The Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph, which spans 10 Midwestern states, asked experts in clergy sex abuse to provide a full accounting of abuse by examining all the order's records. Advocates for victims said it was the broadest attempt at transparency by any part of the American church.
The auditors found the Province of St. Joseph hid abuse from parents and police, kept offenders in ministry long after their misconduct was known, and spent far more on defense attorneys than on helping victims.
Some friars showed compassion to victims. But they were thwarted when the order and the insurance company that covered settlement to victims allowed lawyers to take a win-at-all-costs strategy in civil lawsuits that was unnecessary and undermined the moral standing of the church, according to the findings.
"For much of the history of the province, we have failed victims," said the Rev. John Celichowski, the provincial minister, or leader, of the Province of St. Joseph, in a conference call with reporters. "We realize it will take years and many concrete gestures to restore the trust we lost."
Much of the detail in the report was previously known. In 1992, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on abuse at St. Lawrence Seminary High School, a boys' boarding school that the order runs in Mount Calvary, Wis., about 70 miles north of Milwaukee. The religious order was compelled to publicly confront the issue for the first time, and hired a law firm to investigate and issue findings.
However, the latest audit included names of friars with confirmed allegations of abuse, and it discovered additional victims. The report included the names of 23 friars who the auditors could confirm were guilty of sexual misconduct. In abuse investigations elsewhere, only a small number of church leaders have released the names of accused priests in a diocese or religious order.
The investigation also stands out for the way it was conducted. The Province of St. Joseph is the first in the church to voluntarily open records to outside experts and release details of how individual leaders failed to protect children.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has commissioned studies on abuse claims and hires auditors to check current child safety programs. But those reports contain general statistics without naming specific dioceses, the accused priests or the bishops who supervised them.
The three auditors hired by the Province of St. Joseph included the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who was ostracized by bishops after his early warnings in the 1980s about the scope of the abuse problem and has since become an advocate for victims.
Doyle credits Celichowski and the order for "prophetic foresight to do what they have done." The Province of St. Joseph, one of several branches of Capuchin Franciscans, is based in Detroit and has just 174 members with ministries mainly in the Midwest. Still, Doyle said he hoped it would prompt others in the church "to have the courage and the Christian decency to do the same thing."
Peter Isely, Midwest director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, called the report "a good start" and "a very long overdue validation to victims." But he said the audit lacked the true transparency of a grand jury report.
Isely, 52, was sexually assaulted as a student at St. Lawrence Seminary. He said he was particularly disturbed by the finding that, despite the cooperation of the province members, the auditors found little documentation of the abuse cases in the order's files.
The auditors said they interviewed victims, attorneys, friars, former friars and lay people who had worked in the province, while also reviewing minutes of meetings of the Provincial Council, a governing body of the order, dating back to the 1930s. The records contained "coded language" such as "immorality" or "evil actions and speech" to describe molestation, making it impossible for the auditors to determine in some cases whether abuse had occurred. The auditors said the lack of detail reflected a widespread mindset in the order that they should protect fellow friars who had been accused.
Among the other findings in the report:
— Friars ignored Wisconsin laws enacted in 1965, and strengthened over the years, that required adults to report child abuse;
— Auditors found twice as many victims at St. Lawrence Seminary as had been previously known, increasing the total from 14 to 28;
— The insurer responsible for the St. Lawrence Seminary victims spent about $855,500 on defense costs and only about $107,000 on settlements with victims;
— The panel investigated accusations against an additional 23 friars, but could not confirm the claims, in part because of poor record-keeping by the religious order;
— In one case, a defense attorney threatened to reveal the sexual orientation of a victim if he testified in a criminal trial. In another case, girls who had been molested by a priest were told to keep the abuse secret and go to confession.
Auditors said the Province of St. Joseph has made dramatic improvements in recent years in its response to abuse claims, including reaching out with compassion to victims and their families, and spending far more on counseling and other support for victims than for legal defense.