Church sex-abuse boards often undermine victims, help clergy
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 about protecting the church.”
The board ruled against Lasher, and the diocese stopped paying for his counseling. AP does not typically name sex abuse victims, but Lasher and others opted to be identified.
Several bishops contacted by the AP, including St. Petersburg’s Gregory Parkes, did not respond to requests for comment. Some referred the AP to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which also did not respond to interview requests. Others, such as Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, said that while improvements are possible, review boards are living up to the promises of the reforms mandated in 2002.
“They are critical to regaining the trust and confidence of our people, who rightly believe in increased lay involvement in such matters,” said Lori, who served on the conference’s sex abuse committee when the reforms were passed.
The Baltimore archdiocese names its board members, which, Lori said, “inspires confidence in the process,” and it does not include high-level church officials. An annual report that the board produced this year at Lori’s direction didn’t say how members ruled, but noted that in 11 cases, one priest was removed and 10 others were already disciplined or deceased. The victims were offered counseling.
“Diocesan Review Boards have come a long way,” added Lafayette, Indiana, Bishop Timothy Doherty, who has been serving as head of the conference’s child protection committee. “Our level of professionalism is up tremendously.”
However, at least a dozen reports by government investigators and outside consultants with access to church documents have questioned the independence of boards, their treatment of victims or their thoroughness. These include at least seven grand jury and state attorney general reports.
In Illinois, for example, where the attorney general’s probe remains under way, investigators have turned up evidence that dioceses scoured victims’ personal lives to discredit them. In Colorado, an investigator jointly appointed by the state and church said Denver’s board showed too much bias in support of the archdiocese and little understanding of sexual assault and trauma. And in Pennsylvania, a 2016 grand jury investigating the Altoona-Johnstown diocese called the board’s work a cover-up cloaked “in the guise of advocacy,” with members focused on “fact-finding for litigation” in case the victim sued.
The review board was an attempt to convince the public “that the days of a mysterious bishop deciding how to handle a scandalous and heinous report of child molestation and sodomy were over,” the jury wrote. “In reality,” it added, a board is “only as real as any bishop may want it to be.”
Even reports by the bishops’ conference have dinged dioceses for ignoring boards – sometimes leaving them dormant for more than a year – and have repeatedly warned of “complacency.” 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.
“It’s all internal. That’s the problem,” said the Rev. James Connell, who served nearly a decade on a review board in Milwaukee. “It’s the church thinking the church is gonna fix the church. It’s not that the review board didn’t do what the review board was asked to do. It’s that it’s the whole wrong approach.”
Picking the boards
Clergy sex abuse has cost more than $4 billion and implicated at least 5,100 priests by the church’s own count since 2002, when the crisis erupted nationwide. Despite promises of accountability, the church has again been forced to reckon with abuse after a damning grand jury report last year on generations of assaults and cover-ups in Pennsylvania spurred investigations across the country.
The review board path is supposed to give victims the opportunity to get validation from the church, especially for cases old enough that statutes of limitations prevent them from being tried in court. While dioceses are expected to report possible crimes to authorities, review boards and their findings are entirely separate from secular law enforcement.
The secrecy that is a trademark of many boards starts with how bishops and their administrators select members – perhaps where they exert the most influence.
More than half of the dioceses in the country don’t reveal the names of members of their review boards on their websites. A few published them instead in the Official Catholic Directory, a thick book of church listings retailing for nearly $400. Some dioceses like St. Louis said they didn’t identify members as a “professional courtesy,” and others like Dallas said members could go public if they wanted.
“They know my deepest secret, and I can’t even know what their names or titles are?” said abuse survivor Becky Ianni, who couldn’t get details about board members in Richmond, Virginia. “When you don’t know their names, it’s like going into this darkness.”
Ianni eventually was allowed to speak before a different board in Arlington, Virginia, where member identities were revealed. She called the ordeal in 2007 “pure hell,” and said one member fell asleep and another flipped through a magazine.
The Arlington board ultimately found in Ianni’s favor. The diocese said every survivor that comes before the board must be “listened to with great respect and sincerity.”
