New Abuse Audits?

CHICAGO — American bishops will vote at a June 14 gathering in Denver on whether to conduct a second round of audits of diocesan compliance with their 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, according to the head of the National Review Board.

Earlier, it was reported by Catholic News Service and other outlets that the issue would merely be discussed, but the Register has learned that a vote will take place.

The item is on the agenda at the urging of the two committees charged with advising the bishops on how to deal with the sexual-abuse scandal, despite the fact that the June gathering is a quadrennial retreat, with no business to be conducted.

“The proposal by the Ad Hoc Committee [on Sexual Abuse] will be for an audit,” said Justice Anne Burke, interim chairwoman of the National Review Board, created by the bishops two years ago in Dallas as a mandate of the Charter.

“If the bishops vote to do so at their June meeting, there will be sufficient amount of time and material to produce the audit,” Burke said.

The solution to the audit question resulted from a May 17 meeting in Chicago of the National Review Board and the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, she said. That meeting followed weeks of turmoil after the bishops' Executive Committee put the audit vote on the agenda for the bishops' November meeting — and several bishops, in letters to the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, questioned whether a second round of audits of each diocese's compliance with the charter was even necessary. Some also cited the costs it would entail.

“Out of [the Chicago] meeting came a universally accepted … compromise solution to the audit question,” said Bill Burleigh, a member of the National Review Board. “Archbishop Flynn, who is the chairman of [the ad hoc committee], and the members of the review board both believe that this is satisfactory to all of the questions that have been raised.”

The simmering dispute became public with a March 29 letter from Burke, approved by the entire review board, to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The National Catholic Reporter published the letter and several responses to it on its website May 11.

In the sharply worded letter, Burke argued that bishops must approve conducting a second round of audits at its June meeting if the board is to complete its next annual report mandated by the Charter. The bishops conference's Office of Child and Youth Protection conducted the first round of audits for its first annual report released earlier this year.

To delay the bishops' vote until November “will undoubtedly have serious adverse repercussions both within and without the Church,” Burke wrote. “A decision to back-slide on the charter … will delay the necessary healing and reopen the wounds of deception, manipulation and control — all the false ideals that produced this scandal.”

Burke's letter led to a teleconference call with members of the review board, the ad hoc committee and members of the bishops' Executive Committee, which resulted in the audit question being placed on the bishops' agenda. Details were hammered out at the May 17 meeting.

In their own letter, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and his auxiliary bishop Jose Gomez questioned the Burke letter's tone and intent.

“We were embarrassed by the tone of your letter,” they wrote. “It assumes the worst motive on the part of the bishops, despite the progress that has already been made. Your language is designed to offend and contains implicit threats that are, to put it mildly, inappropriate for one of your professional stature.”

But Burke defended the letter's content. “That is the feeling and words of the entire board,” she said. “It is appropriate. I don't know what other kind of tone would have been appropriate to let the bishops know that we were terribly upset with the fact that they [wanted to postpone the vote on audits until November].

“What they said to the laity and the victims in the United States, not just the review board, was that we're tired, we don't want to do this right now, safe environments for children, perhaps, are not the first thing on the agenda for them.”

The whole dispute has led another bishop to question the mandate and composition of the 12-member review board. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., said some out-spoken members of the board have lost sight of its mandate.

“Some of the noises coming from the board leave the impression … that somehow they are put in charge of supervising bishops or controlling bishops, auditing them, monitoring them, whatever,” he said. “The implication being that all bishops are, by nature or by office, untrustworthy and they have to be under the supervision of this board.”

Bishop Bruskewitz also questioned the credentials of some board members appointed by Bishop Gregory — including Dr. Michael Bland, a former priest and alleged victim of clergy sexual abuse, and Leon Panetta, who served as chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, was notorious for his own support of abortion.

“I don't think there should be a board … even if they're practicing Catholics or they adhere to the doctrines of the Catholic Church,” the bishop said. “That such a board should be able to enforce its decisions by means of bad publicity to bishops or dioceses that don't obey them — I don't think that's the proper ecclesio-logical way to proceed.”

Burke said each member was approved by his or her own bishop prior to being named to the review board. A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Chicago, who did not want her name used, confirmed that Cardinal Francis George vetted and approved Bland for appointment. Kevin Drabinski, director of communications for the Diocese of Monterey, Calif., confirmed that Panetta lives in that diocese but could not confirm prior to the Register's press deadline that Monterey Bishop Sylvester Ryan approved him for appointment.

The bishops conference's Office of Communications refused an interview on Bishop Gregory's behalf to answer Bishop Bruskewitz's charges.

Bishop Bruskewitz is not the only bishop who has expressed reservations about the National Review Board in recent months. Archbishop Henry Mansell of Hartford, Conn., wrote to Bishop Gregory on behalf of all the bishops of Connecticut, saying they were troubled to see the word “independent” being used indiscriminately in reference to the board and the bishops' Office for the Protection of Children and Young People.

“They appear to be expanding their competence, responsibilities, activities, and studies in a dynamic of autonomy,” Archbishop Mansell wrote Feb. 12. “A particularly disturbing example is the intervention of the Office in individual cases in various dioceses, and this being carried forward without communication with the local Diocesan Bishop…. The Office appears also to be handling cases involving priests and adults.”

Archbishop Chaput also expressed concerns about the board's autonomy. “It is not the NRB's duty to interpret the Charter,” he wrote to Burke April 2. “The NRB is an important advisory body at the service of the bishops. It does not and cannot have supervisory authority.”

Bishop Bruskewitz also questioned whether the Charter is doing enough to address the sexual-abuse crisis. The full conference of bishops will review its effectiveness in November, as outlined in the Charter.

Unlike the “Essential Norms,” which is now Church law for the United States, the Charter is merely a set of guidelines for the bishops, Bishop Bruskewitz said.

The Charter “does give to some bishops a direction that maybe they didn't have,” he said. “It gives to others the impression, correct or incorrect, that something significant is being done — that appropriate drastic measures are being taken for these horrible crimes of sexual misconduct by bishops and priests.”

But a more effective response might be to hire “apostolic visitators” with the proper credentials, authorized by the Holy See to inspect U.S. dioceses, Bishop Bruskewitz said.

“Let them look at the whole situation from top to bottom instead of having an audit done by non-Catholic firms — and let these apostolic visitators undertake such audits,” he said. “The bishops pay for these secular firms to audit their dioceses. They could just as well pay for an audit by the authorities of the Holy See.

“I think also, quite honestly, resulting from the audit, bishops who were guilty of gross negligence or whatever — carelessness or recklessness — if a reprimand is not sufficient, that the Holy Father should remove them and put somebody else in their place.”

Patrick Novecosky writes from Ann Arbor, Michigan.