An Associated Press investigation of the U.S. Catholic Church’s independent review boards for clergy sexual abuse found that they “broadly failed” to uphold accountability and fairness– by undermining abuse claims, protecting accused priests, and helping the Church avoid payouts.
The investigation “checked all the roughly 180 dioceses in the U.S. for information, reviewed thousands of pages of church and court records, and interviewed more than 75 abuse survivors, board members and others to uncover a tainted process where the church hierarchy holds the reins of power at every stage.”
Of the roughly 80 review boards it inspected, the AP found at least 40 bishops who created potential conflicts of interest by appointing “high-ranking aides and attorneys who defended the church or its priests in sex-assault cases.”
The AP found “dozens” of cases reviewed by independent diocesan boards that were later affirmed by secular authorities. It also found three cases of clergy serving on boards despite being accused of sexual misconduct themselves.
While many bishops contacted by the AP did not respond to requests for comment, several bishops defended the review boards as proof of the Church’s ability to reform. Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore acknowledged potential improvements, but said his diocese’s board “inspires confidence in the process.”
“They are critical to regaining the trust and confidence of our people, who rightly believe in increased lay involvement in such matters,” said Lori, who served on the USCCB’s sex abuse committee when the reforms were passed.
Bishop Timothy Doherty of Lafayette, Ind., who heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ child protection committee, said that “diocesan review boards have come a long way. Our level of professionalism is up tremendously.”
Interviews of abuse victims elicited mixed feelings, with some calling their review board experience “like a corporate meeting, and I’m the one being fired,” while others defended the process “very kind, very trauma informed, very affirming.”
Dr. Jim Richter, a survivor of priest abuse who serves on the review board for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, praised his own board, but said others could be different.
“It is absolutely possible that you could be walking into, at worst, a den of wolves,” he said.