Even the official names of boards can mask what they do: the “Independent Fitness Review Board,” the “Conduct Response Team” and the “Ethics and Integrity in Ministry Review Board” are a few.
When board members’ identities do become known, there’s often cause for concern.
In 2002, when mandatory boards were first announced at a bishops’ meeting in Dallas, the proposal called for five or more people of “outstanding integrity and good judgment,” most of them not employed by the diocese. But that policy was watered down due to Vatican-dictated rewrites that stated boards must be “confidential,” they must have at least five members “in full communion with the church” and their duties “may” include advising bishops on abuse allegations.
Over the next year, outsiders foreshadowed problems. The head of a national lay advisory group that bishops created to monitor reforms, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, warned: “We will look rather unkindly at a lawyer for the diocese, a head of Catholic Charities, being on a board – someone who appears to be joined at the hip with the bishop.”
Yet at least 40 bishops have put on boards high-ranking aides and attorneys who defended the church or its priests in sex-assault cases, based on AP’s review of the roughly 80 dioceses that posted member names. That means the same person who reports to the bishop and possibly handles abuse cases for the church could be hearing victims’ allegations, creating a potential conflict of interest. AP found the connections by viewing lawsuits, online biographies and news archives.
In the Archdiocese of Dubuque, Iowa, the seven-member panel includes two priests and two deacons. In Montana, a voting member handles most of the Helena diocese’s legal affairs and guided it through a 2014 bankruptcy spurred by a crush of sex-abuse claims. In West Virginia, another diocesan attorney with voting power this year defended former Wheeling-Charleston Bishop Michael Bransfield against an employee’s assault allegations.
AP even found three cases of clergy serving on boards who themselves faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Two had left the board by the time they were publicly accused. But one joined after a review board in the same diocese had dismissed a complaint against him as “not credible,” and served until a lawsuit named him years later.
Conflict of interest?
Some bishops and review board members disagree that having attorneys and aides involved is a conflict of interest.
In Louisville, Kentucky, where four out of nine board members were church officials or clergy, a consultant this year urged the archdiocese to cut down the number of church employee members to “emphasize the board’s independence.” But Archbishop Joseph Kurtz said through a spokesperson that he didn’t see a problem, especially since one clergy member who served recently was an advocate for victims, and another was himself a survivor. Nonetheless, he said he would follow the recommendation and replace one of two church officials.
John Laun, the review board chair in Louisville and a retired state court judge, said church officials don’t direct the conversation, and noted that the consultant found the archdiocese hadn’t withheld anything. He estimated the board handles four to five cases a year and deems most credible.
“We have always been independent,” Laun said. “The lay members are all strong-willed people from the get-go.”
That was not the experience of Matt Connolly, a survivor and a former member of the Covington, Kentucky, review board. Connolly said he saw a shift in the board’s approach to cases once the diocese became the target of a class-action lawsuit. Its attorney began interjecting, cutting off discussions and cautioning members not to broach subjects the diocese feared could be raised in court.
Members were also discouraged from writing notes or leaving with documents. In many dioceses, AP found, members are required to sign non-disclosure agreements, and some policies don’t allow them to take or keep detailed minutes of meetings.
“They’ve got people who are going to follow the line and keep it secret,” Connolly said. “Everybody’s a tool of the bishop.”
Ultimately, for reasons Connolly does not know, he and all his colleagues were replaced in a single swoop around 2009.
The AP asked the Covington diocese for a response from Bishop Roger Foys. The diocese instead directed a reporter to Bill Burleigh, a former news executive who now chairs the review board. Burleigh described its members as “independent thinking,” adding that characterizations of them as pawns of the hierarchy are “not the board I’m familiar with.”
Burleigh defended Foys as a strong bishop. He added that some Catholic laypeople have tried to speak as frankly as possible to the church hierarchy, but recognize that final judgment is up to the bishops, “some of whom have acquitted themselves and some of whom have fallen short.”
