ATLANTA — The National Review Board, formed to advise the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ response to the clergy sex-abuse crisis, released its report today at the bishops’ meeting in Atlanta.

The report, described by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, the USCCB's president, as an “examination of conscience,” charted the steady decline in new cases of clergy sexual abuse and defended the zero-tolerance policy adopted by the bishops in the wake of the 2002 crisis. It also noted difficulties with boundary violations involving international priests and a lack of reporting about the presence of accused religious priests in a diocese without the knowledge of the local ordinary.

“There has been a dramatic shift in 10 years,” Al Notzon, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board, told the conference. “We have moved from a legal response to a pastoral response.”

Yet, despite all the progress in improving reporting of allegations and victim assistance, he added, the Catholic leadership has yet to secure the nation’s trust.

Every diocese, he said must be “scrupulous” in its adherence to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People’s guidelines on reporting allegations, background checks and annual audits of safe-environment training. “Those few cases that are not reported quickly become news,” he warned his audience, without identifying specific dioceses where a single misstep has resulted in a new wave of headlines broadly attacking the Church’s failure to protect children.

Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Ill., the chairman of the bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, confirmed that the conference would consider the board’s broad recommendations in an upcoming review of the charter.

Those recommendations incorporated policies aleady established in U.S. dioceses.

“It is incumbent upon the bishops to ensure the routine practices included in the 'Five Principles' adopted by the bishops in 1992, as stated in the charter and codified in the 'Essential Norms,' are followed," read a summary of the board's recommendations.

The practices include: "respond promptly to all allegations of abuse;  promptly relieve the alleged offender of ministerial duties if the allegation is supported by sufficient evidence; comply with obligations of civil law;  reach out to victims and families; and deal as openly as possible with members of the community.

“There are many recommendations coming from the 'Causes and Context' study."

"These should be viewed as the first conversations of an ongoing dialogue between the faithful and bishops,” the board’s statement concluded.

Following a year of explosive clergy sex-abuse scandals in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., Notzon’s comments and exchanges with conference members signaled a broad awareness that the missteps of one bishop could destroy years of common effort to rebuild public trust.

Notzon acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining a pastoral approach that placed victims first when the Church continues to address fresh lawsuits dealing with historic cases, amid unrelenting criticism from groups representing sexual-abuse victims and media outlets.

In answer to a question, he said the review board had not reached out to victims groups — and did not propose that any such initiative would be forthcoming.

He suggested that the body of work initiated by the conference — from its study of the causes and contexts of the sex-abuse crisis to its ongoing evaluation of candidates for the priesthood — were bearing fruit and served as a model for other religious groups and other organizations.

That said, Notzon acknowledged that the Church’s experience over the past decade revealed that a new policy of transparency and pastoral outreach left the Church more exposed to criticism.

Other churches and organizations look at “what happened to the Catholic Church,” he observed, and ask if they want to “get hammered.”

Meanwhile, within the Church, there has been ongoing criticism of the zero-tolerance policy, which calls for the immediate removal of any priest credibly accused of sexual abuse.

The board’s report acknowledged that the policy is “one of the more controversial requirements of the charter. Some feel this is too harsh if, for example, behavior occurred many decades ago.”

But the board determined that “this policy is in the best interest of children and the Church.” They pointed out that “convicted sex offenders cannot be police officers, Boy Scout leaders or teachers,” adding, “They cannot be allowed to remain members of the Catholic clergy functioning in public ministry either.”

The report noted that by 2004, “4,392 clerics had allegations made against them and an additional 1,723 clerics have had credible allegations made against them since then. Many of the accused are now dead.”

Today, Notzon proposed that more could be done to follow the practices of many U.S. corporations and update evaluations of priests in ministry to identify potential problems before they could do harm.

However, Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., during a public exchange, expressed his concern that the zero-tolerance policy and other efforts to rebuild public trust could lead to a misunderstanding of the nature of the priestly vocation.

The issue of zero tolerance, said Bishop Cordileone, gets to the heart of priestly identity. "The priesthood should not be seen as a job or a career. … It’s a vocation.” Zero-tolerance, he said, is “much more like removing the father of the family from the home.”

He said he “was not suggesting an alternative approach,” but asked “that we not compromise the identity of the priest.”

The National Review Board also focused on “boundary-violation reports that involve international priests.”

“Behavior that might be culturally appropriate in one place may not be appropriate in U.S. culture,” the report stated.

It recommended further study and the development of “programs instituted to help international priests learn U.S. cultural ways, because boundary violations mimic grooming behaviors.”

The board recommended that the conference review any boundary violations made against any cleric.

Notzon said that boundary violations, which involve non-sexual behavior like hugging or kissing a child on the head, are a “murky area.”

Experts say that such behavior can sometimes signal a would-be predator’s effort to “groom” a child. But Notzon agreed that “there is confusion about how to define it.”

While U.S.-born priests are now trained to address problematic situations and avoid any appearance of boundary violations, many foreign-born priests who serve in the country have not received that training.

Bishop Conlon noted during an interview that he knew of no programs that provided such training to priests who received seminary training abroad.

“The problem is that we don’t have any built-in mechanism for providing this kind of orientation in individual dioceses, and the USCCB doesn’t provide any such programs.”

“Seminaries and Catholic universities are the kinds of institutions that have the experience and resources to offer these kinds of programs, and the question should be asked about why they are not doing it.”

The report released today “found the incidence of abuse began to rise in the ’60s, peaked in the ’70s and declined sharply in the ’80s.” Even cases from the past which are reported now, they said, “continue to fall into this same pattern” and that “the hundreds of cases reported yearly continue to fall within the timeline of the established curve.”

“These results do not mean that the hurt of the abuse is in the past,” reads the report.

The report confirmed nationwide adherence to the charter’s guidelines over the past decade.

“[P]rior to the charter, at least 25 dioceses/eparchies had victim-assistance coordinators (VAC); since 2002, all 195 dioceses/eparchies have them. The VAC assists the bishops in responding to those making allegations in ways that promote healing and reconciliation. The Church learned that responding to victims in a strictly legal manner did not help either the victims or the Church solution but the right thing to do and an integral part of the Church’s spiritual mission.”

The reporting of abuse allegations has also dramatically improved.

“Prior to 2002, at least 77 dioceses/eparchies had policies and procedures in place to respond to allegations of sexual abuse. Now all 195 dioceses/eparchies have such policies and procedures."

Further, the report found that U.S. dioceses uniformly implement codes of conduct to guide the interactions between minors and priests and other adults in Catholics institutions, and diocesan bishops routinely consult with lay review boards to decide “whether or not a cleric accused of sexual abuse should be reinstated or permanently removed from ministry.”

The report stated that “confidential settlement agreements with victims have been abolished except when requested by the victim."

Further, diocesan authorities are now “required to report all allegations of sexual abuse of minors to public authorities and to cooperate with any investigations on all matters of sexual abuse."

Victims of clergy abuse are now advised by diocesan representatives “of their right to make a report to public authorities. When one bishop fails to do so, the whole Church suffers.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.