Church Review Boards Often Protect Clergy Over Victims, Report Says

By Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao is a New York-based reporter at The Epoch Times. He covers national security, human trafficking and U.S. politics.
November 21, 2019 Updated: November 21, 2019

Church review boards, the purportedly independent panels meant to review allegations of sex abuse accusers fairly, were created to stop abusive priests from staying in ministry.

However, an Associated Press investigation found these boards regularly failed to uphold their commitments and instead protected the church instead of the victims.

The review boards, appointed by bishops, operate in secrecy and often undermine sex abuse claims from victims, shield accused priests, and help the church avoid payouts from suits. Dozens of cases involve review boards rejecting complaints from victims that were later validated by secular authorities. Many of the abuse survivors said they faced hostility and humiliation from the boards.

AP checked all the roughly 180 dioceses in the United States 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.

Tim Lennon, president at Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) told The Epoch Times that the results of the investigation are consistent with his experience talking with other survivors of church abuse.

He called the review board process and system more than a conflict of interest.

“It’s a dishonest process,” Lennon said in a phone interview. “The bishop appoints the board, the board is only advisory, all decisions that they make have to be approved by the bishop. They [church officials] are misleading the community; they are misleading the victims.”

Bishops have appointed church defense attorneys and top aides to these boards. In addition, 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.

Lennon said victims shouldn’t rely on the church to find justice. He pointed to a case involving a whistleblower in Buffalo, New York, which showed there were three times the number of abusive priests than the bishops had claimed.

“We have seen that when law enforcement investigates, that is when we find the truth,” he said.

“We need to rely on prosecutors, the district attorney, even politicians to enact strong laws to protect the community,” he said. “We can’t rely on the church to police itself.”

At least a dozen reports by government investigators and outside consultants with access to church documents have questioned the boards’ independence, their treatment of victims, and their thoroughness. These reports include at least seven grand jury and state attorney general reports.

Even if the boards do give recommendations, reports by the bishops’ conference found dioceses ignored boards—sometimes leaving cases dormant for more than a year. Review board members past and present told AP about dioceses gaming the process, from failing to keep them informed to using aides to steer deliberations.

Mary Dispenza, SNAP leader for the Seattle district and contact person for those abused by nuns, told The Epoch Times that abuse within the church is a “horrendous issue, bigger than we believe or what we want to know.”

“Children are still being abused by clergy, and priest predators in many cases are still serving,” she said in a phone call. “It remains a problem because it’s a systemic issue within the Catholic Church. The coverups and the secrecy are serious.”

Review boards are limited in what they can do, Dispenza said, because they fall under the same hierarchal model being perpetuated by the church.

“[The] model still remains the same, the hierarchal model where the buck stops at the bishop,” she said. “I’m not so sure that they [review boards] can truly be effective … it has to be so biased.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report 

Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao
Bowen Xiao is a New York-based reporter at The Epoch Times. He covers national security, human trafficking and U.S. politics.