Some attorneys and aides on boards have votes, while others are consultants. But either way, their presence at meetings can make for a grueling experience for victims.
Lasher, the furniture design company owner, said the chairwoman of the St. Petersburg board interrupted him as he tried to recount how a priest had molested him as a boy in his own home, taken him to bath houses and forced oral sex.
“We already know it,” he quoted her as saying.
Then the church’s defense attorney started pelting questions: Did he remember the color of the bath houses’ walls? Could he name anyone there?
Others joined in. It became so intense that Lasher cried.
“It was like a corporate meeting,” he recalled, “and I’m the one being fired.”
Near the end, according to Lasher and three others in the room, the church attorney told members there was no evidence the now-deceased priest had abused others, and a bishop’s aide on the board called the cleric “beloved.”
A month later, a letter from the attorney said the board thought his testimony was articulate and believable, but members “could not conclude anything to substantiate the allegation.” The diocese left the priest off its list of “credibly” accused clergy.
“David goes in and bares his soul, thinking….Jesus is merciful, and Jesus wants the right thing for everyone,” said legal advocate Peter Schweitzer, a former priest who works with dozens of survivors and was at the meeting. “And that doesn’t happen.”
The attorney for the St. Petersburg diocese, Joseph DiVito, said he couldn’t discuss the specifics of Lasher’s case, but that he wasn’t mistreated by the board.
“My recollection is very different,” DiVito said. “Look, the review board met at 6:30. They’re all volunteers. They hadn’t been home to eat dinner. He probably saw some plates and food. But I assure you it wasn’t a party.”
DiVito said when the accused is dead, it’s considered an unsubstantiated case because there’s no way to determine what happened.
Some abuse survivors say clergy are not always an obstacle to justice on the review boards. Ann Phillips Browning filed a formal complaint in 2010 to the Kalamazoo, Michigan, diocese about her abuse as a teen decades ago by a visiting cleric from India. She said a local priest who was also a licensed counselor informed review board members about trauma, positively influenced the bishop and “made all the difference in the world.”
“Without fail, everyone who asked a question was very, very kind, very trauma informed, very affirming,” Browning said.
The diocese ultimately found her report credible, records show. The cleric was criminally charged months ago as part of a Michigan attorney general probe.
Dr. Jim Richter, a survivor of priest abuse, also praised the St. Paul-Minneapolis board he serves on. However, he said he has become convinced that some boards are full of “unqualified, well-meaning, but ultimately incompetent” members.
“It is absolutely possible that you could be walking into, at worst, a den of wolves,” he said.
Controlling the process
Bishops and their aides decide whether to investigate a complaint at all based on a “semblance of truth” – a term that is interpreted differently by dioceses and allows room to drop cases, records show.
In Illinois, for example, preliminary findings from the attorney general’s probe said the process used in the state’s six dioceses ranges from too complex to too general, is “a mystery” to survivors and lets dioceses operate in a “non-transparent manner.” Dead priests there commonly get a pass, even if their victims are still suffering, and cases against those accused by a single person aren’t pursued aggressively despite “reason to believe that survivor.”
In Missouri, the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese didn’t always tell the review board about complaints against priests or give members all the evidence, according to an outside report commissioned by the diocese in 2011. Such failures enabled one priest to stay on duty for several months after church workers found child pornography on his computer. In the end, he was caught again with more pornography and arrested, and Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of failing to report child abuse to secular authorities. Finn was sentenced to two years of probation.
In Philadelphia, then-chair Ana Maria Catanzaro said she was stunned when a 2011 grand jury named 37 accused priests who had remained in ministry and slammed her review board for disregarding “very convincing evidence,” leading to decisions “devoid of common sense.” Catanzaro said the archdiocese had sent the board allegations for only 10 priests, and did not share information such as priests’ psychological evaluations. She left the board in 2012.
“Little did I know they were lying to my face,” Catanzaro said of the church hierarchy. “They lied to me just like they lied to everyone else.”
The archdiocese did not respond to requests for comment.
