A good start

January 09, 2004

IN CHARACTERIZING the Roman Catholic Church's commitment to protecting children from sexual abuse by clergy, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory talked about "solid progress." His assessment is based on an audit, released this week, of 191 dioceses in the United States that found 90 percent have established policies and procedures to safeguard children. But the true test of progress will be confirmation of the effectiveness of the programs and a decrease in the number of victims. And until that is known, parents and parishioners must remain ever vigilant. Sexual predators can strike again.

Confronted by public outrage over the extent of a sexual abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese, the U.S. bishops adopted a series of proposals in June 2002 to combat clergy abuse of children and assess dioceses' compliance with them. The audit, overseen by a former top FBI official and conducted by an outside firm, found that many bishops had taken steps to implement the protocol and had begun to report abuse allegations to civil authorities - a must, in our view. But the audit also showed that there are still dioceses that don't have prevention programs in place yet.

To its credit, the Baltimore Archdiocese has been out front on this issue. The audit commended the diocese's "safe environment" program, which trained pastors, principals and youth leaders on preventing child sexual abuse. Cardinal William H. Keeler was among the first leaders in the church to publicly confront the problem of clergy abuse, remove priests who had been credibly accused and publicly identify them. The diocese also revealed the legal and other costs associated with problem priests, much of it spent on counseling for victims.

While hundreds of priests have been removed from ministry because of sexual abuse allegations, the auditors noted that there is no system in place to keep track of them - a disturbing finding that should be addressed swiftly by the U.S. bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection. Not all priests accused of sexual abuse are ever charged with a crime, let alone convicted or sent to jail. In fact, the bishops this week couldn't say how many clergy had been criminally charged since the scandal broke in Boston and swept across the country.

Not every diocese has publicly identified problem priests, and accused priests who have left the ministry don't usually remain in parishes where they have been outed. Those realities mean children could be vulnerable again - which is why prevention and training programs need to be in place and parishioners aggressive in holding church leaders to their promise to safeguard children.

Nothing short of that will do.

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