By Stephanie Simon
ATLANTA (Reuters) - New allegations of child sexual abuse against U.S. Roman Catholic priests have declined, and children are safer due to measures taken to protect them, a national review board said on Wednesday in a generally positive report to U.S. bishops meeting on a range of divisive issues facing the Church.
Al Notzon III, chairman of a lay review board set up by the bishops to deal with child sexual abuse, praised the progress even as he acknowledged that some dioceses have failed to comply with the church's new policies on sexual abuse, including regular reviews by external auditors.
He did not spell out any consequences, only that bishops should "continue to take seriously the harm done to the church" of non-compliance.
Victims' support groups sharply criticized the reports' findings.
David Clohessy, director of the victims' support group SNAP, said the bishops' discussion "was sad, predictable and disappointing." He pointed to several cases in recent years, and even recent weeks, where church authorities did not discipline or remove priests who have pleaded guilty to sexual abuse or had credible allegations made against them.
"As long as those who conceal child sex crimes get absolutely no punishment, nothing will change," Clohessy said.
Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of another victims' advocacy group, Bishop Accountability, called the report "feckless" and "timorous" for failing to impose tough consequences.
"With their gutless report today, National Review Board members gratified the bishops but failed their fellow Catholics," said Doyle.
Bishop Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Illinois, said the bishops had no intention of looking back at allegations of abuse years in the past and holding church authorities responsible for ignoring the reports or transferring accused priests to other parishes.
"I'm not sure there's any effective way... the Conference of Catholic Bishops is going to address that," Conlon said.
In the largely positive progress report issued a decade after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved a new protocol for dealing with sexual abuse, Notzon said that "there has been a striking improvement in the church's response to and treatment of victims."
"Children are safer now," Notzon said.
Notzon referred to a study by John Jay College that found allegations of abuse rose in 1960s, peaked in 1970s and declined sharply in the 1980s. More than 15,000 victims have come forward in the past decade, he said, but the number of new allegations was declining.
But Notzon said there have been more allegations of late of priests engaging in "boundary violations," such as inappropriate tickling or roughhousing or telling dirty jokes.
Notzon chalked up some of the "boundary violations" incidents to foreign-born priests who do not understand U.S. culture, though victims advocate Clohessy called that absurd and insulting. "Priests are highly educated men. They know what's appropriate," Clohessy said.
Notzon recommended that bishops systematically evaluate clergy serving in their archdiocese and make it a priority to nurture their spiritual, intellectual and physical health. The evaluation processes, he suggested, could be similar to annual job reviews in secular professions.
"We must never let our guard down," Notzon said, as he warned against growing complacency within the Church.
The report came as a Philadelphia jury debates charges against Monsignor William Lynn that he covered up child sex abuse allegations, often by transferring accused priests to unsuspecting parishes. Lynn is the most senior U.S. Catholic clergyman to go on trial in the pedophilia cases.
In the audience in Atlanta was Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, who will face criminal trial this fall for allegedly failing to report a priest involved with child pornography.
One bishop, rising to express frustration midway through Notzon's presentation, said he was not clear why victims' groups "continue to be very critical of the bishops" and urged the lay board to reach out to them to explain "the extraordinary work you've done" in shaping the church's response to the crisis over the past decade.
Notzon acknowledged the church's public relations problem, saying that many still believe abuse continues to happen. "It's a trust issue," he said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Simon in Atlanta; Editing by Jackie Frank)