The evidence brought before the board is key to the outcome of a case, said Jennifer Haselberger, a canon lawyer and former top official for three dioceses in the Midwest. She raised concerns about whether officials at the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese were telling the board everything they knew, enabling some troubled priests to stay in ministry.
She resigned in 2013 after her efforts went nowhere. An internal task force created months later by the archdiocese issued a report that backed many of her concerns, including that church officials had “sometimes failed to inform the clergy review board of allegations.”
Boards remain at the mercy of the dioceses, Haselberger said – and “that’s really the problem.”
How bishops exert their power over the board varies from diocese to diocese.
Some use professional investigators to look into cases, and have demanded survivors’ counseling, school, bank and even gynecological records, along with information on how often they attended Mass. Some restrict questioning of victims by board members. At least one diocese – Springfield, Mass. – explicitly bars survivors involved in lawsuits from bringing their attorneys to board meetings.
Bishops may even decide whether victims appear before the board at all.
Riley Kinn was assured he’d have that opportunity after he brought his report of abuse by a priest at his high school to the Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, in 2017. A contracting job in 2015 had taken him back to the rectory where it happened, triggering a panic attack. He suffered a recurring nightmare where the priest waited in a school hallway trying to pull him into an empty classroom.
The diocese sent a retired police detective to interview him, and the investigator took names of others who could back his account. Kinn reiterated that he wanted to speak to the board. But months later, he learned by letter that the board had found his allegations “unsubstantiated” – without hearing from him or any other possible victims he named.
“I was like, really? Unsubstantiated?” Kinn said. “I asked myself, ‘What kind of investigation did they do?”
The decision was especially perplexing because the same priest had already been found credibly accused in another case in 2003, and the diocese had paid a settlement. In a January meeting, Bishop Daniel Thomas said he “can’t go into details,” according to a recording Kinn secretly made and shared with AP.
“It’s like they didn’t care,” said Kinn, who spiraled emotionally and two months later checked himself into a hospital with suicidal thoughts. “Now I’m even more traumatized.”
The bishop declined to comment on the case. In a written statement, Toledo Diocese spokeswoman Kelly Donaghy said the review board, whose member names aren’t posted, doesn’t promise victims they can testify, but examines each case in turn.
When survivors of abuse do come before the board, they frequently emerge from the process scarred. Joseph Capozzi, who reported his abuse in 2005, was pressed by the board in Newark, N.J., on everything from the appearance of the pills he was drugged with to particulars about the pornography the priest showed him.
“The church needs to stay out of any of this,” Capozzi said. “They have shown themselves, time and time again, to not be able to deal with the truth.”
The criteria board members use to substantiate an allegation are set by the bishops and vary: “believable and plausible,” “more likely than not,” or “strong suspicion.” It’s difficult to know how often boards decide for or against victims in general because of their secretiveness. The bishops’ conference collects some national statistics about review boards that is self-reported by dioceses, but does not make the information public and declined to share the numbers with AP.
Illinois’ attorney general, in a preliminary report last year, found three out of four allegations in the state either were not investigated or not substantiated by review boards. Outside investigators found this year that the Denver archdiocese similarly failed to investigate or substantiate dozens of reports.
Through interviews and documents, AP found dozens of other cases where review boards rejected cases later affirmed by courts and authorities.
In Pittsburgh, a priest who had remained active despite multiple allegations of sex assault was only removed from ministry when a 2018 grand jury identified him as an offender.
In Philadelphia, grand jurors in 2011 cited the case of a former altar boy who described his molestation with precision, backed by the testimony of others, and whose complaint echoed one brought a year earlier. The review board, unconvinced, rejected the case as “unsubstantiated.” But the conclusion from jurors was simple: “Obvious credibility.”
Less than a year after the review board ruling, the former altar boy killed himself. His mother said that in a lifetime scarred with pain, the ruling stood out for her son.
And in Iowa, Katie Bowman’s case exemplifies how a secular review can draw a different conclusion from the same facts.
Bowman’s parents welcomed into their religious home three priests who molested her, she said, starting when she was around 4.
