Bishops must not delay

April 12, 2004

AMERICA'S Catholic bishops can't afford to have their congregations second-guess their commitment to protect children from sexual abuse. That's because their policy to deal forcefully with clergy who abuse is 2 years old -- too short a time to repair the damage from the church's lax attitude toward problem priests over the decades. A decision to delay annual compliance audits of dioceses on this matter could compromise any headway church leaders have made in restoring their credibility.

A committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed at a meeting late last month to postpone the audits at the request of several bishops who wanted to discuss the review system at the group's next meeting in June. What is there to discuss?

The audits, enacted as part of the bishops' policy on child sexual abuse, assess the 195 dioceses' compliance with policy mandates such as reporting allegations of abuse to police and removing suspect priests from duty. Last year's audit, the first under the new policy, showed that 90 percent of bishops had lived up to their commitments to safeguard children.

But until there is 100 percent compliance no one in the Catholic community should be satisfied -- not cardinals, not congregants. Church reforms matter only if reforms are under way. And how would the greater Catholic community know that but for the annual reviews?

Members of a national lay panel of church members have expressed concern that the decision to delay the audits would diminish the work of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection. Led by a former high-ranking FBI official, the office oversees compliance with the bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the document of reform approved in 2002. Kathleen McChesney, who heads the office, says she will move ahead with plans to conduct the audits. She obviously understands the importance of ongoing monitoring.

The fact that the June meeting where bishops want to discuss the annual audits is a closed-door prayer retreat also troubles us. While we recognize the bishops' need for reflection and an atmosphere in which they can speak candidly, we can't forget that secrecy was at the core of the church's sex abuse scandal. Although investigative reports found that accused priests represented 4 percent of the Catholic clergy, victims multiplied as some cardinals and bishops repeatedly transferred offending priests without disclosing their abusive behavior to their new superiors or parishioners.

When the bishops meet in June, accountability should be uppermost on their minds. Leadership failures in the past exacerbated the problem of priests who sexually abuse children.

The bishops have a responsibility, in the words of the church's national review board of laity, to "ensure that their brother bishops act accordingly." Especially when the safety of children is at stake.

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