Challenges remaining for diocese

The reforms announced Monday by the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese in regard to addressing allegations of child sex abuse are an encouraging step that all should welcome.

Still, there are unanswered questions that many parishioners of this diocese likely are harboring in the aftermath of the news conference at which the positive moves were announced by Bishop Mark Bartchak and acting Western District of Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney Soo C. Song.

To briefly recap:

– A five-member Independent Oversight Board for Youth Protection, whose mission will be to advise diocesan officials on child abuse prevention and enforcement, will be established.

– All members of the current review board, which is charged with advising the bishop on abuse cases, will be replaced.

– Diocesan officials will be required to contact law enforcement within 12 hours of a credible abuse claim, remove a suspect from contact with minors immediately and place him or her on leave within a day. The diocese also will publicly report suspects’ names, photographs and assignment histories.

– There will be new roles and continuing affiliations with outside entities, such as those that will prepare new policies and procedures and operate a 24-hour child abuse hotline. The diocese also will employ a new director of youth protection and provide free mental health care access for victims.

– The diocese will partner with sexual assault crisis centers.

– Members of the clergy, as well as non-clergy employees of the diocese, will be required to participate in mandatory training related to the horrific child-sex-abuse issue. There also will be occasional reviews of employees’ computer and internet use.

Bartchak described the steps as a commitment to improve the diocese’s handling of abuse. His sincerity and determination shouldn’t be questioned, although clergy-sex-abuse victims of the past four decades rightly remain steadfast in their belief that what’s being done now is too little and too late.

They’re probably wondering why it took a year beyond a state grand jury report on diocese sex-abuse cases released last March by the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office to reach this point in terms of assembling a purportedly meaningful and adequate response.

They also remain troubled by the state Legislature’s stance on the statute of limitations covering the sex-abuse cases, as well as the diocese’s opposition to lifting current limitations that prevent victims from decades ago to seek monetary damages.

While Bartchak didn’t provide a definite answer Monday on whether the diocese would publish financial records, there’s another big question going forward dealing with money:

What diocesan funds will be used to pay financial obligations tied to Monday’s announcement? Will that money come from general funds that individual parishes forward to the diocese from their collection baskets or parish activities, or will annual Diocesan Stewardship Appeal revenue be tapped to pay those bills?

There’s no reason to doubt the correctness of the acting U.S. attorney’s observation that the measures announced this week are “a clear, definitive break from the past.”

“This agreement puts victims first,” she said. But the sex-abuse nightmare will continue haunting the diocese, regardless of the reforms.

Recovering from something so awful and restoring the trust that has been undermined or lost will be an ongoing challenge even after Bartchak’s leadership of the diocese has ended.