The horror would drive her later to bite her tongue until she bled, and cut herself. The clues remain today, with her left arm pockmarked by cigarette burns, and the underside of her right wrist bearing the word “resilient” tattooed in black script. She has survived four suicide attempts, and not wanting to die is still a new feeling for her.
In 2011, the 54-year-old social worker reported the abuse to the church. An investigator for the Davenport diocese interviewed Bowman’s therapists, and a friend vouched that she had revealed the abuse a decade before. She also signed more than a dozen releases allowing access to her pediatrician, school and employee records.
“I thought you were investigating the priest, not me,” she remembered thinking.
In January 2012, Bowman and her husband went to diocesan headquarters to meet the review board, passing by a monument for sex-abuse victims.
Because Davenport was in bankruptcy proceedings, Bowman also had to meet with a court-appointed arbitrator, Richard Calkins. He has assessed claims from about a thousand victims nationwide and found a “preponderance of evidence” proved she was abused. He authorized the maximum payout under the bankruptcy settlement: $83,114.53.
“When you do enough of these, you can almost sense when they’re true,” Calkins said in an interview.
Two months later, in Bowman’s mailbox, was a letter from the Davenport review board chairwoman.
“There is no doubt in the minds of any of us on the review board that you suffered abuses,” the letter said. “We are not saying that we don’t believe you – we do.”
The board still ruled against her. It would take a judge to force the diocese to add Bowman’s three abusers to its list of credibly accused clergy, as part of a bankruptcy process.
Board chairwoman Chris McCormick Pries stood behind the finding in an interview. She said Bowman was the lone accuser and when priests are deceased, as hers were, the diocese applies a higher standard of proof – “clear and convincing.”
McCormick Pries, who has chaired the board nearly 15 years, said she’s disgusted by the church’s abuse problem, too. She said review boards are a positive step and, like other members, treats the work as “a sacred trust.”
“Can anyone police themselves from the inside? I think the answer is yes,” she said. “Who better to solve the problems of the church than those who love the church?”
Joey Piscitelli disagrees. The board in San Francisco deemed his abuse allegations not credible in 2004 without contacting him. After he questioned the outcome, he was told the investigation was reopened, but the same thing happened. A jury later awarded him $600,000.
“They’re playing judge, jury and God and who gives them that authority?” he asked. “You know who could play judge and jury? An actual court.”
Even when a review board affirms a victim’s case, the bishop does not have to follow its ruling.
Erin Brady was raped by a priest when she was a third-grader, and won a $2 million settlement from the archdiocese of Los Angeles. In 2009, after the priest transferred to Santa Rosa, California, Brady pushed for his removal there. The review board was impressed by her clarity and precision, one member recalled, and recommended the priest’s ouster.
“She was eminently believable,” psychologist Tony Madrid said. “She was telling the truth.”
But Bishop Daniel Walsh did nothing. He retired in 2011, and a message left at the San Francisco church where he lives was not returned.
Walsh’s successor, Bishop Robert Vasa, said he found his review board “extremely responsive and attentive” and didn’t know why his predecessor made the decision he did.
“It’s a difficult decision-making process and fairness and equity have to be a part of it,” he said.
Brady’s abuser remained a priest in good standing until he retired two years later. It wasn’t until January, five years after the priest died, that Santa Rosa published a list of “credibly” accused clergy with his name on it.
“I knew they wouldn’t do anything,” Brady said.
When a bishop accepts the board’s recommendation, church law still allows a priest to pursue his case with the Vatican.
Browning, the woman who praised the Kalamazoo review board for finding in her favor in 2010, was later let down by the Vatican. In Rome, officials said the priest was in bad health and simply instructed him to say a prayer each Friday for victims, according to Browning.
“I don’t want his prayers, thank you very much,” Browning said. “I just wanted to puke.”
Despite the Kalamazoo diocese’s intervention with the Vatican on Browning’s behalf, the priest has continued to preside at celebrations and make public appearances over the past eight years, as shown in online videos. The Vatican didn’t do anything.
“I get the impression,” Browning said, “it is not a priority.”