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Spotlight Report

Boston's internal inquiry presses on

By Ralph Ranalli, Globe Staff, 1/7/2004

Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley said the church "is committed to erasing the scourge of child abuse from our midst." (Globe Staff Photo / David L. Ryan)

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A top aide to Boston Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley said yesterday that the archdiocese is moving forward with its internal investigations of priests suspended for alleged abuse and that church officials planned to have all the cases resolved by the end of the year.

Over the last two years, the archdiocese has placed more than 30 priests on administrative leave, pending internal church investigations and possible canon law proceedings. While a small number have been reinstated, more than two dozen remain in limbo -- unable to say Mass or perform other duties, but technically remaining priests -- while the church investigations continue.

While offering no specifics, the Rev. John J. Connolly, O'Malley's special liaison for sexual abuse matters, said the church hoped to have all outstanding cases resolved by the end of 2004.

Under church law, priests can either choose to be laicized or can be removed from the priesthood involuntarily after a lengthy process governed by canon law.

O'Malley, meanwhile, hailed the release yesterday of an audit report on national compliance with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' policies on sexual abuse, saying the largely positive report "clearly shows how far the Catholic Church in the United States has come in implementing programs and policies for the protection of children within our community."

The report's conclusion that the Archdiocese of Boston's antiabuse programs are essentially in full compliance with the bishops' policies "demonstrates how seriously the church of Boston is committed to erasing the scourge of child abuse from our midst," O'Malley said. The results of the audit, conducted by a Boston-based firm comprised largely of former FBI agents, found that 90 percent of the US Catholic dioceses -- including those in Boston, Worcester, Fall River, and Springfield -- had fully complied with the provisions in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," adopted by the bishops in 2002. Only the Newton-based Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy, was found to be not yet in compliance with the changes aimed at protecting children from abusive clergy.

Church reform groups and advocates for abuse victims yesterday downplayed the significance of the audit, saying that while it checked to make sure each diocese had the proper policies and procedures in place, the auditors from The Gavin Group Inc. of Boston did not measure how effectively they were being used.

One critic likened the audit to checking whether a city's firefighters had enough trucks and hoses without asking how successful they were at putting out fires.

"I think this is a small first step on a very long journey of public accountability, a journey that the bishops are going to have to continue on in the long term if trust is going to be restored in the church," said Steven Krueger, executive director of the Newton-based lay Catholic group Voice of the Faithful. "Today is really a day that points to the enormous amount of work that still needs to be done."

Jeffrey Newman, a Boston lawyer who represented hundreds of abuse victims in the recent $85 million settlement with the archdiocese, echoed the sentiments of church critics across the country who said the bishops should have brought more independent oversight into the audit process.

"To me, it is all gobbledygook until they come up with a way for members of the public to independently evaluate what is going on," Newman said.

Even for dioceses that were found in compliance with the bishops' charter, the auditors made recommendations for improvement. In Boston, for example, the auditors made seven recommendations, including that officials do a better job communicating with parishioners and civil legal authorities.

O'Malley's spokesman, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, said church officials were informed of the recommendations in November and were already working to address them.

While finding that the Diocese of Fall River was essentially in compliance with the bishops' charter, the auditors issued a mandatory "instruction" that the diocese formulate a code of conduct for clergy and employees and recommended that the diocese develop or purchase a safe environment training program for delivery to the children who attend diocesan schools and religious education program.

The dioceses of Worcester and Springfield were found to be in compliance with the charter without any recommendations necessary, the audit report stated.

The auditors found that the Malkite Greek Catholic Eparchy had not updated its 1995 policy on sexual misconduct to comply with the bishops' 2002 charter. A spokeswoman for the eparchy, an ancient Catholic sect first established in Syria that has 35 parishes in 18 states, said its leader, Bishop John A. Elya, was unavailable for comment yesterday.

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