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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops’ charter

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Transmitted on 08/09/2004 2:54 PM ET

Trial-and-error process helps refine diocesan review boards

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As programs to prevent clergy sex abuse of minors take root in dioceses across the United States, they are being strengthened by their own experiences in tackling the issue.

"It's the trial-and-error process," said Judge Michael Talbot of the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Talbot is chairman of the Detroit archdiocesan review board, which investigates cases of clergy sex abuse and recommends actions to Detroit Cardinal Adam J. Maida.

Since 2002, when the bishops approved their prevention policies contained in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," review boards are among the mandatory programs for all dioceses.

"We have no model to work with," said Talbot.

Even dioceses that already had formed a similar board years before had to modify them to conform to charter provisions.

Now, with two years of experience, review boards are beginning to look at their practices, exchange information and evaluate the way they work.

Talbot was one of about 20 members of review boards from around the country who attended a Washington meeting organized this spring by the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection.

The goal was to learn from the example of others and find some consistency, said Talbot. "We are at a maturity we didn't have before."

The meeting allowed board members to judge what are the best practices being used and what options are available to improve performance, he said.

One possible result is the developing of resource materials to be sent to review boards, he said.

Talbot, in turn, organized his own meeting of the heads of all the Michigan diocesan review boards and plans to hold two such meetings a year to share information and discuss practices.

"We need to communicate and not work in isolation," he said.

Several review board members interviewed by Catholic News Service said the aim is to develop consistency rather than conformity in the way review boards operate.

In the Diocese of Rockford, Ill., forming a review board meant modifying its intervention team established in 1987 to deal with sex abuse issues.

"We became more structured," said John Rapp, chairman of the Rockford review board and a retired Illinois Appellate Court judge.

Basically, Rockford expanded its intervention team to comply with charter provisions that a majority of members are not clergy or diocesan employees. In the process, it added people with specialized expertise in dealing with abuse situations and investigating cases. Now the review board is called the intervention committee.

The Archdiocese of Seattle, which had a forerunner of a review board in place since 1990, reconfigured it in 2002 by adding members and dividing it into two sections: one to examine cases and recommend actions, and the other to advise the archdiocese on policies and procedures.

Rockford's Rapp, who attended the Washington meeting, said he has noted differences in the way diocesan review boards examine cases.

Some diocesan boards operate almost as a trial court calling witnesses, he said. The Rockford board, on the other hand, has a trained investigator do all the interviewing with the information going to the review board, said Rapp.

Talbot said that in Detroit the review board gives the accused and the accuser the opportunity to address the board, but it is not a requirement.

Several review board members said a major problem is the surfacing of cases that are decades old involving priests who have died or left the diocese years earlier without leaving a trace.

Rapp refers to these as "dead cases" but still sees a role for the review board in these situations because it can recommend to the diocese services it can provide to the accuser.

Several review boards have started publishing reports on their activities in keeping with charter provisions asking dioceses to provide public information about how the sex abuse situation is being handled.

The charter asks dioceses to develop "a communications policy that reflects a commitment to transparency and openness" while respecting the privacy of the individuals involved in the cases.

"Making a public report sounds good. It gives an air of openness," said Susan Massopust, chairwoman of the review board in the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D., and a registered nurse. She added that the Rapid City board plans to issue a report annually.

In Detroit, the public report was issued in the form of a February letter from the board to Cardinal Maida.

"The idea is transparency, to be as forthcoming as we can while respecting confidentiality, and to give confidence to the people in the pew," said Talbot.

The two-and-a-half-page letter noted that board recommendations resulted in seven priests being placed on administrative leave with further church legal action possible.

It also praised the Michigan bishops for successfully lobbying for a state law requiring clergy to report to state authorities any suspected child abuse learned outside of the sacrament of penance.

"We urge all victims to come forward. They will be heard," said the letter.


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