Take it to the board: How effective are lay review boards in preventing sex abuse?

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Article Parish Life
Panels reviewing sex abuse allegations help dioceses get their houses in order, but they are only as effective as the information the bishops give them.

Jim Caccamo has a simple explanation for why he joined the lay review board for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri back in 2005: Former Bishop Raymond Boland asked him to.

“When the bishop asks you, you say yes,” says Caccamo, a lifelong Catholic and member of St. Peter’s Parish in Kansas City.

Caccamo had other reasons as well. He’s a grandfather and wanted to be sure that his grandchildren and children like them were safe. He’d also spent his career as an educator trying to make life better for children. The former public school administrator is now director of early education for the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City.

So helping the church take care of children seemed the right thing for Caccamo to do. Like many Catholics he was outraged by the clergy sexual abuse scandal that first rocked the church in 2002. He says the church failed in its responsibility to keep kids safe.

“When a parent turns their kid over to us, they expect us to act on their behalf,” he says. “Once you betray that trust—it makes me angry.”

Under Boland the review board met on a regular basis and most of the cases they looked at were at least 10 years old, says Caccamo. They met less regularly after Boland retired and was succeeded by Bishop Robert Finn in May 2005.

Caccamo was chairman of the review board and believed that they were being told about every case of alleged abuse in the diocese. That is until his wife went online on May 19, 2011 and learned that Father Shawn Ratigan, former pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, had been arrested for possession of child pornography.

Caccamo also learned from news reports that a computer technician had found pornographic images on Ratigan’s computer while fixing it in December 2010—some of which were pictures taken by Ratigan of children of the parish. He later found out that the principal of St. Patrick had complained to the diocese in a memo a year earlier about her suspicions about Ratigan.

But the diocese did not consult the review board about the complaints involving Ratigan, says Caccamo. Neither did Finn notify the board even after the images had been found on Ratigan’s computer.

That angers Caccamo, who says that diocesan officials should have known better. “This wasn’t a case where someone called and said they saw someone else do something wrong,” he says. “They had his computer hard drive with all of those images. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that you have to say that something is wrong.”

On the books

The Ratigan scandal is exactly the kind of situation that lay review boards were designed to address. According to Article II of the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, approved by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at a pivotal meeting in Dallas that year, every diocese is required to have a mechanism in place to deal with allegations of abuse. They are required to have a review board, made up mostly of laypeople who do not work for the diocese, to address issues of abuse.

According to the charter, “This board will assist the diocesan/eparchial bishop in assessing allegations and fitness for ministry, and will regularly review diocesan/eparchial policies and procedures for dealing with sexual abuse of minors.”

But in several high-profile cases, such as the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the review board system failed because bishops bypassed the board in dealing with cases of abuse. This led to priests like Ratigan being left in ministry even after being accused of abuse or other crimes.

Review board members like Caccamo say that the boards are still an effective tool for preventing abuse and dealing with abusers—as long as dioceses consult with boards on all cases and don’t withhold information.

Withholding information from a review board makes no sense, says Archbishop Michael Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Sante Fe, New Mexico. “I think it’s ridiculous,” says Sheehan, who took over the Sante Fe archdiocese in the midst of a sexual abuse scandal in 1993. Former Archbishop Robert Fortune Sanchez resigned after being accused of abusing three women in the 1970s and 1980s. After he arrived, Sheehan suspended more than 20 priests who’d been accused of abuse.

“I called it ‘Chernobyl on the Rio Grande,’ ” he says. “[Sanchez] had his own issues with sexuality, and that’s why he wasn’t disciplining priests.”

Not long after coming to Sante Fe, Sheehan apologized to victims and worked on settling a series of lawsuits. He also set up a review board—eight years before the Dallas charter—to advise him on dealing with the cases of priest abusers, which continues to meet quarterly even today.

Board members have included a retired judge, doctors, and other professionals. In the early years the board met almost weekly, sorting through all the allegations and evidence involving the accused priests. “I gave them everything,” says Sheehan.

The board still meets, mostly to review policies and make sure the diocese’s programs are running, but it’s still prepared to respond when needed.

“Thank God we were able to turn things around,” says Sheehan. “With the help of a lot of people, including the review board, we were able to restore the good name of the church.”

The diocese also has had a zero-tolerance policy toward abuse of minors since the early 1990s. “Even though there is a shortage of priests, if a guy is doing something wrong, he needs to be out of there,” says Sheehan.

Bishop Blase Cupich of the Diocese of Spokane, Washington and the current chairman of the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People for the USCCB, says that review boards have helped to restore the Catholic Church’s public credibility.

Having the boards was a sign that the reforms on the charter would stick, Cupich says. He believes both local boards and the National Review Board still have an important role to play.

“The National Review Board helped the bishops in a great moment of crisis to lend credibility to what the bishops were doing,” Cupich says. “We needed the transparency that the board gave to us.”

