every diocese having an on-site audit." Further, said Horan, the questionnaire sent to self-reporting dioceses will be detailed and specific. The self-reports will be reviewed by outside auditors, compared to previous audits, and read in the light of any complaints made against the diocese, she said. "If there is a sufficient issue that arises there very well could be an on-site [visit] to clear up any troublesome issues that might arise or a perceived compliance issue," said Horan.

Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan spoke for many bishops when, as the revised procedures were being discussed, he offered his support.

"The last two years we've had the audits in all of our dioceses, and they were a lot of work, took a lot of time, a lot of energy, not only for the dioceses but also for auditors who came and spent the whole week with us," said Sheehan. "There was a great deal of effort made in these last two years and the audits we've had. So I'm grateful for a simplified procedure that will be much easier to fulfill. I think it will also ensure that the dioceses are following the policies adopted."

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Earlier this year, dozens of bishops urged that the 2004 audits be delayed, some saying that the process was too expensive and time consuming (NCR May 21, U.S. hierarchy, review board at odds) A brouhaha ensued, as critics charged that the bishops were backtracking on their commitment to accountability. At their June closed-door meeting, the bishops voted to move ahead with the 2004 audits.

The 2003 audits focused on quantitative questions, whether, for example, a diocese had established a "safe environment program" or had begun conducting criminal background checks of church employees and volunteers who work with children. With that "baseline of compliance" established, said Horan, the audits will increasingly focus on effectiveness -- how well or badly the programs are being run.

But victim advocates say they've heard such plans before, only to experience a different reality. With the self-reported audits, said Clohessy, "it's conceivable that you're going to have a vicar general sitting down at his desk and checking 'yes' or 'no' to a bunch of boxes," said Clohessy. "It's like having speed limits but no cops."


New York attorney Pamela Hayes, a member of the National Review Board established by the bishops to investigate and offer solutions to the clergy sex abuse crisis, resigned her position last month. Her term was slated to end in June 2005, but Hayes departed early, she said, in order to avoid "causing the board any grief."

Hayes' resignation followed a report in the National Catholic Register, a conservative Catholic newspaper, which described political contributions she has made to pro-abortion-rights candidates. The paper quoted Hayes as saying, "If they're pro-choice and they're Democrat, they're my kind of candidate."

The Register story, Hayes told NCR, "portrayed me in a false light." She said she was misquoted and is "contemplating what steps I can take." She said she has made political contributions to both pro-abortion and anti-abortion-rights candidates.

Rather than become a distraction, said Hayes, she decided to leave the board eight months early. "It was quite obvious that it was going to create a controversy," said Hayes, which would "change the focus of the real task at hand, which is protecting children."

Hayes serves on the board of the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, publisher of NCR.


As a journalist, I'm accustomed to asking the questions and covering the event. Recently, the tables were turned. I was one of four journalists (freelancer Bill Bole, Los Angeles Times Religion correspondent Larry Stammer, and U.S. Catholic managing editor Heidi Schlumpf were the others) asked to respond to papers presented at a three-day conference on "The Person, the Poor and the Common Good: A Catholic Dialogue on the Environment." The event was sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

The setting was idyllic (the Gainey Conference Center in Owatonna, Minn.), the participants formidable. Among the presenters was Jesuit Fr. John Coleman, author of 16 books, and Fr. David Tracy, one of the world's leading theological intellects. I was asked to provide a seven-minute response, to give a "communications" viewpoint, to a paper delivered by Fr. Bryan Massingale, professor of theology at Marquette University. Massingale's topic: "The Links Between the Option for the Poor and the Care for Creation? A Necessary Nexus in Progress."

Here's what I said:

The temptation, as a journalist addressing a group of scholars, is to offer "tips" on how to reduce your message to something that will "sell" in the media marketplace. And I will do some of that.

But my focus will be on the practice of journalism, how it considers and deals with the same set of facts and circumstances Fr. Massingale has presented to us.

Journalists are, first and foremost, story tellers. We us the word all the time. "How's the story going?" and "When will you have the story to me?" our editors ask.

