Bishops' conference releases 2015 abuse audit report

The U.S. bishops' conference released this morning its 13th Annual Report on the Implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The report, which covers the period July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015, is really two reports in one:

An auditor -- this year as in the last couple years, the Rochester, N.Y.-based StoneBridge Business Partners -- reports on the compliance of bishops and diocese with the U.S. bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted in 2002 at the bishops' meeting in Dallas.

Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA, reports on its Annual Survey of Allegations and Costs of the abuse crisis, a report it has prepared since 2004.

"The Charter," the report explains, "lays the foundation for child protection in our dioceses, parishes, and schools as it outlines a multi-faceted approach to how the Church responds to child sex­ual abuse." The audit, then can be seen as a measure of the success of implementing the charter.

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The audit reports that five ecclesial jurisdictions/ecclesiastical units are not in compliance with the Dallas Charter. For the 13th consecutive year the Lincoln, Neb., diocese and the eparchies (the Orthodox churches' equivalent of a Latin rite diocese) of St. Peter the Apostle, Our Lady of Deliverance of Newark for Syrians, Our Lady of Nareg for Armenians and Stamford for Ukrainians did not participate in the audit.

The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, the diocese-like structure created by the Vatican in 2012 for former Anglican communities and clergy seeking to become Catholic, also did not participate in the audit. (Update: A June 2 release from the U.S. bishops' conference clarified that the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter did not participate in the 2015 audit because it was such a new ecclesiastical structure and said it would join the 2016 audit. Read more here.)

A letter introducing the annual report from Francesco C. Cesareo, president of Assumption College, Worcester, Mass., and chairman of the lay National Review Board, which advises the bishops on sex abuse, says that Lincoln and all but one of the eparchies have requested to be part of the audit process in the next reporting cycle and he is hopeful they will be found in compliance with the Dallas Charter.

"This is a hopeful sign that we will indeed attain the goal of 100% participation in the audit, which will serve to enhance the credibility of the bishops, but more importantly, achieve the important goal of protecting our children," Cesareo writes. "It is imperative that every diocese/eparchy participate in the audit if the faithful are to have confidence that the bishops are indeed committed to not only rectifying the terrible crime and sin of sexual abuse of children perpetrated in the past, but doing everything in their means possible to prevent such abuse from happening again."

Cesareo notes, as has he and his predecessors have noted in past reports, that progress the bishops have made in addressing this issue can "foster a false sense of security and lead to complacency." He cites several examples of complacency:

  • Some diocesan review boards rarely meet or have not met in several years.
  • Some dioceses do background checks on personnel and volunteers, but no follow-up rescreening after several years have passed.
  • Some diocese policies have not been updated to reflect revisions that have been made to the Charter.

"These are examples of how easy it is to become complacent, which opens the possibility for problems to occur that could have been prevented," Cesareo writes.

As evidence of the danger of complacency, Cesareo notes that while most allegations of sexual abuse come from adults reporting abuse from years past, in this reporting cycle are 26 allegations of sexual abuse of current minors by clergy. Seven of those allegations were substantiated and nine were under investigation. Nine were unsubstantiated.

"Bound­ary violations also increased according to this year's audit," Cesareo noted.

"If bishops become complacent, these violations can potentially evolve into a case of sexual abuse," he wrote. "The bishops must each day re-commit themselves to maintaining a level of vigilance that will prevent complacency and the resultant drifting away from a careful implementation of the Charter."

The report from StoneBridge Business Partners notes these points as signs of progress the church is making to protecting children and bring healing to victims of abuse:

  • More than 1,600 victims/survivors and their fam­ilies who reported abuse in prior audit periods were receiving counseling and services through diocesan programs.
  • Almost 200 new abuse victims/survivors and members of their families accepted counseling and services through diocesan programs.
  • Allegations of sexual abuse by clergy and church personnel are investigated under charter requirements.
  • More than 2.4 million background checks have been completed on clergy, employees, and volunteers. Such checks have become part of normal routine.
  • More than 2.4 mil­lion adults and 4.3 million children have also been trained to identify the warning signs of abuse and how to report those signs.

The StoneBridge report notes several problems with diocesan review boards, which are to investigate allegations of child abuse at the local level and advise the local bishop on abuse issue. Notably:

  • At least 10 dioceses have yet to update policies to include in their definition of sexual abuse the acquisition, possession or distribution of child pornography, and at least seven dioceses did not extend the definition to include adults who "habitually lacks the use of reason." These changes should have been made in 2011.
  • While all 70 dioceses audited in this period have review boards, some do not meet regularly and one had not met at all.
  • "Many review boards have failed to prepare for future board turnover and have not considered adding new members to the board," the report said. At least four diocesan boards had no defined term for members.
  • The Dallas Charter requires that lay people constitute the majority of review board members. Two diocese did not comply with this requirement.
  • "Most dioceses/eparchies are not adequately equipped, nor do they have the necessary resources, to properly monitor the daily activity of clergy restricted from ministry," the report said.
  • Many dioceses struggle with how to restore the reputation of a cleric cleared of allegations of sexual abuse.
  • The Diocese of Santa Rosa was found non-com­pliant with Articles 12 and 13, meaning the auditors "could not accurately gauge participation" of parishes in the diocese's background check and safe environment training programs.

Since 2004, CARA has annually surveyed dioceses on allegations and costs of sex abuse. The center reported 100 percent participation in the survey from dioceses and eparchies. CARA also surveys the 236 male religious communities in the United States. It reported a 77 percent response rate from religious men.

Dioceses and eparchies reported receiving 321 new credible allegations of the sexual abuse of a minor by 277 clergy between July 1 2014 and June 30, 2015. Religious orders reported 71 new credible allegations against 49 individuals. Thirty-nine allegations were unsubstantiated or proven to be false.

Dioceses and eparchies paid out $141,283,794 for costs related to allegations, including payments for allegations made in pre­vious years. Thirty-eight dioceses and eparchies made no pay outs during this period. Religious orders paid out about $12.3 million in the period.

Three-fifths of the payments made were for settlements with victims. Attorneys' fees comprised one-fifth. Most of the remainder went to therapy and expenses for victims. For religious communities, about 44 percent of payments went to settlements, 29 percent to attorneys' fees and the reminder to therapy and support of victims.

The full report is available here. 

[Dennis Coday is NCR editor.]

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