As a bishop in Rapid City, South Dakota from 1999 to 2010, and now as bishop of Spokane, Cupich says that he’s worked closely with the local review board. He says that he keeps no secrets from them and doesn’t understand why any bishop would withhold information or cases involving abuse accusations from a review board.

“I’d be baffled in a case involving a minor and a priest where the bishop did not bring it to the review board,” Cupich says. “They can best serve him when they know the entire situation.”

Independent study

But critics of review boards say they are ineffective because the bishops control who is on the boards, what cases they review, and what information they receive about abusers. Until review boards are truly independent, they’ll remain fundamentally flawed, says David Clohessy, director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

 “Like most of the so-called reforms adopted in 2002, the review boards were more about public relations than reform,” says Clohessy. “As long as the bishop picks every member and shares  only limited information with them, they will be problematic.”

Joelle Casteix, SNAP’s southwest regional director and a former member of the review board for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, California, agrees. Casteix was abused while a student at Mater Dei Catholic High School in Santa Ana, California and sued the diocese for covering up the abuse.

She was on the review board for about six months in 2002 and left because she felt the board had no authority.

“If the bishops really want a board to be effective, it needs to be an independent investigative board that has the ability to remove priests,” she says. “Bishops could give the board complete access to their secret personnel files.”

Sheehan says that bishops can give the review boards complete access to information in cases of abuse. But they can’t abdicate their responsibility to make decisions about who can and can’t be a priest.

He says that bishops are responsible for the diocese—for its spiritual life, its finances, its priests. But a bishop would be unwise to ignore the recommendations of the board when it comes to removing a priest. “A bishop takes a huge risk if he goes against the recommendations of the review board,” he says.

Cupich agrees. “If a bishop makes a decision that is contrary to what the board recommends—he not only has to justify it to them, he’s going to have to justify it to the church,” he says.

Kathleen McChesney, the first executive director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection for the USCCB, says review boards remain a good idea. But she says that dioceses have been inconsistent in how they use the boards.

“I would say that 60 or 75 percent of dioceses have good programs—but they still struggle,” she says. “They don’t have a handle on pornography yet.”

 McChesney, a former FBI agent, says that boards work if the bishops trust them—and let them review any case of alleged abuse along with giving them all the information about the case that the diocese has. “You have to convince the bishops they have to do that,” she says. “The bishops have to tell their subordinates to do that.”

Cupich says that if a bishop withholds information, that communicates to the board that he doesn’t trust them. That undermines the whole system of having a review board, he says.

“If he doesn’t trust the board, he’s got the wrong review board,” he says.

Form and function

The Dallas charter had few details on how the review boards are to function.
The 2008 Diocesan Review Board Resource Booklet, sent to all U.S. dioceses to give them guidance on how to run review boards, makes it clear that review boards are advisory only and don’t impinge on the bishop’s authority.

The guidelines don’t say which cases boards should look at or when the bishops are supposed to consult with them. And the guidelines say that the bishops should appoint an investigator to look into allegations of abuse. “The role of the review board is not investigatory; rather it evaluates evidence presented by the investigator and offers advice to the bishop/eparch,” the guidelines say.

McChesney would like to see review boards receive more training on how to deal with cases of abuse and to have more meetings between leaders of review boards from different dioceses so that they can talk about what kinds of practices work best for boards.

Teresa Kettelkamp also would like to see review boards take a more proactive role when it comes to training. Kettelkamp succeeded McChesney as director of the Office of Child and Youth Protection for the USCCB in 2005 and served until June 2011. The lifelong Catholic is a former colonel in the Illinois State Police and worked closely with the National Review Board.

Kettelkamp says it took a while for dioceses to figure out how review boards work best, because those kinds of boards had never existed before. The fact that boards are in place is a good thing, she says.

“I think the overarching thing that I like to focus on is the fact that they exist,” she says. “The fact that they are under the norms means they won’t be going away anytime soon.”

Kettelkamp says that boards can get in trouble if they don’t meet on a regular basis and have regular training. But some boards meet only if there is an allegation of abuse. That’s a mistake, she says. Boards should meet on a regular basis, at least four times a year, and review their diocese’s policies and procedures to make sure they are up to date and being followed.

“It’s easy to say we don’t have a lot of cases—and to get complacent and not meet,” Kettelkamp says. “You can’t let down your guard, because sex abuse is such a part of our culture.”

If a board is functioning well, much of its work is preventive. The review board for the Diocese of Nashville, Tennessee meets every three months to make sure the diocese is following its policies and procedures for the protection of children.

Tim Tohill has been chairman of the Nashville review board for the last two years. He’s also president of the Sexual Assault Center, a Nashville-based nonprofit that provides counseling to victims of sexual abuse. They treat about 700 clients a year, half of whom are children.

