Victims, reports say boards to review church abuse flawed

Facing thousands of cases of clergy sex abuse, U.S. Catholic leaders addressed their greatest crisis in the modern era with a promised reform: Mandatory review boards.

These independent panels with lay people in each diocese would review allegations fairly and kindly. And they would help bishops ensure that no abusive priests stayed in ministry.

But almost two decades later, an Associated Press investigation of review boards across the country shows they have broadly failed to uphold these commitments. Instead, review boards appointed by bishops and operating in secrecy have routinely undermined sex abuse claims from victims, shielded accused priests and helped the church avoid payouts.

The AP also found dozens of cases in which review boards rejected complaints from survivors, only to have them later validated by secular authorities. In a few instances, board members were themselves clergy accused of sexual misconduct. And many abuse survivors told the AP they faced hostility and humiliation from boards.

When a victim in Florida went before a board, a church defense attorney there grilled him about his abuse until he wept. When another man in Ohio braced to tell a panel of strangers how a priest had raped him, one of them, to his disbelief, was knitting a pink sweater. And when a terrified woman in Iowa told her story of abuse, one member was asleep; the board’s finding against her was later thrown into doubt by a court ruling in her favor.

The AP checked all the roughly 180 dioceses in the U.S. for information, reviewed thousands of pages of church and court records and interviewed more than 75 abuse survivors, board members and others to uncover a tainted process where the church hierarchy holds the reins of power at every stage.

Bishops have appointed church defense attorneys and top aides to boards. Bishops choose which cases go to the board, what evidence members see and what criteria is used to decide if an allegation is “substantiated” or “credible.” And sometimes, the AP found, even where boards did find cases credible, bishops still sided with the priest and ignored the findings.

“It’s a fraud. It’s a sham. It’s a cover-up,” said David Lasher, 56, the owner of a furniture design company who told the review board in St. Petersburg, Florida, in April about his sexual abuse by a priest. “There’s no one on the board that cares for the victim...it’s all abo...

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