Accused of backsliding in their commitment to protect children from pedophile priests, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly yesterday to begin a second round of audits to ensure that dioceses comply with provisions to prevent sexual abuse.
The vote - 207 bishops in favor, 14 against and one abstention - came at a private, semi-annual meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Colorado. It followed scathing criticism by the head of the church's lay review board, who accused bishops of trying to return to "business as usual" after some tried to delay or derail a second audit.
Illinois judge Anne Burke said the panel was gratified.
"The National Review Board is pleased with the decision to move forward with the audits and to begin further research into the causes and context of these crimes," Burke said in a statement released by the bishops conference. "The message is clear: Children will be safe from harm in the Catholic Church and the bishops and lay people will work on this together."
In a news release last night, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles praised his fellow bishops. "This vote indicates that the bishops are serious about continuing the important task of making sure that our Church is safe for everyone," he said.
But David Clohessy, national director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said conducting a second audit should have never been an issue:
"We think the discussion really should be not whether these [audits] should happen but how to improve them."
Attempts to delay or derail plans for a second audit go to one of the root causes of the church's sexual abuse scandal, said Clohessy: "Bishops wanting to cling to every shred of power."
In the wake of the U.S. church's sex abuse crisis - the worst scandal in its history - the bishops conference enacted preventive measures in 2002 that included the creation of "safe environments" programs to protect minors, and training and background checks for personnel dealing with children.
In January, the conference announced that its first audit found that 90 percent of bishops had put measures in place. The review board, appointed by the bishops, recommended a follow-up audit this year.
However, some influential bishops balked, suggesting in private letters that the issue be delayed until the conference's November meeting and questioning whether the lay panel was overstepping its authority.
Furious, Burke accused the bishops of using the review board as a front to garner positive press while privately undermining its recommendations.
"We believe that the work we have accomplished these past 22 months is perceived by the bishops as having successfully deflected extensive national criticism," Burke wrote in March to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., who heads the bishops conference. "In effect, they have 'dodged the bullet', and they are anxious to put these matters behind them."
At this week's meeting, the bishops also plan to discuss whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights - such as Sen. John Kerry - should be denied communion.