Tohill says he joined the board to make sure the church lives up to its word when it comes to protecting children. “The reason I got involved was to make sure that things we heard publicly that the Catholic Church was doing were actually taking place,” he says.

The Nashville board has eight members and includes a doctor, a former judge, and a victim’s advocate—that’s the role Tohill fills. Every two years they review the diocese’s programs for protecting children. And they are prepared to respond if a case of abuse comes up.

“Our responsibility is to make sure that children will be protected,” he says. “If we do our job, that will happen.”

Kettelkamp is adamant that review boards should see all cases of alleged abuse, and that the bishops need to share all the information they have on alleged abuses, without exception.

“In this environment we need to be open and transparent,” she says. “Once you start making a subjective judgment that they should get some cases and not others, it’s going to erode the credibility that so many people have worked so hard to get. These laypeople are intelligent and dedicated lay Catholics. Show them the respect that they deserve.”

She admits, however, that sexual abuse remains difficult for churches and for society to deal with. People still would rather not deal with the issue. That’s another reason for boards to remain vigilant.  “We don’t want to talk about secret sins,” she says. “Sexual abuse anytime, anywhere is horrible and disgusting.”

Jim Caccamo says that the rules for review boards should be simple. Any time a priest or volunteer or staff member is accused of abuse, the board needs to be notified and consulted. And they need all the facts. “The independent review board works when the rules are followed,” he says. “It’s that simple.”

What not to do

Caccamo is not the only review board chair to find out the local bishop had been withholding clergy abuse cases from them. That was also the case for Anne Marie Catanzaro, chair of the review board for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

At press time Msgr. William Lynn, the archdiocese’s former secretary of clergy, was the first Catholic official standing trial for criminal child endangerment charges for not removing two abusive priests from ministry in the 1990s and for being part of a diocesan cover-up of abuse. In February 2011 a grand jury criticized the review board for not removing 37 abusive priests from ministry.

That accusation came as a surprise to Catanzaro, who wrote about the experience in Commonweal magazine. She said that the board didn’t know about most of the cases and hadn’t seen much of the evidence against the accused priests.

“In fact, the board had reviewed just 10 cases involving the 37 priests,” she wrote. “None of the evidence we saw concerning the 10 led us to conclude they had sexually abused minors. But until the grand jury report came out, the board was under the impression that we were reviewing every abuse allegation received by the archdiocese.”
Instead the diocese had withheld information and cases from the board.

Catanzaro says that if the diocese had been more transparent, the board would have made different decisions and recommended that more priests be removed from ministry.

She says that Archbishop Charles Chaput, who was installed as archbishop of Philadelphia in September 2011, has promised to consult the board in all future cases of alleged abuse.

Catanzaro, who is also a member of the National Review Board, is hopeful. She stuck with the board because she wants the church to do the right thing when it comes to protecting children. She didn’t want to resign despite the diocese’s prior actions.

“I have had many sleepless nights as have most of the members of the review board,” she says. “We want to be sure that there is no cleric in the church who has the opportunity to abuse children.”

Caccamo is hopeful as well. He describes the shock of Ratigan’s arrest and the failure of the diocese to act as “a hurricane, a tornado, and a 12-foot snowfall all on the same day.”

Finn became the first bishop to face criminal charges as a result of the abuse scandal. He was indicted in October 2011 for failing to comply with a state law that required him to report child abuse. The charge was a misdemeanor that could have led to a one-year jail sentence and a $1,000 fine.

According to the Kansas City Star, Finn avoided prosecution in Clay County, Missouri by agreeing to take part in a five-year diversion program. He agreed to meet monthly with local law enforcement officials to report any allegations of child abuse in the diocese and to inform them of how he was addressing any allegations. Finn also had to meet with all the parishes in the county to inform them of the diocese’s programs to protect children. (Finn still faces misdemeanor charges in Jackson County, Missouri.)
The diocese also hired a former U.S. attorney to investigate what went wrong in the Ratigan case in June 2011.

The diocese also now has a full-time director of its new Department of Child and Youth Protection and hired Jenifer Valenti, a district attorney, as the diocesan ombudsman. Any allegations of abuse are reported to Valenti, who will notify the review board as well as the police.

“As a parent I want this program to succeed,” Valenti says. “The board will hear all allegations of sexual abuse of a minor. They will get involved in every case.”

Caccamo remained chairman of the Kansas City review board in the aftermath of the Ratigan scandal because he wanted to see that changes were made. He resigned in February, saying that he thinks the diocese is making those changes and that months of dealing with the aftermath of the scandal had left him worn out. Still, he stayed on the board until changes were made, because he felt that was the right thing.

“The goal is creating a culture where children are protected,” he says. “That’s not happened yet. But it’s moving in the right direction.”

This article appeared in the June 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 6, pages 12-17).

Image: Tom Wright