- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

CHICAGO (AP) — A panel of prominent Roman Catholics pledged yesterday to publicly release its findings from several ongoing studies on molester priests — even if their reports turn up information that will likely be used in lawsuits against the church.

The promise came as the National Review Board, a dozen lay Catholics appointed by U.S. bishops to monitor the church’s reform efforts, issued a progress report on its first year of work.

Robert Bennett, a prominent Washington attorney and member of the board, said the panel has told the bishops that the results of four separate studies currently under way will be released no matter what.

The first study, an audit of whether dioceses are implementing reforms aimed at ridding the priesthood of abusers, is scheduled for release in December.

“At the end of the day, protection of children and young people is of paramount importance,” Mr. Bennett said. “It is the unanimous view of this board … that disclosure is what is required.”

But a major victims’ advocacy group immediately raised doubts about the studies’ value. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, whose founder, Barbara Blaine, met with the board yesterday, questioned whether the reports will be accurate since they are partly based on data provided by dioceses.

“They seem to rely solely or at least largely on interviews with church personnel,” Miss Blaine said.

Mr. Bennett acknowledged that the self-reporting approach was “not perfect.”

But he and other board members said the audit — which will be repeated regularly in the future — combined with continued public pressure from parishioners will force reluctant bishops to comply.

The audits are being overseen by a former top FBI official, Kathleen McChesney, who is head of the bishops’ new child-protection office. She has hired a former FBI counterintelligence official to assist her and another former FBI official to directly manage the auditors.

Auditors have visited 45 of the nation’s 195 dioceses since starting their research in June 2002.

“Those auditors, I can assure you, are not choirboys,” said Ray Siegfried, a panel member and Oklahoma businessman. “They can do the job, and they can do it well.”

Mr. Siegfried said some dioceses were not complying with the reforms, but he did not reveal specifics.

The audits are one part of an unprecedented review of sex abuse in the American church that the National Review Board has undertaken.

The board also commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to collect data from each diocese on abuse claims since the 1950s.

Some bishops had balked at releasing data on specific cases, fearing they would violate priests’ confidentiality and be used in the hundreds of lawsuits pending against U.S. dioceses. But John Jay researchers have promised to use codes so no individual priest or diocese can be identified from the final report.

Mr. Bennett is directing an additional study on how the abuse crisis occurred, which is expected to be released in January, around the same time as the John Jay study. He said his team has interviewed everyone from cardinals to law enforcement officials to guilty priests.

A much longer-term report on the psychological makeup of abusive priests is expected to cost more than $4 million and take years to complete.

Last month the board chairman, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a Republican, resigned after comparing some resistant bishops to the Mafia. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has not yet named Mr. Keating’s successor.

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