Journalism is not primarily an intellectual endeavor, or an activist endeavor, nor, for certain, a religious or theological endeavor. It's a craft - no credentials are required, no advanced degrees essential to advancement (a fact for which I am grateful.) We build stories -- and words are the tools.

And we use a formula to build those stories.

There's dramatic tension. Something important is always hanging in the balance. That's why it is news.

Compelling characters are vital -- not necessarily heroes and villains, though that is occasionally the case, but often real people working to foment change or preserve the status quo; or underdogs seeking to overcome obstacles. (One need only read or view the recent coverage of the Red Sox to see how much the press loves underdog stories.)

Journalism is a confining genre. Its conventions and rules are limiting -- nuances, even for those who do it well, are frequently lost.

The journalistic trade is anthropocentric -- people like to read, or watch, or listen to stories about other people. "The flesh," if you will, "made word."

It is also about dichotomies. There are winners and losers, the powerful and the less so, economic opportunity vs. environmental preservation.

It's also about the familiar: How do I relate the story I am telling to the experiences and beliefs of those I hope will read it, watch it, or hear it?

The potential for misunderstanding is great. In the 1980s, for example, I would argue that to the degree the general public had some notion of the "preferential option for the poor" they associated it more with anti-American guerilla war in Central America than they did with the "plight of the neglected, despised and insignificant of society." Those impressions were shaped by elite opinion makers -- those in power at the time had an interest in promoting this narrow view, but the message was delivered by journalists.

There's a false objectivity that constrains the craft. Yesterday, in [University of St. Thomas political science professor] Steven Hoffman's case study, we heard about the effect of river damming on the lives of the aboriginal people of Minnesota. Defenders of the system, we were told, argue that the aboriginal people have always been badly off -- that the hydroelectric system was not the cause of the devastation they suffer.

It is my suspicion that when the local Eyewitness News team does a story on these events they give roughly comparable weight to the claims made by the aboriginal people and to the claims made by the power company executives. In reality, of course, those claims are not comparable. The aborigines are victims; the power company executives (and the millions who benefit from the cheap electricity) exploiters.

Properly understood, however, these journalistic constraints and conventions can be used by those whose agenda is to promote the common good.

Yesterday, for example, a group of us visited Centro Campesino, a local membership organization that advocates for the thousands of migrant workers who come to Minnesota each year to harvest crops and can vegetables.

We met real people -- manifestations of a larger story and a history -- who have a tale worth telling. They told us of their effort to get the local canning company to establish a day care center for their children. At first, the company told Centro Campesino that they were in the canning business, not the day care business. So the group's leaders called the local newspaper, which ran a front page story on their efforts.

They eventually got the day care center.

The story had some essential elements: Conflict and confrontation driven by exploitation. Further, readers could relate: Who doesn't want their children properly cared for?

But Centro Campesino's efforts also demonstrate the weaknesses of the journalistic craft for those who seek to use the media to affect social change. Their other demands -- for higher wages, upgraded living conditions at the migrant camps -- have gone unmet. These are more complicated tales involving, I'm fairly certain, another point of view -- like that of the power companies and the aboriginal people along the rivers.

Two final points.

Mainstream journalism, in my experience, answers the question -- Who is to be included among the poor? -- in two ways.

First, there are those with major pathologies -- the drug or alcohol addicted, the mentally unstable. We see this type of coverage today particularly as it relates to the homeless. The message is usually not stated, but is nonetheless clear: These people are not worthy of our resources, our taxes, or too much of our compassion. They are not deserving.

The second group is the "virtuous poor." Families (recent immigrants are frequently featured) who are struggling -- working one, two or three jobs to achieve "self-sufficiency." Liberal interest groups look to put the virtuous poor front and center as they seek support for social programs. It is more palatable to the rest of us to believe we are helping someone who "deserves" assistance than someone -- the homeless alcoholic, the mentally ill street person -- who is likely to waste our money.

Both portraits, I believe, miss a significantly more complex reality.

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