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Issue Date:  April 7, 2006

Priest personnel files may be opened to auditors


Auditors hired to rate diocesan compliance with church child-protection programs would have access to priest personnel files under a proposal approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Administrative Committee earlier this month. The measure will be considered by the full body of bishops at their June 2006 meeting in Los Angeles.

The proposal to allow auditors greater access to information was announced at a March 30 news conference in which the bishops released reports indicating that 89 percent of U.S. dioceses were in compliance with the church’s “Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth” during 2005. The announcement comes on the heels of reports commissioned by Chicago Cardinal Francis George that demonstrated the inadequacy of church child-protection policies in that archdiocese (NCR, March 31).

William Gavin, chairman of the organization conducting the diocesan audits, told the news conference that problems revealed in Chicago demonstrate the need for greater auditor access to church files. The auditors hired by Chicago church officials to investigate complaints against a prominent pastor “had access to everything,” said Gavin. Gavin said the auditors who work for him need the same type of access.

Patricia Ewers, chair of the bishops’ National Review Board, said that group is pushing for greater auditor access to files as well as additional “monitoring programs” for accused priests and better communication to avoid the “dysfunctional climates of secrecy” that shields bishops from information about abusive priests.

The Chicago report found that Fr. Daniel McCormack, pastor of St. Agatha Parish, was allowed to remain in ministry for more than four months following credible allegations of recent sexual abuse of three teenage boys. After the August accusation against McCormack, George rejected a recommendation from an archdiocesan review board that the priest be removed as pastor of St. Agatha. Instead, another priest -- who lived at the rectory but whose ministerial duties were elsewhere -- was assigned to monitor the accused priest.

Nevertheless, the Chicago archdiocese was found to be in compliance with the national church charter. “The Chicago situation clearly shows that the bishops’ system of self-monitoring and self-surveys doesn’t work and kids are left at risk,” Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told NCR.

The charter compliance report released March 30 showed that the small number of dioceses that failed the review generally did so because they had not instituted “safe environment programs” or, in a smaller number of cases, had not conducted background checks on employees and volunteers who interact with children.

More than 5.7 million children participated in diocesan safe environment programs last year, an increase of more than 50 percent over 2004, said Teresa Kettelkamp, director of the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection. Further, said Kettelkamp, nearly 99 percent of those required to submit to a background check had done so. More than 1.6 million such checks were conducted last year, said Kettelkamp.

In a related study, 783 “credible allegations of sexual abuse by clerics against minors” were reported in 2005, down from nearly 1,100 such reports in 2004, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the Georgetown University-affiliated research entity hired by the bishops to gather such data. Most of that abuse occurred between 1960 and 1979, said the center.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2006

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