David Lasher stands for a portrait at his home in Carlsbad, Calif., on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. When Lasher reported sexual abuse by a priest to an independent review board, the board ruled against him. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Facing thousands of clergy sex-abuse cases, U.S. Catholic leaders addressed their greatest crisis in the modern era with a promised reform: Mandatory review boards.

These independent panels with lay people in each diocese would review allegations fairly and kindly. And they would help bishops ensure that no abusive priests stayed in ministry.

But almost two decades later, an Associated Press investigation of review boards across the country shows they have broadly failed to uphold these commitments. Instead, review boards appointed by bishops and operating in secrecy have routinely undermined sex abuse claims from victims, shielded accused priests and helped the church avoid payouts.

The AP also found dozens of cases in which boards rejected complaints, only to have them later validated by secular authorities. In a few instances, board members were themselves clergy accused of sexual misconduct. And many abuse survivors told the AP they faced hostility and humiliation from boards.

When a man in Ohio braced to tell a panel of strangers how a priest had raped him, one of them, to his disbelief, was knitting a pink sweater. When a terrified woman in Iowa told a board her story of abuse, one member was asleep. And when David Lasher went before a room that included the church defense attorney, he was grilled until he wept.

“It’s a sham. It’s a cover-up,” said Lasher, 56, who told the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Florida, board about his sexual abuse in April. “It’s all about protecting the church.”

The board ruled against Lasher, and the diocese stopped paying for his counseling. AP does not typically name sex abuse victims, but Lasher and others opted to be identified.

Several bishops contacted by the AP, including St. Petersburg’s Gregory Parkes, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Some referred reporters to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which also didn’t respond to interview requests.

Others, such as Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, said that while improvements are possible, review boards are living up to the promises of the reforms mandated in 2002.

“They are critical to regaining the trust and confidence of our people, who rightly believe in increased lay involvement in such matters,” said Lori, who served on the conference’s sex abuse committee back then.

Clergy sex abuse has cost more than $4 billion and implicated at least 5,100 priests by the church’s own count since 2002. The church has been forced to reckon with abuse again after a damning grand jury report in Pennsylvania last year.

The review board path is supposed to give victims the opportunity at validation from the church, especially for cases old enough that statutes of limitations prevent them from being tried in court. While dioceses are expected to report possible crimes to authorities, review boards are intended to advise bishops on the church’s internal response and their findings are entirely separate from secular law enforcement.

However, at least a dozen reports by government investigators and outside consultants with access to church documents have questioned the independence of boards, their treatment of victims or their thoroughness.

In Colorado, an investigator jointly appointed by the state and church recently said Denver’s board showed too much bias for the archdiocese and little understanding of sexual assault and trauma. A 2016 grand jury investigating Pennsylvania’s Altoona-Johnstown diocese called the board’s work a cover-up cloaked “in the guise of advocacy,” with members focused on “fact-finding for litigation” in case the victim sued.

“It’s all internal. That’s the problem,” said Rev. James Connell, who served nearly a decade on Milwaukee’s review board. “It’s not that the review board didn’t do what the review board was asked to do. It’s that it’s the whole wrong approach.”

Bishops have appointed church defense attorneys and top aides to boards, AP found. In more than half of the dioceses, though, member names aren’t posted on church websites or in the Official Catholic Directory, leaving victims uninformed over who will hear their case.

Some bishops and review board members say that having diocesan attorneys and church officials involved isn’t a conflict of interest. John Laun, the board chair in Louisville, Kentucky, said the church officials who serve as members there don’t direct the conversation.

“We have always been independent,” he said. “The lay members are all strong-willed people from the get-go.”

Bishops also choose which cases go to the review board, what evidence members see and what criteria is used to decide if an allegation is “substantiated” or “credible.” And sometimes, even where boards found cases credible, bishops ignored the findings, as they are empowered to do.

Knowing how often review boards decide for or against victims is difficult in general because of their secretiveness. The bishops’ conference collects some national statistics about boards that is self-reported by dioceses, but doesn’t make the information public and declined to share the numbers with AP.

Ann Phillips Browning was among the survivors whose allegations were deemed credible. She credited the Kalamazoo, Michigan, diocese for its sensitivity when she addressed the board in 2010.

“Without fail, everyone who asked a question was very, very kind, very trauma informed, very affirming,” she said.

Yet in dozens of other cases, AP found, boards rejected cases later affirmed by courts and authorities. In San Francisco, members deemed Joey Piscitelli’s abuse allegations not credible in 2004 without contacting him. A jury later awarded him $600,000.

“They’re playing judge, jury and God and who gives them that authority?” he asked. “You know who could play judge and jury? An actual court.”

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