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Collegeville, Minn. — Last year was a tough year for St. John's Abbey in Collegeville. Like many other Catholic churches across the country, parishioners accused members of the Abbey of sexual abuse. There were months of negotiation between the Abbey and victims of clergy abuse. In the fall, the Abbey settled out of court with a dozen victims.
In October, Abbot John Klassen, the leader of St. John's Abbey, met with the victims. He acknowledged and apologized for the abuse which dated back to the 1960s, '70s and '80s.
The victims received an undisclosed cash settlement from the Abbey. As part of the settlement the Abbey also formed an external review board. The review board has several duties. Board members study what the church is doing to prevent abuse. They work to strengthen sexual abuse policies, and they investigate claims of sexual abuse. Church officials point out that any cases of abuse involving a minor are immediately directed to law enforcement authorities.
Abbot John Klassen says a majority of the nine board members are Catholic, but they come from various backgrounds. Among the members are a monk, a police chief, social workers and two victims of clergy sex abuse. Klassen hopes the board restores lost trust in the church.
"The reason we find ourselves in this situation of past years and decades is precisely because it's been too enclosed. There's not been enough viewing, understanding, questioning and processing by the larger church," Klassen says.
Abbot Klassen says it will take time for the Abbey community to heal. He cautions that the board is just a start and it shouldn't be considered a cure to the clergy abuse problem.
"At the same time, I really do believe that it's possible to understand the systemic character and roots of this problem. And it's possible to short-circuit those systemic roots, and it's possible to put in detection systems so it's dramatically reduced," Klassen says.
Officials at the St. Cloud Diocese started a similar but seperate review board last December. They did that in response to an edict from the nation's Catholic bishops. Last summer the bishops passed the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
Diocese spokesman Steve Gottwalt says the board offers recommendations on how to make changes to church policy.
The prosecutor does not go into the cathedral on Easter Sunday and give the sermon. Nor should the bishop turn around and try to do the prosecutor's job.
"It's very much like a board of directors, without the fiscal piece. They make darn sure that we're doing all we can to handle this very sensitive issue of sexual abuse," Gottwalt says.
Gottwalt says the review board's work is reflected in a new sexual abuse policy. It details ways for the diocese to respond to allegations of abuse. It suggests ways to prevent abuse, and outlines how to respect victims and get them the help they need.
Even so, victims' advocates question the overall usefulness of the review boards. David Clohessy is the National Director of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. Clohessy doesn't doubt the sincerity of lay Catholics and non-Catholics on the boards. He's afraid many board members across the country will end up feeling frustrated if they don't precipitate real change.
"It's safe to say these boards really do have an uphill struggle. They've got to win the confidence of abuse victims, and at the same time try desperately to pry information from church officials who have for decades worked very hard to conceal these types of crimes. So it's a tough balancing act for these boards," Clohessy says.
There are stories from across the country of review board members quitting in frustration. Even the leader of the church's National Review Board quit recently.
Joelle Casteix of Corona Del Mar, California, was abused by a teacher at her Catholic high school. So when the Diocese of Orange County started a review board, she wanted to join. Casteix hoped her experience as a victim would bring a useful perspective.
She spent six months on the board before resigning in December. Casteix felt board members where more interested in protecting the church's image than investigating the problem of sexual abuse.
"At the first meeting I expected to be handed a packet of materials, background information, research, an overview of the diocese and what had been done in the past," says Casteix. "I expected to see what policies were being followed, I expected to see some kind of outline of everything that we were going to be asked to do, and we received none of that."
Casteix had another problem. She found it hard to speak up about abuse in a board room shared with priests and other church officials.
"In Catholic culture the priest is the mouth of God on earth. It is difficult to be in any kind board situation where you can voice your opinion and disagree, because culturally you are told the priest is always right," Casteix says.
Casteix is considering civil litigation against the Diocese of Orange County for the abuse she faced at her high school. She says she can do more in court than on a board to address sexual abuse in the church.
SNAP's David Clohessy says for a review board to truly do its job, the members need to be independent of the church. Clohessy thinks priests or other church employees shouldn't be board members. He says boards must also have access to church documents. And if they're faced with the prospect of investigating cases of abuse, it's their duty to report it, not leave it up to the church to handle.
"The prosecutor does not go into the cathedral on Easter Sunday and give the sermon. Nor should the bishop turn around and try to do the prosecutor's job," Clohessy says.
Officials at St. John's Abbey and the St. Cloud Diocese are confident in the integrity of their review boards. Steve Gottwalt with the St. Cloud Diocese disagrees with the claim that review boards can't be effective.
"These diocesan review board meetings are not just rubber stamp meetings. These people are very challenging, they ask very tough questions, they expect good answers," says Gottwalt. "If they don't get them, they're willing to roll up their sleeves and help find the answers and implement new things to address the challenges or problems that they find."
Both church officials and abuse victims admit it will take time before the effectiveness of review boards can be judged.
In the meantime, officials from the Catholic Church's National Review Board are sending auditors to every diocese in the country, to check sexual abuse policies at each diocese. The information will be compiled in a report evaluating the church's response to sexual abuse.