Review boards: Accountability or a rubber stamp?

Baltimore's lay panel, like many, has limited information, little power

May 17, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

The panel of laypeople charged with reviewing child abuse allegations within the Archdiocese of Baltimore has publicly disagreed with Cardinal William H. Keeler's actions regarding a priest exactly once: in the 1993 case of the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell, shot three times Monday by a young man who said the priest sexually abused him.

Nine years later, accusations of sexual abuse by priests are pouring in, said P. McEvoy Cromwell, chairman of the archdiocese Independent Review Board. The panel once might have looked at six or eight cases a year, he said. In April alone, however, the board got about 15 cases, and it expects the same number this month.

Cromwell, an attorney, described the new spate of cases as mostly moot; the priests in question had either died or retired. Still, he said, they all will be investigated and reviewed.

"You owe a duty to the people who come forward, to show them that you're taking what they say seriously," he said. "And there may be other people out there who have experienced the same kind of abuse."

Church leaders have pointed to independent panels as proof that they are accountable to the public, since laypeople oversee their decisions. Late last month after returning from a meeting in Rome, Keeler said such boards will be part of a national church policy in dealing with abusive clergy.

But boards like Cromwell's have come under criticism since reports surfaced this year about sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests and cover-ups by their superiors. Victims' groups say the boards are toothless entities that give the public a false sense of security.

"The cynical interpretation is that they provide cover for bishops who do what they want to do anyway," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivor's Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Cromwell said the Baltimore board has reviewed "60-some odd" cases since 1993. Most involved priests, and in about half of them the allegations - ranging from touching incidents to rape - were supported by strong evidence, he said.

But the board has no independent powers to investigate an accusation, and gets all its information about cases from a Pastoral Response Team made up of archdiocese employees - generally priests and attorneys.

The board has never spoken with an alleged victim or the person accused. The members have never looked at police reports or been privy to psychological evaluations.

In addition, the board often meets after the archdiocese has already resolved a case - meaning any advice it might offer would come after the fact.

The review panel is typical of those across the country. It was formed when many churches were embracing lay review groups in response to an earlier wave of abuse scandals.

Cromwell's group was appointed by the archdiocese in December 1993 - after the city State's Attorney's Office had already decided not to pursue criminal charges against Blackwell in connection with allegations that he had fondled Dontee D. Stokes.

The review panel consists of nine people and includes a mix of faiths and races.

Cromwell said the Blackwell case marked the only instance "of any consequence" in which the board faulted Keeler's decision about how to deal with an alleged case of abuse.

The board recommended that Blackwell be removed from his church in 1993 after Stokes' abuse complaint. But Keeler disagreed and allowed the priest to return to St. Edward's parish in West Baltimore.

Citing Blackwell's psychiatric evaluation from a Hartford, Conn., treatment center, Keeler said he was satisfied the priest was not a pedophile. Cromwell said the board had asked to see the psychiatric report, but Blackwell refused to waive his right to keep it private.

The case, Cromwell said, underscored the tension between the board's preference for a "zero tolerance" policy and church leaders who chose a more "flexible" stance.

Since then, the board has mostly supported the archdiocese's actions, in part because the archdiocese has moved closer to the zero tolerance point of view.

To Clohessy and other victims, review boards seem to be nothing more than a rubber stamp for the archdiocese.

"You can't profess to rely on an allegedly independent board and yet overrule that board, and provide it with inaccurate or insufficient information," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.