Watch CBSN Live

Abuse Scandal Dogs U.S. Catholics

U.S. Catholic bishops on Tuesday claimed progress against sexual abuse, but word of 800 new molestation lawsuits in California courts indicated the church has yet to put the two-year scandal behind it.

According to a church audit released Tuesday, nearly all of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops are carrying out a new mandatory policy they adopted to prevent sex abuse by priests.

The review found 90 percent of the 195 U.S. dioceses were fully complying with the plan, which dictates how guilty priests should be punished and requires bishops to take steps to protect children. Among those considered out of compliance are the archdioceses of New York; Anchorage, Alaska; and Omaha, Neb.

The bishops adopted the reforms in June 2002, at the height of the scandal, which began two years ago this week with revelations about a single predatory priest in the Archdiocese of Boston. The files showed church officials let the priest serve even after repeated allegations of abuse.

The crisis spread to every American diocese. Since then, more than 1,000 people have come forward with abuse allegations against dioceses across the country. The charges have led to large financial claims against the church, the resignation of top officials and the prosecution of priests.

To pay the largest settlement allowed to date, the Boston diocese is selling its official residence to help raise $85 million it has agreed to pay victims.

An even larger possible settlement looms in California, where about 800 people across California took advantage of a 12-month window that ended Dec. 31 to file molestation lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church, according to lawyers for the plaintiffs.

The flood of litigation is the result of a California law that took effect Jan. 1, 2003, lifting for one year the statute of limitations for molestation lawsuits.

About 500 of the cases are against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest, while another 175 are spread among the dioceses of Orange, San Diego and San Bernardino, said attorney Ray Boucher, whose office is handling filings for 320 plaintiffs in Southern California.

Boucher has said a settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles could surpass the Boston's settlement with alleged victims, currently the largest in the country.

In some cases, the dioceses aren't yet sure of the total number of lawsuits they face. At least one diocese was still being served with new lawsuits Monday.

The bishops' audit was conducted by the Gavin Group of Boston, a firm led by a former FBI official, and overseen by Kathleen McChesney, a former top FBI agent and head of the bishops' watchdog Office of Child and Youth Protection.

To check on the effort to carry out the reforms, the auditors — mostly former FBI agents or investigators — traveled the country from June to October in small teams, interviewing bishops, diocesan personnel, victims, abusive priests, prosecutors and lay people.

Critics said the study was fundamentally flawed. Victim advocates said bishops had too much control of how the audit was conducted, so it should be viewed skeptically.

The bishops recommended whom the auditors should interview. And according to the report, auditors were unable to view personnel files that would verify whether bishops were complying with the policy's ban on transferring offenders from one diocese to another.

"Essentially, bishops have defined the rules of the game, decided who plays, paid the umpires and are now declaring themselves the winners," said Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

McChesney defended the audit, saying investigators spoke with people outside the church. She said she was confident the reports were accurate.

"Considering it's only been about a year since people have been working on it, there's been a lot of progress, but nobody is going to tell you that it's all been done," McChesney told The Associated Press last week.

For example, some larger dioceses have yet to complete training for all their workers on preventing and identifying abuse.

The new policy not only requires bishops to bar guilty clergy from all public church-related work, but also mandates that the prelates take steps to prevent molestation, such as conducting background checks on all diocesan priests and lay workers and training them to identify abuse.

The audit was meant to help enforce the reforms and will be conducted annually. However, there is no mechanism to sanction those who don't comply. Under church law, each diocese is autonomous and bishops answer to the Vatican, not each other.

A second and potentially more important study, also commissioned by the bishops, is scheduled to be released Feb. 27. It will attempt to tally every church abuse case in the country since 1950.

View CBS News In