Abuse cases raise doubt about claims in dioceses' annual reports

Posted: April 12, 2011

Just weeks before a grand jury excoriated it for keeping known predatory priests in ministry, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia filed its annual report to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops assuring that it had fully complied with the church's national child-protection policies.

The archdiocese's self-assessment for 2010 has cast doubt on the reports submitted by 188 other dioceses, and has prompted the bishops to begin examining how they can ensure that minors are kept safe from sexually abusive clergy.

"So many priests removed from ministry [in Philadelphia] raises questions" about the conference's auditing process, said Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the bishops' secretariat of child and youth protection. "We rely very heavily on the belief that a diocese is truthful."

Earlier Monday, the bishops' conference released a 71-page report stating that nearly all dioceses claimed to be in a high state of compliance with the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

The conference also said that the dioceses reported receiving 505 credible accusations last year of abuse by clergy - half as many as in 2004.

Nearly two-thirds of the cases occurred between 1960 and the mid-1980s, with most of the priests now deceased, retired, or defrocked. However, seven minors reported assaults that allegedly took place in 2010.

Such data are collected yearly through questionnaires that dioceses are asked to complete, including the number and nature of abuse allegations against their priests, and the cost of legal fees, settlements, and victim counseling.

The Philadelphia archdiocese "is in compliance with the [conference] audit," spokeswoman Donna Farrell said Monday, and "provided facts and figures" that the bishops requested.

She said, however, that the statistical information solicited in the questionnaire did not address the "qualitative issues of concern" raised by the grand jury's Feb. 10 report.

"While much work has been done in the archdiocese since the charter," she said, "we acknowledge there is much more to be done."

The charter obliges bishops to remove clergy who have been credibly accused of abusing minors, or who have admitted doing so. The grand jury said the Philadelphia archdiocese routinely failed to investigate allegations with sufficient diligence, often dismissing substantial evidence as flimsy.

In the two months since the jury's findings were released, Cardinal Justin Rigali has placed 29 priests on administrative leave, and hired a team of investigators to review allegations against them of child sex abuse or other misconduct with minors.

The gap between that action and the archdiocese's self-evaluation has "thrown our audit process open," Kettelkamp said, adding that her staff was debating asking dioceses to open priests' personnel files to investigators.

Robert Bennett, a Washington lawyer who served on the bishops' first advisory board for handling sex-abuse issues, said Monday that he did not think dioceses' self-reporting was effective.

"I don't know what the alternative would be," Bennett said, "but you probably need somebody outside the church apparatus monitoring the process."

Bennett, who represented President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, said he did "not think Philadelphia was an anomaly" in failing to adequately investigate abuse charges against its priests.

"These things are pretty universal," he said.

According to the conference's report, the decades-long pattern of clergy sexual abuse of minors - and concealment of that behavior - last year cost dioceses $123.7 million, and religious orders $25.9 million. The estimated total cost to the Catholic Church in the United States has exceeded $2.7 billion since 2004.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus