NEW YORK — Nearly five years after the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis entered settlement with civil authorities over its mishandling of child sex abuse cases, an independent review of its protection policies finds the archdiocese new policies “are good in comparison to other archdioceses in the U.S.”

The final report was released on May 15 and conducted by CHILD USA, a research-based think tank that promotes child protection policy improvements, and compared the archdiocese’s policies to that of the other 31 archdiocesan policies around the country. 

“Policies must be monitored and evaluated to ensure they are being followed and determine if adjustments are needed. Policies are best viewed as ‘continuous improvement documents,’” write the CHILD USA investigators. “Therefore, suggestions and recommendations should be encouraged and policies should be reviewed and revised regularly.”

The 79-page report identified four major areas — prevention, detection, care for victims, and investigation — along with 14 specific types of policies in which they conducted a qualitative review. Researchers noted that such a review was, at times difficult given the fact that there are not uniform standards for all 32 archdioceses, hence the lack of empirical standards for such a study. 

Even so, they found that the archdiocese’s policies on victim assistance, victim’s rights, public transparency, along with the archdiocese’s Review Board policy and its policy on conducting investigations are also among the best of the written policies available in the country. Further, they noted that it is the only archdiocese in the United States with a policy on handling evidence and that it has the strongest whistleblower protection policy of all the U.S. archdioceses.

As for improvement, the report concluded that the archdiocese needs the most improvement in its policies of Detection and Reporting of abuse, specifically when it comes to background screenings. The report notes that there is no written policy on background screening of third-party contractors who come into contact with minors, and observes that the archdioceses of Cincinnati, New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C. offer the strongest written background policies. 

The report is also critical of the seal of confession, with researchers arguing that the “compelling interest in stopping child predators should outweigh the interest in secrecy even in confession.” The report recommends that at the very least, archdiocesan policy should specify who is a mandated reporter of abuse under Minnesota state law and outline their specific responsibilities.

The seal of confession is considered sacrosanct under Church law, and priests face excommunication if they reveal what they hear in confession.

As for in house investigations of abuse allegations, the report applauds the archdiocese for assigning that responsibility to a lay person (the Director of the Office of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment), but notes that the individual is still an employee of the archdiocese. 

“To ensure a credible, impartial investigation, the investigator should be completely independent of the archdiocese,” they note. “In addition, the investigator needs special expertise as crimes involving child abuse, particularly child sexual abuse, are among the most difficult investigated by law enforcement.”

The CHILD USA report is one outcome of the settlement following a petition filed by the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office against the archdiocese in June 2015, regarding three minors who were abused by a priest who served in the archdiocese. 

In June 2015, Archbishop John Nienstedt of Saint Paul-Minneapolis, along with auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche, resigned their posts following a turbulent in-house archdiocesan investigation into claims of sexual misconduct, and just ten days after prosecutors brought charges against the archdiocese for its “failure to protect children.”

Since that time, the archdiocese under the leadership of current Archbishop Bernard Hebda, who has led the archdiocese since May 2016 has been viewed by many Church observers as a test case for clergy abuse related reforms.

Yet, the report also comes at a time when a court appointed attorney has alleged that the Vatican is failing to comply with its own protocols for bishop accountability with regard to a potential investigation into Nienstedt. 

RELATED: Court-appointed official says Vatican failing on accountability in Nienstedt case

As Crux reported in March, Hebda submitted a report to the Vatican in August 2019 under the Vatican protocols known as Vos Estis, allegeding two potential violations by Nienstedt. Despite the fact that Vos Estis requires a determination be made within 30 days, more than six months later, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is still waiting for a response.

As for its own in house policies, following the release of the CHILD USA report, the archdiocese has pledged an ongoing revision to its policies. 

“Although we are pleased that ChildUSA found that the policies of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis are among the most comprehensive of all those reviewed, we remain committed to continual improvement,” wrote Tim O’Malley, director of Ministerial Standards and Safe Environment for the archdiocese, upon release of the report.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi also released a statement affirming the ongoing partnership between law enforcement and Church officials. 

“We also remain encouraged by the Archdiocese’s commitment to continual improvement in the area of child protection, including seeking the advice of independent experts in the field of child protection, wrote Choi. “We must continue to remember that the work to protect children is a marathon with no finish line and that there is still much more to accomplish in the years to come.”

Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212