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By Stephen J. Lee Forum News Service, Published May 17 2013

Incoming Fargo bishop’s former diocese didn’t participate in abuse audit

GRAND FORKS – An annual report, sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says an independent audit and study found 2012 had the biggest drop in allegations of sexual abuse by priests in a decade.

But the report also singles out one diocese as the only one that refuses to take part in the annual audit and data collection of compliance with the conference’s own 2004 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People: the Diocese of Lincoln, in Nebraska.

That may be of interest to people in eastern North Dakota since the bishop-elect for the Fargo diocese, Monsignor John Folda, is coming from Lincoln, where he has been a priest for two decades.

Appointed last month to replace now-Archbishop Samuel Aquila, who is in Denver, Folda is to be ordained bishop in Fargo on June 19.

Folda is not commenting on diocesan issues until he’s actually bishop, said Tanya Watterud, spokeswoman for the Fargo diocese.

The Rev. Luke Meyer, chancellor of the Fargo diocese, doesn’t expect such a change.

“I don’t foresee the Fargo diocese changing its compliance (with the audit) in the future,” Meyer said. “We are still fully committed to providing a safe environment for our youth and participating fully in the charter and its audits.”

Allegations lowest

in decade

The annual audit of how the 190 U.S. Catholic dioceses comply with the bishops’ charter for protecting young people found decreases in the number of allegations, victims and offenders in 2012, according to a news release from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University in Washington.

CARA is an independent Catholic research organization, said Mary Gautier, who is in charge of CARA’s data collection from dioceses.

Gautier said the second part of the annual report is an audit by StoneBridge Business Partners of the dioceses, including on-site visits to 71 of them.

CARA’s parallel research found “the fewest allegations and victims reported since the data collection for the annual reports began in 2004,” according to Gautier.

“By the dioceses being accountable to one another and to the public and the Catholic population, I think that this is having a positive effect, which is certainly the intended outcome,” she said.

CARA has found there were 397 allegations made in the dioceses last year, most of them from decades past, against 313 priests or deacons, by 390 individuals. About 84 percent of the victims were male, half were between 10 and 14 when the abuse began, an estimated 17 percent were between 15 and 17, and 19 percent were under age 10.

StoneBridge’s audit found more than 99 percent of priests and more than 96 percent of employees and volunteers were trained in the bishops’ Safe Environment program.

But StoneBridge also cited “the unwillingness of most dioceses ... to allow us to conduct parish audits during their on-site audits,” meaning “auditors must rely solely on the information provided by the diocese or eparchy, instead of observing the program firsthand.”

‘Politely’ declined

Gautier said the Lincoln diocese, after first participating, is the only one now that doesn’t.

“They have politely refused, saying they are taking care of everything.”

Although the U.S. bishops voted to “voluntarily comply” with the audit and research, each bishop is autonomous in his diocese, Gautier said.

It doesn’t mean the Lincoln diocese is not protecting its children, she said.

“I suspect there is nothing going on there (in terms of sexual abuse) because I haven’t seen anything in the news.”

The Rev. Daniel Rayer, chancellor of the Lincoln diocese, said that while the diocese “participated fully in the initial audit conducted by the USCCB,” it has since “exercised its option to refrain from participation in the audit, as its application, though perhaps helpful in some dioceses, has not proven to be so in the Diocese of Lincoln.”

However, the diocese “is operating in full compliance with all the civil laws and all the laws of the Catholic church concerning the abuse of minors,” Rayer said in an email.

Criticism of report

Bob Schwiderski, a volunteer activist in Minnesota with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and himself a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, dismissed the report.

“That’s their statement from their folks,” he said. “What did the Good Samaritan do? He got off his mule and helped those injured who were traveling by the side of the road. Not once have these bishops got off of the damn mule and picked up those who have already been abused.”

Dioceses train thousands

However, Monsignor David Baumgartner of the Crookston, Minn., diocese and Fargo’s Chancellor Meyer said their dioceses work hard toward making all young people safe.

The Crookston diocese complies with the bishops conference’s plan and trains thousands of young people, including how to be aware of potential abuse, how to avoid it, report it and how get help, Baumgartner said.

Last year, the Crookston diocese, one of the nation’s smallest, trained 5,079 children and youth using the charter’s materials and “vetted” 2,127 volunteers, 122 Catholic school educators, 396 parish or diocesan employees as well as the diocese’s 30 priests, including using background checks, Baumgartner said.

In 2012, the Crookston diocese paid $2,160 in counseling costs related to sexual abuse, Baumgartner said.

Meyer said the new report “shows the proactive measures that the bishops have taken throughout the country are having a positive impact.”

Meyer listed similar efforts in the Fargo diocese, and that the reporting process is part of it.

“The audit is a way that shows the church is being proactive and kind of making the charter (for protection of the young) real for the laity and the parishes,” Meyer said. “Yet there is still work to be done. One incident is one too many and it’s never acceptable in any case. But as such, it is hopeful to see fewer instances being reported.”