The Diocese of Lincoln will now take part in the U.S. bishops’ audit of the implementation of the youth protection charter – a move it says adds to a well-functioning system of safeguards against abuse.
“I believe it will demonstrate clearly that the Diocese of Lincoln does an excellent job creating safe environments for children," Bishop James Conley said in his Sept. 11 column.
Bishop Conley said his diocese already complies with all church laws and civil laws on child abuse reporting and child protection. He said the audit can help bishops hold themselves accountable and provide transparency as “an assurance that the Church takes child protection seriously."
In 2002, in response to the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy dating back decades, the U.S. bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The charter made voluntary recommendations to bishops, including an audit to ensure compliance.
The Lincoln diocese participated in the first audit in 2003, but then-Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz declined to participate again.
According to Bishop Conley, the audit process was “still being worked out" and needed refinements.
“Legitimate questions were raised about its purpose, practices, and methodology. For that reason, the Diocese of Lincoln declined to participate in subsequent audits," he said.
Bishop Conley said he believes it was “a prudent decision." He said the audit process has improved since 2003 and appears to offer “some clear benefit" to dioceses that follow it. The process also has minimal interference in Church ministry.
The Diocese of Lincoln said it requires background checks and training for employees and volunteers, while its policies are reviewed by a lay-led Diocesan Review Board. The board is also consulted on allegations of child abuse.
“Allegations of child abuse are reported to law enforcement in accord with state law, and Catholics are regularly encouraged to report any suspicion of abuse to law enforcement authorities," the Lincoln diocese said Sept. 11.
Professor Kurt Martens of Catholic University of America’s School of Canon Law said the audit is a “helpful instrument" to help bishops protect young people from abuse, but is not mandatory under ecclesiastical law.
“The audit is not a goal in itself. It’s a tool, but not the only tool. You have other tools like formation of clergy, good policy in place, and above all, supervision," he told CNA.
“By the time an audit catches a lack of supervision, the harm has already been done," he said.
He noted that the charter is not a legal document. Ecclesial law, rather, requires bishops and dioceses to follow the essential norms on clergy abuse which were first approved by the U.S. bishops in 2002. These norms were later revised and then approved by the Congregation of Bishops during Benedict XVI’s pontificate.
Martens said an individual bishop might decline to use the charter audit process due to the size or location of his diocese, or other reasons, such as the expense of the audit or the availability of another process to ensure the policies are implemented.
“The bishop has to make a prudent judgment," Martens continued. “He might even say ‘the audit doesn’t add anything to what we are already doing’."
A bishop’s successor could decide the opposite and adopt the audit process.
Martens said that sexual abuse by clergy can happen whether or not a diocese performs the audit process.
“Taking part in the audit doesn’t give you a guarantee that nothing is going to happen," he said. “You might come out of the audit, and still something happens."
He compared the audit to a doctor’s clean bill of health for a patient at check-up, only to see the patient drop dead of a heart attack in the waiting room.
The Diocese of Lincoln has about 100,000 Catholics. It was the only Roman Catholic U.S. diocese to decline to participate in the charter audit in 2014. That year, five Eastern Catholic eparchies also declined to participate, according to the 2014 annual report on the charter implementation.
The diocese said it will undergo a consultative process after the 2016 audit cycle to consider its future use of the audit.
Bishop Edward Burns of Juneau, Alaska, who chairs the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, said the audit process is a “valuable tool" to protect children and young people.
“I am very pleased to learn that the Diocese of Lincoln will participate in the audit process for the protection of children and young people," Bishop Burns said. “I think that in the case of Lincoln, the audit will demonstrate a Church committed to the safety and welfare of the children."