Archdiocese runs checks on priests

60,000 probed include workers and volunteers

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff  |  February 18, 2005

The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, in a vast effort to prevent a recurrence of the child sexual abuse that has damaged its credibility and angered its membership, is now running criminal background checks on more than 60,000 priests, employees, and volunteers every year.

The archdiocese has also enlisted 2,000 volunteers to serve on parish child-abuse protection teams and has trained 30,000 to 40,000 children and 60,000 adults to spot and respond to abusive situations. In response to criticism that it had not sufficiently publicized its policy on child sexual abuse, the archdiocese has printed 90,000 brochures for distribution in parishes and other archdiocesan institutions explaining whom to contact in cases of suspected abuse.

Three archdiocesan officials charged with overseeing efforts to stop sexual abuse in the local church and with assisting victims of abuse described their efforts in an interview with the Globe. The interview was in anticipation of today's scheduled release in Washington, D.C., of the second annual audit on the child-protection programs of all 195 Catholic dioceses across the country. The audit assesses compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the child-protection policy adopted by the bishops in 2002.

In the audit, the Archdiocese of Boston is expected to receive perfect marks for complying with all the provisions, which include measures requiring outreach to victims, a process for responding to abuse allegations, cooperation with public authorities, and permanent removal of abusive priests and deacons from ministry.

Archdiocesan officials, asked by the Globe for the local audit results, released to the newspaper an executive summary of that section of the audit. It lists no areas of concern in Boston.

''Archbishop Sean [P. O'Malley] recognizes that this issue is something that has been a problem in the church for some time, and from the moment he first addressed us [Boston Catholics], he has made this a particular priority," said the Rev. John J. Connolly, who oversees abuse-related offices at the archdiocese.

''This audit and the ongoing work by individuals and the church as a whole demonstrate that this issue remains a great priority for us," he said. ''But there is a lot left to do. The work of education and prevention isn't done merely to fulfill the bishops' charter, but has the very practical value of making our own kids safe."

The audit is expected to find the majority of US dioceses to be in full compliance with the charter. Last year, the first such audit found 90 percent compliance. The auditors, who are hired by the bishops conference, spelled out what noncompliant dioceses needed to do to comply with the charter.

Victim advocacy groups have been critical of the audit process as too narrowly focused and insufficiently attentive to the critiques from victims. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests issued a statement yesterday saying the audits ''are minimal and misleading, dealing with the periphery, not the core of the abuse crisis."   

Victim advocacy organizations and lay reform groups, such as Voice of the Faithful, have also been critical of a plan by the bishops conference to allow most dioceses to essentially audit themselves over the next year. In 2003 and 2004, all dioceses were visited by teams of auditors from the Gavin Group of Boston, a firm that employs former FBI agents.

But O'Malley, aware of such concerns, already has requested a full outside audit of the Archdiocese of Boston for next year, even though the archdiocese would be entitled to self-report under the bishop's rules, according to Connolly. He said O'Malley made that decision in recognition that ''this is Boston, where both the popular perception and the ongoing upheaval demands a longer period of attentiveness, as part of the effort to rebuild trust."

As part of the archdiocese's effort to reach out to victims of clergy abuse, O'Malley met with 79 victims and family members between September 2003 and October 2004, according to Barbara Thorp, the archdiocese's coordinator to assist victims. The archdiocese has spent $2 million to finance its victim outreach office and is paying for therapy for 230 people, most of them victims, Thorp said.

Thorp said that O'Malley has sent, through the victims' lawyers, letters of apology and offers to pay for therapy to hundreds of victims, recognizing that many were unwilling to accept assistance from the archdiocese until after the settlement of many civil lawsuits was reached, in late 2003. Many more people came forward after publicity over the $85 million settlement to report that they, too, had been victimized and to seek assistance, she said.

''Some people are doing better and are getting help, but after the settlement a number of people had a lot of difficulty and their depressions in some cases worsened," Thorp said. ''We're still in the very early stage of the healing process. There has been, obviously, a very profound betrayal of trust, and with each person we're hoping to respond in a trustworthy way and to support them."

Last year's audit praised the Archdiocese of Boston for its outreach program to mental health professionals and to parents of victims and for its efforts to train thousands of people to prevent and detect abuse.

But that audit also made seven recommendations for changes to the archdiocesan child-protection program. Connolly said the archdiocese has addressed all those recommendations in the last year.

For example, he said, in response to the audit's recommendation that the archdiocese establish a system for tracking referrals of abuse allegations to the attorney general, Connolly said the archdiocese prepared a log of such reports that is kept at its lawyer's office. The audit also said the archdiocese needed to make its procedures for filing abuse complaints more available to the general public; in response, the archdiocese printed the 90,000 pocket guides to reporting abuse allegations. It also posted the policies on its website and printed a version in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot. 

Criminal background checks of employees and volunteers, which are done at the time of their hiring and annually after that, have turned up a handful of problems, Connolly said, and are forcing the archdiocese to professionalize its staff, volunteer training, and recruitment processes.

''There are people we've asked not to be in ministry because of the checks," he said.

The archdiocese's efforts are drawing praise from Dr. Mary Jane England, president of Regis College, a former commissioner of the state Department of Social Services and a former member of the archdiocesan Commission for the Protection of Children established by Cardinal Bernard F. Law.

''I think they're making great progress," England said.

''Things are moving along. They have had a good experience in the parochial schools, and they are developing programs for older children."

She said that parental resistance to talking about abuse with children has been a concern, but that it is important ''to err on the side of protecting children."

''Because we're human beings, we still have, and will continue to have, people who have problems in that area [child abuse], so I'm a big believer in training kids and education, and I hope there'll be some carry-over to other religions and to the public schools," she said.

But England said she is concerned that the controversy over parish closings in the archdiocese is eroding some of the momentum for child-protection programs, in part because so many parishes are consumed by the process of recommending parishes to close and then either closing themselves or absorbing parishioners from closed churches.

''The archdiocese is in great turmoil because of the reconfiguration," England said. ''So the energy level to put this into place is very hard for the whole archdiocese."

The archdiocese has been adapting a national program for child safety, called Talking About Touching, for use in its school and parish classes. The program was condensed for use in religious education programs, because of the brevity of those classes.

Following criticism from a small number of parents who think the program is too explicit, church officials agreed to allow parents to withdraw their children from classes about abuse prevention, an option they said has been chosen by less than 0.1 percent of families.

Nonetheless, only about one-fourth of parishes in the archdiocese have instituted the Talking About Touching program, according to Deacon Anthony P. Rizzuto, director of the archdiocesan Office of Child Advocacy, Implementation, and Oversight. Rizzuto said the archdiocese is reviewing the experience in those parishes as it prepares to implement the program in all parishes.

Rizzuto said the archdiocese has also been seeking advice and evaluations from those with expertise in dealing with child sexual abuse. They include the state Department of Social Services, the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, the Massachusetts Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Partnership, Boston College, and Regis College.

He said he has begun comparing notes with child advocates for other dioceses in New England and New York, and he has been encouraging publishers of educational materials for Catholic schools to integrate abuse prevention materials into the texts.