KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Roman Catholic diocese, who was recently appointed chairman-elect of the U.S. Catholic church’s national committee for protecting abuse victims, should lead an effort to change boards that review abuse allegations to make them more transparent, inclusive and willing to publicly identify predator priests, an advocacy group said Friday.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests sent a letter to Bishop James Johnston Jr., Friday criticizing the current methods of the review boards, which were mandated in dioceses across the country in 2002 after allegations of widespread sexual abuse by priests began to surface. Johnston was appointed last week as chairman-elect of the church’s Committee on Protection of Children and Young People, although he won’t become chairman for a year.
SNAP was reacting to an Associated Press report on Thursday that found the review boards repeatedly failed to support abuse victims and to oust abusive priests. Instead, review boards appointed by bishops and operating in secrecy often intimidate victims, reject sex abuse claims and help the church avoid payouts, the AP reported.
“In fact, we believe the flaws identified in the AP report are not accidental, isolated ‘mistakes’ or ‘oversights.’ You, your brother bishops and church lawyers are smart,” the letter said. “These panels, we believe are set up largely to help with public relations and legal defense. They are deliberately given little power or access to information. The goal is to give the appearance of change, rather than making actual change. Again, you can and must remedy this.”
The group suggested several changes, including requiring at least two abuse victims on each panel; making the board members’ names public; including at least two non-Catholics on each board; guaranteeing each victim gets to meet with a board; no lawyers representing the church as members; term limits for each board member and “greater honesty” about how the boards operate.
Carrie Cooper, who has directed the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese’s Office of Child and Youth Protection since 2011, disputed SNAP’s characterization of the boards, although she said she could speak only for the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese. She said the board hears from any victim who has made an accusation and any priest accused and that it includes members who have careers related to child protection, such as law enforcement, counselors and attorneys, as well as one priest to help answer questions about church doctrine and practices.
“I have found them to be such a wise body,” Cooper said. “The bishop and our investigators rely on their expertise and wisdom. Having people invested in helping children only helps the church in the evaluation of these cases. And it helps the bishop.”
Larry Davis, a SNAP member who was handing out information Friday in front of the diocesan headquarters in Kansas City, said the AP report validated what many SNAP members have said for years — that the church is more concerned about protecting its public image than it is about helping abuse victims. Davis, 66, of Kansas City, said the group doesn’t expect real changes to be made to the boards until parishioners begin demanding more transparency from the church.
“We want them to make changes because they want to rather than because they are forced into it by bad publicity,” Davis said. “It is so hard for victims to find peace. Right now, they really have no place to go.”