WASHINGTON - The vast majority of Roman Catholic bishops have complied with orders to implement safeguards designed to protect children from sexual abuse, according to an audit released yesterday by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Some sexual abuse victims' groups, however, criticized the audit as narrow and cursory, saying it relied too much on the candor of church employees and too little on independent verification.
The Archdiocese Of Baltimore was among 175 Roman Catholic and Eastern Rite dioceses found in compliance.
The audit, conducted largely by retired FBI agents, found that 90 percent of U.S. bishops had created "safe environments" programs to protect minors from sex abuse and implemented training and background checks for personnel who have regular contact with children.
"The audit represents solid progress," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the bishops conference, who added that much still needed to be done. "We bishops are keeping our word."
But critics said auditors did little to confirm what they heard from diocesan officials by seeking other sources and documents, such as personnel records.
David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said auditors should have held public meetings away from church offices where sex abuse victims could come forward and speak candidly.
"It's just being vastly oversold and mischaracterized," Clohessy said of the audit. "I'm very pained that the bishops are patting themselves on the back for taking minuscule, legalistic baby steps."
The audit is part of an effort by the Catholic Church in the United States to protect children and restore trust after the worst scandal in its history. The sex abuse crisis began in Boston in January 2002 amid revelations that diocesan officials had shuttled a pedophile priest from parish to parish. It later came to engulf the entire U.S. church.
Of the 23 dioceses that did not fully comply, many had trouble conducting mandatory meetings with victims because they were engaged in litigation, or providing outreach because of limited personnel, resources and training, church officials said.
Among them were the Archdiocese of New York and the Dioceses of Honolulu, Memphis, Richmond, and Arlington, Va.
At its national meeting in the summer of 2002, the bishops conference enacted a broad charter to protect children, including a "zero-tolerance" policy requiring dioceses to report any case of sexual abuse to public authorities and remove all offenders from the ministry.
The audit released yesterday, conducted by the Gavin Group, an independent audit firm in Boston, was designed to determine whether all of the country's 195 dioceses had complied with the charter.
Although those involved in the audit refused to rank dioceses based on compliance, Baltimore appeared to fare well. The Archdiocese received four commendations, including one for its communications policy and outreach to parishes directly affected by sex abuse.
Auditors also made several recommendations in Baltimore, including one that callers to an assistance hot line be connected directly to a qualified person and not voice mail. Auditors and the archdiocese said that has been corrected.
"There were no surprises," Cardinal William H. Keeler said of the audit. "I take it as a positive sign that people do recognize the steps we have taken to move past the painful. We looked for ways we could be absolutely sure to protect children from abuse in the future."
Monsignor Richard Woy, who serves as chancellor and director of the Archdiocese's Office of Child and Youth Protection, said there has been "minuscule" resistance to reforms since the abuse scandal began, including fingerprinting and criminal records checks of volunteers.
"These are new policies but there has been a high level of compliance," Woy said.
After initially skirting the scandal, the Archdiocese Of Baltimore has received high marks for its openness in handling the crisis. In September 2002, Keeler released a list of clergy who had been accused of sexual abuse and posted it on the Internet, angering many local priests but pleasing victims' right groups.
Still, the bishops' national effort to deal with the sex abuse crisis is far from finished.
At the end of February, a National Review Board of laymen created by the bishops will release a study on the nature and scope of the church's sexual abuse problem, stretching back more than a half-century.
The study will show how much the church has paid in settlements to victims, in attorneys' fees and therapy for victims and offenders. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York is conducting the research.
Bishop Gregory has said the results will be "startling."
Sun staff writer Kimberly A.C. Wilson contributed to this article.