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Bishop James Conley

Bishop James Conley offers holy communion to a student during the "Grandparents Day" all-school mass on Jan. 30, 2014 at Bishop Neumann High School in Wahoo.

For the first time in 13 years, Lincoln’s Catholic Diocese will participate in the next sex abuse audit conducted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops -- thereby ending its unflattering reign as the only diocese in the nation not to take part.

Bishop James D. Conley announced his decision to participate in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People annual audit of the 195 U.S. dioceses and eparchies, in his Sept. 11 column for the Southern Register, the Lincoln Diocese newspaper.

The decision reverses a longstanding and controversial position of Conley’s predecessor Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who since 2003 refused to participate in the audit that looks at sex abuse allegations, investigations and actions in the church.

The Lincoln Diocese will take part in the upcoming audit cycle looking at 2015 (being released in 2016) and then review whether it will continue participating.

The USCCB began the annual audit in 2002, in response to increasing allegations of longtime sexual abuse of children by clergy and subsequent efforts to keep matters quiet. The Lincoln Diocese took part in the audit that first year, but has declined to participate ever since. It is one of six church districts not taking part -- the other five are small eparchies (dioceses unique to certain ethnicities).

Bruskewitz  always had contended that the diocese was in full compliance with civil and church laws and would not benefit from the optional audit.

Conley, who came to the diocese in 2012, said changes in process led him to reverse the diocese’s longstanding position.

“The audit process has improved” since its beginning in 2003, Conley wrote in his column. “It now appears to offer some clear benefit to dioceses that undergo it, with minimal interference in the ministry of the church. It can help bishops hold themselves accountable, and it can offer the virtue of transparency -- an assurance that the church takes child protection seriously.”

Like Bruskewitz, Conley emphasized that the diocese always has been in compliance with civil and church laws pertaining to the protection of children and allegations of abuse.

And, Conley defended Bruskewitz’s longtime position.

“At that time (2003), the process was still being worked out, and it needed refinements,” Conley said. “Legitimate questions were raised about its purpose, practices and methodology. For that reason, the diocese of Lincoln declined to participate in subsequent audits. I believe it was a prudent decision.”

For longtime Call to Action Nebraska board member Rachel Pokora, Conley’s announcement came as “a happy surprise,” said the Nebraska Wesleyan University communications professor and author of "Crisis of Catholic Authority: Faith and Power in the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska.”

Pokora is among local Call to Action Nebraska members, who were excommunicated by Bruskewitz in 1996 for affiliation with groups “perilous” and “incompatible with the Catholic faith.”

The audit was just one of several issues dividing Call to Action Nebraska and the diocese. Among other reforms sought by Call to Action are increased leadership roles for women, including allowing them to become priests, letting priests marry and the inclusion of gays and lesbians.

“We are thrilled to hear this news,” Pokora said. “Our primary concern is the safety of the children.”

Despite the bishop’s decision on the audit, Pokora said there has been no movement on rescinding the excommunication. But she remains hopeful.

She believes Conley’s fellow bishops influenced him through “fraternal correction” to reverse the church’s stance on the audit.

Indeed, in the 2014 audit (released March 2015), auditors took to task the diocese and eparchies who are not participating.

“We cannot emphasize enough, the harm to the church caused by these compliance issues, as well as nonparticipation,” auditors wrote in the 2014 USCCB report. “What happens in one diocese/eparchy is frequently interpreted as happening in all dioceses/eparchies, and this results in all bishops being wrongly judged. When one diocese/eparchy fails to use all available means to protect children, not only is it perceived as a national phenomenon, but also as a lack of commitment by the bishops to take seriously the charter and the protection of children.

“The charter, while not law, is a moral contract the bishops made with the faithful in 2002. With that document, they promised to heal the pains of the past and pledged to protect children in the future,” the report states. “The audit is proof of that pledge and a visible sign to the faithful of the bishops’ ongoing commitment.”

In the report, auditors note the process has evolved over the years, and that it is less a document detailing wrongdoing and more about accountability, policies and procedures churches can use to strengthen programs and protect its people, auditors said.

“When a diocese/eparchy fails to utilize the audit, it is difficult to prove full compliance of the Charter. They are failing not only themselves and their brother bishops but also the faithful,” the report stated.

Although annual audits list the Lincoln Diocese as “noncompliant” for its refusal to participate, Conley noted that the diocese has “participated in most of the recommendations of the voluntary ‘Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.'”

Prior to making his decision on the audit, Conley consulted with the Diocesan Presbyteral Council, an advisory body of priests, and with the Diocesan Review board, a lay-led council formed to review policies and practices regarding safe environment issues.

Conley said following the 2015 audit that the diocese will review whether it will continue to participate in the future.

And he is confident that the report to be issued in 2016 will find Lincoln in compliance.

“(The audit) is an evaluative device,” Conley said. “I believe it will demonstrate clearly that the Diocese of Lincoln does an excellent job creating safe environments for children.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.

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