In the days ahead you will be hearing a good deal from the American Catholic bishops about their so-called audits. We believe however that these audits are fundamentally flawed. They are a small step forward, but they are already being mischaracterized and oversold by self-congratulatory bishops.
Essentially, bishops have defined the rules of the game, decided who plays, paid the umpires and are now declaring themselves the winners. They defined the rules by writing up the Dallas Charter themselves : a very weak and vague document. They've decided who plays by determining who the interview teams got to speak to. They paid the umpires by appointing the National Review Boards. Now all across the country, bishops are using these upcoming reports to proclaim "We're doing all we should be doing."
There are many questions about this whole process. The answers, we feel, are disturbing. For example,
Is this really an audit? In most audits, investigators can compel access to objective data: bank statements, legal documents and the like. In this case, the interviewers had to rely largely on subjective material that was given voluntarily, and given by essentially the same men who have for decades fought to keep the crimes of clergy concealed.
How did the process work? We can't really be sure because just three of our more than4600 (SNAP) members were interviewed. Furthermore we believe the interviewers only spoke with victims who came forward after June, 2002, only to victims who are not involved in litigation, and only to victims whose names they were given by church officials. WE fear that few prosecutors, attorneys, Voice of the Faithful leaders or journalists were interviewed. There probably were some, but we've not heard of them. Nor were parishioners, victims or others told in advance that "the interviewers are coming to your diocese; here's how to get in touch with them." So the process could have been more open.
How high was the bar set? Low. The bishops are judging themselves on the Dallas Charter, a vague and weak document. They are judging themselves on inadequate criteria such as "having a written abuse policy," "a formal complaint procedure," and "a staff person assigned to hear victims' reports." These we believe are long overdue, minimal steps : certainly not worthy of praise and commendation. Having policies and following policies are distinctly different. It is crucial to remember that for the past decade or more, almost every Catholic diocese in America had written sex-abuse policies; the problem was that they were continually ignored.
Let's be clear: some progress has been made. Much of that progress is outside of and independent of the church hierarchy. More victims are coming forward, telling their families, getting into therapy, contacting the police. More parents are being more careful with their children, and more supportive when victimized children disclose their abuse. More police, prosecutors, judges and juries are viewing church leaders with a healthy skepticism. And more lawmakers are considering changes in civil and criminal laws to make exposing and prosecuting molesters easier. While the rest of society is doing much better at preventing and dealing with clergy sexual abuse, bishops by and large are still making belated, begrudging and "bare minimum" responses.
Still, these reports are helpful. We're sure that this interview process has been positive overall and that this is a baby step toward accountability. We're sure that some bishops were prodded to do more than they would otherwise have done. We're sure that the safe-environment programs being set in place will help catch molesters sooner and keep some children from being harmed.
We're sure that some Catholics will be reassured as a result : perhaps too much so. We're also sure that some will become too complacent. We fear that some bishops will relax their efforts, having now been declared "compliant" by a couple of retired bureaucrats. If that happens, we hope that vigilant Catholics will speak out against such backsliding. Complacency never keeps children safe; only continued vigilance protects kids. That's what Catholic children need and Catholic parents deserve : now more than ever.
Next month another report will be issued, focusing on the number of victims and abusers. Unfortunately, it too will be basically self-reporting by many of the same bishops who for decades have covered up these horrific crimes. It is terribly naive to believe that these same bishops will totally reverse course and voluntarily disclose these shameful secrets just because a retired bureaucrat with a clip-board walks in their door.
Yet it's not too late to improve this upcoming report. We urge church leaders to act now to aggressively solicit input from the entire Catholic and law enforcement communities. Church leaders should put announcements in all church bulletins, diocesan websites and newspapers, saying "We're trying to get a more accurate picture of how much clergy sex abuse has happened. So...even if your molester is dead, even if your abuser was from overseas and has returned home, even if your mother or father was abused by a priest and is now dead, even if you were treated insensitively by church leaders, even if you were told 'It's too late to prosecute;'" come forward now and report the crimes. This may be our best opportunity to get closer to the truth.
As always, SNAP is ready to work with bishops to develop more meaningful audits, not merely audits of paperwork. We are especially interested in seeing a vigorous outreach effort so that the church's second report is more helpful.