Boston child protection audit figures released

BRIGHTON -- The Archdiocese of Boston announced March 4 that the U.S. bishops’ annual audit has found it in compliance with 12 of the 13 articles of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” that were audited.

The archdiocese made its announcement in advance of the national results, which are expected to be released March 7.

The annual audit process was established in 2003 to monitor the implementation of the charter, which was approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 in response to unprecedented revelations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. The audits are conducted nationally by the Boston-based Gavin Group.

“The archdiocese is compliant on all articles of the charter that are audited -- 13 articles -- in every parish in every school for everyone except for article 12 which makes reference to the training of children on abuse prevention and child safety,” Father John J. Connolly, special assistant to Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, told The Pilot.

The audit, which covered the archdiocese’s fiscal year of July 2006 to June 2007, evaluated efforts to satisfy the charter’s requirements in several areas, including:

-- effective reporting and response to allegations of sexual abuse

-- promoting healing and reconciliation with survivors and those harmed by clergy sexual abuse

-- ensuring that archdiocesan and religious priests, deacons, educators, volunteers and other personnel are properly screened through criminal background checks and

-- conducting safe environment training for children and adults who work with children.

According to Father Connolly, the archdiocese self-reported to the Gavin Group auditors that 54 parishes in the archdiocese had not fully implemented the archdiocese’s Talking About Touching abuse prevention program by mid-2007.

Of those 54, 10 have since implemented the program, 12 are committed to doing so before the current audit period ends in June and 15 are moving toward implementation but have not provided the archdiocese with the final commitment, he said

In addition, there is a group of 16 parishes that have not implemented Talking About Touching, “because they have philosophical problems with the program,” Father Connolly said.

When it was introduced, Talking About Touching was criticized by some parents and priests because they felt some of the materials related to sexual education, which the Church maintains is the prerogative of parents. Father Connolly said that the archdiocese thoroughly reviewed those claims but did not find evidence to support the objections to the program.

Nevertheless, at the direction of Cardinal O’Malley, the archdiocese has sought alternatives to the Talking About Touching program.

The Office of Child Advocacy Implementation and Oversight, working together with the Implementation and Oversight Advisory Committee have evaluated and approved two alternative programs that fulfill all the archdiocesan and national requirements: the “Stay Safe” and “Keeping Children Safe” programs.

These two new programs have been offered to the 16 parishes that had not yet implemented a child protection program and, according to Father Connolly, 13 parishes have already received training in them. It is expected that the majority of those parishes will implement an alternative child protection program by June.

“It is our expectation that they will use either one of these two programs,” he said.

Following Cardinal O’Malley’s commitment in 2003 to conduct full audits in the archdiocese for at least five years, several auditors from the Gavin Group visited 47 parishes last November. In total, they spent over 600 hours interviewing 170 parish staff members and volunteers.

In addition to the 54 parishes self-reported by the archdiocese, those auditors found another 10 parishes that were not in full compliance because they had not yet implemented child safety programs for seventh and eighth graders.

Father Connolly explained that Talking About Touching was initially rolled out to religious education students in grades one through four. Later, it was expanded to cover students through grade eight.

“This year they (the auditors) held us to a higher standard, and that’s fine, but not all of our parishes have caught up with that,” Father Connolly said.

“We are very grateful for their (the auditors’) work because they help us to identify where we need to focus our attention and where we need to do a better job to protect our children and to prepare our volunteers as well,” he said.

Father Connolly also explained that this year’s results may appear less favorable than the prior year’s because of change in the reporting period.

Last year’s audit covered calendar year 2006. So, he said, when investigators found deficiencies in November 2006, there was still time to correct them by the end of the year.

This year, however, the audit changed to cover the archdiocese’s fiscal year of July 2006 through June 2007. As a result, when investigators in November 2007 looked back at the audit period, it was too late for parishes to take remedial action, he said.

Despite the fact that only eight parishes were found out of compliance with article 12 of the charter last year, compared to 64 this year, this year’s results should not be perceived as a step backwards in the implementation of child safety programs, Father Connolly, emphasized.

“I think last year we had 64 or more,” he said.

Because of the results of last year’s audit, the archdiocese engaged the services of Kathy Kelly, a child abuse prevention specialist working with the Office of Child Advocacy, Implementation and Oversight. Kelly has worked with parishes that had challenges implementing the training programs and has identified more parishes that were not in compliance, Father Connolly said.

“Does it seem that we are going backwards? It does if you look merely at the numbers,” he said,

“But if you look at the level of contact and communication developed, it’s not moving backwards, it is more hopeful, because we have a more fully developed picture of what is going on,” he said

Father Connolly also emphasized that although a number of parishes did not comply with one item of the audit, all the work already done should not be overlooked.

“The good news is that out of the 13 audited articles, every single parish in the archdiocese passed 12 with flying colors both by our own self-report and by the verification done by the auditors in their visits to the 47 parishes that were sampled,” he said.

“We would rather be able to say that all our children have been trained and we are working with all the vigor we can muster to do that.”

Father Connolly emphasized that a tangible result of the program is that since 2002 the archdiocese has filed nearly 400 reports with the Department of Social Services -- most as a result of children reporting incidents of abuse or neglect. In more than 90 percent of these cases, the reported abuse occurred within the family or in another non-church setting.

“Child protection and abuse prevention have become bedrock elements of the way in which the faith is handed on, in the way the children are educated, in the way clergy are trained, in the way volunteers are trained,” he said.

“This is part of the fabric of being a Catholic in the 21st century in the United States,” he added.