Two years later, one diocese's efforts to heal

The first national audit of dioceses provides a window into the progress and pressures confronting Roman Catholic leaders.

When the Catholic sex-abuse crisis broke open in Boston two years ago, Tucson, Ariz., was already struggling with its own scandal. The local bishop, Manuel Moreno - so popular in the heavily Hispanic diocese that his photo could be found on restaurant walls - struggled to respond.

Under fire, he reached a major settlement with victims for an estimated $16 million. Then, he and his appointed successor, Bishop Gerald Kicanas, held open forums with angry parishioners. One of Bishop Kicanas's first steps when assuming the top job was a forthright public apology.

Despite the efforts, however, the Tucson diocese still faces at least 17 lawsuits over priest abuse, and some critics think church officials aren't doing enough to aid victims.

In many ways, Tucson's experience typifies the progress and pressures still confronting bishops and their flocks as they seek to prevent abuse in the future and restore trust within the church.

The first nationwide audit of all 195 dioceses, released Tuesday, shows that the vast majority - 90 percent - are in full compliance with a national plan adopted by the bishops to protect children.

Exceptions include the archdioceses of New York; Omaha, Neb., and Anchorage, Alaska. Many among the 10 percent have not yet responded to instructions for action given by the auditors.

The audit - conducted over the past year by former FBI agents - dealt only with actions taken since June 2002, when the national plan was adopted. The report recommends development of a long-term plan for accountability, and an external study of victims to provide better insights for future responses.

The auditors also said that annual audits should include the number of allegations, actions against priests, the number of victims, and financial costs.

"This will show the American people that the bishops have kept our word," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the US bishops conference, in a TV interview.

Yet some lay Catholics and victim advocates question the capacity of the audit itself to tell the true story of what is going on at the grass roots. "We're pleased to see dioceses implementing safety programs, ... but the audit process was simply glorified self-reporting," says Mark Serrano of Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "The auditors relied on information provided to them. We know of no top plaintiff attorneys who were contacted and only three of 4,600 SNAP members were consulted as a check."

Kathleen McChesney, who heads the bishops' youth office, says that auditors did speak with people outside the church. She's confident of the report's accuracy.

While the crisis has largely dropped from the front pages, many bishops continue to confront challenges. And the crucial long-term goal of restoring trust among the faithful and healing the hurt takes consistent effort.

Bishop Kicanas in Tucson has made that his first priority. In a step only one other bishop has been willing to take, he released a list of all the priests in the diocese (25) against whom credible allegations had ever been made. He has sent letters to parishes where the clerics served in order to help address the past.

"Some dioceses have been hesitant to reveal names, and I understand that perspective," the bishop said in an interview in his sunny downtown Tucson office. "The purpose isn't to shame anyone, but to encourage other possibly hesitant victims to come forward, so they can begin healing."

The only way to restore the lost trust, he says, is to be open and "communicate consistently." Along with a detailed website, he employs letters, presentations to parishes, and sessions with some victims.

Terry Carden, a retired physician who heads the local chapter of Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), gives Bishop Kicanas high marks for openness. "What I respect is that he's willing to dialogue with people who disagree with him," he says. "

He's also brought in top-notch people to head the new program." Paul Dukro, head of the Office of Child, Adolescent and Adult Protection, is a clinical psychologist from Saint Louis University with 12 years experience in mental health treatment tailored to religious communities.

Kicanas, who came to Tucson two years ago from Chicago, has also cooperated more than many with Voice of the Faithful. "I've told VOTF I don't see them as opposition. If they take positions contrary to the church, that's another matter, but I take them at their word that they want to help heal the hurt and restore the trust."

Kicanas was the first bishop to release the preliminary results of the diocese audit. After a week in Tucson in August, the team indicated the diocese was in compliance, with one exception: It still had to complete training of parish staff and appoint compliance officers at each church.

By the end of November, more than 2,000 staff had received training in codes of conduct, requirements for background checks, how to recognize and respond to possible abuse. The audit team gave the diocese commendations for its openness and high-quality staffing.

But the challenges continue: While another settlement of $1.8 million was reached in 2003 for schoolgirls abused by a teacher, and three convicted priests went to prison, more victims are coming forward.

One cleric the diocese has been trying to defrock was discovered living well in Maryland, still receiving a stipend. The Vatican has yet to approve his defrocking. Every priest with a credible allegation, however, has been removed from ministry.

Lawyer Kim Williamson, whose firm represents 15 victims, doesn't share the rosy view of the diocese. "They talk a good talk, but the walk leaves much to be desired," she says. While a settlement was reached some time ago, "we're now back in the extended legal process - there's been no response to a desire to pursue a new settlement."

Barry MacBan, a lawyer for the diocese and its insurers, says the diocese isn't in a financial position to try to settle. While the diocese could not provide up-to-date costs for the sexual abuse crisis (they say it will be available in February), there has been public talk of financial difficulties and the prospect of bankruptcy.

Some local survivors of abuse are also wary. Jim Parker, head of a new SNAP chapter in Tucson, says none of the victims he's talked with has yet met with the bishop, despite talk of outreach.

Yet Carden of the local chapter of the Voice of the Faithful sees progress. "I have confidence in the people here that the program they've developed will be effective," he says.

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