On Tuesday, the U.S. bishops released the results from the independent audit done of the nation’s dioceses to measure their compliance with the USCCB’s charter on sexual abuse. I had the chance to attend the press conference here in DC, held by Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the USCCB.
Also in attendance were Kathleen McChesney, director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection; William Gavin, director of the Gavin Group, who performed the audit; and various members of the bishops' National Review Board, including Bill Burleigh and Ray Siegfried.
Here's what happened…
The first thing that struck me was the size of the standing-room only crowd that had turned out for the press conference. The media came out in droves more than 20 TV cameras were packed into the room, and representatives of all the nation's major newspapers were there. The proceedings were also broadcast on C-SPAN. Clearly, more than just Catholics were interested in the results.
Gavin explained how the audit worked. He noted that it was conducted for 191 of the 195 dioceses in America (four weren't audited at the time due to scheduling problems). Two to six auditors, mostly former FBI agents, visited each diocese in the months immediately following the release of the Dallas charter to measure that diocese's progress in implementing the charter's various standards. The auditors would then give each diocese “commendations” for things done exceptionally well, “instructions” where a particular part of the charter had not yet been implemented, and “recommendations” for areas that could be improved.
Sixty-eight percent of the dioceses received anywhere from one to six commendations. Thirty percent received further instructions, 62% of which were dealt with by the end of the audit. Sixty-five percent received recommendations for improvement, and 87% of those were addressed by the end of the audit as well. (Reports for each individual diocese can be found on-line at the USCCB's Web site)
McChesney then listed general recommendations of the report for the bishops in the future. She first mentioned the importance of auditing individual parishes all 19,000 of them to see how well they implemented the charter on a local level, where it's most important. She also urged that “safe environment programs” be developed to help protect young people. Another recommendation was that this audit be repeated annually and contain hard numbers so that a diocese's progress could be measured over time.
Most of the press questions were polite and reasonable. The one exception came from a Reuters reporter in the back. At one point, he stood up and asked Bishop Gregory, “So, does this mean that children are now safe around priests?” Even the other journalists were rolling their eyes at that one.
The audience's overall response to the presentation seemed positive. You could tell people wanted the hard and fast numbers that weren't provided how many cases of abuse had been discovered… how many priests had been removed from duty… etc. But those numbers will remain secret until the Review Board's February 27 report.
So, while we wait on those numbers, let me give you my take on the audit and the press conference…
Overall, progress has been made. I especially like the recommendation that the audit be repeated what good would it do if dioceses were only expected to perform well once, and not sustain that performance in the future? We'll only have real transparency if this kind of review takes place every year.
I'm also pleased that apostolic visits (visits to religious communities) will be conducted by lay professionals and made public as well. Several months ago I suggested this in my CRISIS column, and I'm glad to see the review board thought of it as well.
Still, despite these hopeful signs, I do have some reservations. My biggest concern is over the implementation of “safe environment programs.” This is a tricky subject children need to be protected, but dioceses must be careful not to turn to intrusive sex education programs in doing so. If dioceses end up with some program like Talking About Touching the awful sex-ed program in place in the Boston Archdiocese we might be solving one problem by creating another.
I'm also concerned that a big part of the sex abuse problem has been ignored homosexuality in the priesthood. In fact, this reality is covered up with language about “protecting children and young people.” Fine, but what are we protecting them from? And also, what percentage of the victims are neither “children” nor “young people,” but are teenaged boys? Let's hope the February 27th report discusses this issue. Unless we face the problem of practicing gay priests, we're never going to end this crisis.
But all in all, I'm cautiously optimistic (or optimistically cautious pick one). Next up is the report by the National Review Board on February 27th. That will probably be a lot more interesting.