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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops’ charter

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Transmitted on 06/04/2004 2:54 PM ET

Bishops to begin reviewing child sex abuse policies

Catholic News Service

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As dioceses continue applying policies to prevent child sex abuse, bishops are starting to examine whether some of the policies should be modified.

An issue already being debated is the degree of autonomy that should be exercised by the Office of Child and Youth Protection and the National Review Board.

The two entities, composed completely of laity, were created by the bishops to help dioceses implement and monitor compliance with policies. But some bishops have complained that both have been acting too independently, cutting into the autonomy the bishops have in running their diocesan affairs.

The bishops, at their June 14-19 special assembly in Denver, are scheduled to discuss two projects directly involving the office and board and their relationship to individual bishops and to the body of bishops.

Not on the bishops' formal agenda, but already sparking public debate among bishops, priests, canon lawyers and victims, is what has been termed "zero tolerance" or the "one-strike-you're-out" policy. Under this provision a priest or deacon who admits to having sexually abused a child or is proven through an "appropriate process" to have sexually abused a minor is permanently removed from ministry.

Among the arguments for modifying the policy is that there are graduated degrees of sex abuse violations and that one penalty should not be applied to all. Defenders of the policy say there is no guarantee that an offender will not abuse children again, especially in a profession such as the clergy which inspires trust.

The sex abuse prevention policies are contained in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" approved by the bishops in 2002. The charter provides for review of the policies in two years "by the conference of bishops with the advice of the National Review Board."

The full review is expected to take place at the bishops' November meeting in Washington, with a preliminary airing of charter issues at the June meeting in Denver.

The National Review Board is scheduled to meet June 27-28 to draft suggestions for the bishops to consider during their November review of the charter.

On the bishops' June meeting docket are discussion of a second annual audit of how dioceses are implementing policies and funding of an analytical study of the causes and context of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

Both involve functions undertaken by the National Review Board and the Office of Child and Youth Protection.

The audit is the responsibility of the child protection office which then reports its findings and recommendations to the review board before publication. The review board is empowered by the charter to commission the causes and context study but the bishops have to approve the funding.

Bishops also will have the chance to discuss modifying the review board's membership. Four of the current 12 board members have announced their intention of resigning once replacements have been named. The board is appointed by the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, currently Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., who has said he would name replacements after consultation within the hierarchy.

The charter established the review board and the child protection office and spelled out their tasks. The tasks do not include the power to enforce or create policies. The review board is composed completely of volunteers who set their own time limits for board membership. The child protection office is staffed by salaried employees.

Prior to the June meeting, some bishops were questioning how these agencies have been operating.

Archbishop Henry J. Mansell of Hartford, Conn., complained of "disturbing trends" toward a seemingly growing independence by both organizations.

"They appear to be expanding their competence, responsibilities, activities and studies in a dynamic of autonomy," he wrote in a Feb. 12 letter to Bishop Gregory.

The letter, also written on behalf of three other bishops, asked that the child protection office and the review board be included as part of the charter items to be reviewed by the bishops.

Another Feb. 12 letter to Bishop Gregory, signed by 23 bishops from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, told bishops to make sure the public knew that only the bishops have authority to approve recommendations for child sex abuse policies.

The letter urged bishops "not to give the impression to the media that the numerous recommendations coming from the Office of Child and Youth Protection are in any way assured before they are discussed by the bishops." A similar position was taken in a Feb. 12 letter by three bishops from Nebraska.

Justice Anne M. Burke, interim chairwoman of the review board and one of the members planning to resign, said in an April speech that some bishops are having second thoughts about independent oversight of their policies. She added that perhaps some bishops "have given me the name 'mother superior.'"

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles has said hierarchical opponents of the review board are a minority. The cardinal has criticized some board actions, but has said eliminating it would be short-sighted.

In a sign of cooperation with some bishops, the proposals to be discussed in June are the joint efforts of the review board and the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, hammered out at a May 17 meeting. It was the first meeting between both bodies.

The controversy over a second annual audit illustrates some of the differences in interpreting the charter among some bishops on one hand and board members and child protection officials on the other. The charter authorizes the child protection office to produce "an annual public report on the progress made" in implementing charter policies.

The first audit, conducted in 2003, found that almost 90 percent of dioceses were in compliance with the charter.

For some bishops, producing an annual report does not mean doing annual audits as audits are not stipulated in the charter. Some alternate suggestions have included:

-- Follow-up audits on only those dioceses not in compliance.

-- Audits on only those aspects of diocesan policies that were not in full compliance.

-- Development of mechanisms by which regional groupings of dioceses can do their own oversight.

Bishop David L. Ricken of Cheyenne, Wyo., added that audits -- economically and administratively -- are "very impractical and heavily burdensome" for smaller dioceses.

For Burke, a justice of the Illinois Appellate Court, a credible annual report is not possible without some form of periodic auditing to ensure that compliance with policies continues from year to year.

"How can an annual report be prepared or approved without information obtained by the audits?" she asked in a March 29 letter to Bishop Gregory criticizing efforts by some bishops to postpone an audit decision until the November bishops' meeting when it would be too late to conduct 2004 audits.

Burke's letter also complained that any perceived backsliding on policies will "reopen the wounds of deception, manipulation and control -- all the false ideals that produced this scandal."

Meanwhile, victims' groups complain that the audits are, at best, a small step forward because they rely mainly on self-reporting by dioceses.

"It's easy to oversell how the audits are conducted," said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

The audits cover mainly diocesan procedures and policies, but what is needed is greater monitoring of diocesan performance in ending child sex abuse and in dealing with victims, he said.

Clohessy said there is often a bureaucratic approach to dealing with victims and in some dioceses victims are required to fill out lengthy forms to qualify for church funding for counseling sessions.

"Jesus didn't need an 18-page form to cure the blind man," he said.


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