When survivors of abuse do come before the board, they frequently emerge from the process scarred. Joseph Capozzi, who reported his abuse in 2005, was pressed by the board in Newark, N.J., on everything from the appearance of the pills he was drugged with to particulars about the pornography the priest showed him.
"The church needs to stay out of any of this," Capozzi said. "They have shown themselves, time and time again, to not be able to deal with the truth."
The criteria board members use to substantiate an allegation are set by the bishops and vary: "believable and plausible," "more likely than not," and "strong suspicion." It's difficult to know how often boards decide for or against victims in general because of their secretiveness. The bishops’ conference collects some national statistics about review boards that is self-reported by dioceses, but does not make the information public and declined to share the numbers with AP.
Illinois’ attorney general, in a preliminary report last year, found three out of four allegations in the state either were not investigated or not substantiated by review boards. Outside investigators found this year that the Denver archdiocese similarly failed to investigate or substantiate dozens of reports.
Through interviews and documents, AP found dozens of other cases where review boards rejected cases later affirmed by courts and authorities.
In Pittsburgh, a priest who had remained active despite multiple allegations of sex assault was removed from ministry only after a 2018 grand jury identified him as an offender.
In Philadelphia, grand jurors in 2011 cited the case of a former altar boy who described his molestation with precision, backed by the testimony of others, and whose complaint echoed one brought a year earlier. The review board rejected the case as "unsubstantiated." But the conclusion from jurors was simple: "Obvious credibility."
Less than a year after the review board ruling, the former altar boy killed himself. His mother said that in a lifetime scarred with pain, the ruling stood out for her son.
And in Iowa, Katie Bowman's case exemplifies how a secular review can draw a different conclusion from the same facts.
Bowman's parents welcomed into their religious home three priests who molested her, she said, starting when she was around 4.
The horror would drive her later to bite her tongue until she bled, and cut herself. The clues remain today, with her left arm pockmarked by cigarette burns, and the underside of her right wrist bearing the word "resilient" tattooed in black script. She has survived four suicide attempts, and not wanting to die is still a new feeling for her.
In 2011, the 54-year-old social worker reported the abuse to the church. An investigator for the Davenport diocese interviewed Bowman’s therapists, and a friend vouched that she had revealed the abuse a decade before. She also signed more than a dozen releases allowing access to her pediatrician, school and employee records.
"I thought you were investigating the priest, not me," she remembered thinking.
In January 2012, Bowman and her husband went to diocesan headquarters to meet the review board, passing by a monument for sex-abuse victims.
Because Davenport was in bankruptcy proceedings, Bowman also had to meet with a court-appointed arbitrator, Richard Calkins. He has assessed claims from about 1,000 victims nationwide and found that a "preponderance of evidence" proved she was abused. He authorized the maximum payout under the bankruptcy settlement: $83,114.53.
"When you do enough of these, you can almost sense when they're true," Calkins said in an interview.
Two months later, in Bowman's mailbox, was a letter from the Davenport review board chairwoman.
"There is no doubt in the minds of any of us on the review board that you suffered abuses," the letter said. "We are not saying that we don't believe you — we do."
But the board still ruled against her. It would take a judge to force the diocese to add Bowman's three abusers to its list of credibly accused clergy, as part of a bankruptcy process.
Board chairwoman Chris McCormick Pries stood behind the finding in an interview. She said Bowman was the lone accuser and when priests are deceased, as hers were, the diocese applies a higher standard of proof — "clear and convincing."
McCormick Pries, who has chaired the board for nearly 15 years, said she's disgusted by the church's abuse problem. She said review boards are a positive step, and that she, like other members, treats the work as "a sacred trust."
"Can anyone police themselves from the inside? I think the answer is yes," she said. "Who better to solve the problems of the church than those who love the church?"
Joey Piscitelli disagrees. The board in San Francisco deemed his abuse allegations not credible in 2004 without contacting him. After he questioned the outcome, he was told the investigation was reopened, but the same thing happened. 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."
Even when a review board affirms a victim's case, the bishop does not have to follow its ruling.
Erin Brady was raped by a priest when she was a third-grader, and won a $2 million settlement from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. In 2009, after the priest transferred to Santa Rosa, California, Brady sought his removal there. The review board was impressed by her clarity and precision, one member recalled, and recommended the priest's ouster.
"She was eminently believable," psychologist Tony Madrid said. "She was telling the truth."
But Bishop Daniel Walsh did nothing. He retired in 2011, and a message left at the San Francisco church where he lives was not returned.
Walsh's successor, Bishop Robert Vasa, said he found his review board "extremely responsive and attentive" and did not know why his predecessor made the decision he did.
"It's a difficult decision-making process and fairness and equity have to be a part of it," he said.
Brady's abuser remained a priest in good standing until he retired two years later. It wasn't until this January, five years after the priest died, that Santa Rosa published a list of "credibly" accused clergy with his name on it.
"I knew they wouldn't do anything," Brady said.
When a bishop accepts the board's recommendation, church law allows a priest to pursue his case with the Vatican.
Browning, the woman who praised the Kalamazoo review board for finding in her favor in 2010, was let down by the Vatican. In Rome, officials said the priest was in bad health and simply instructed him to say a prayer each Friday for victims, according to Browning.
"I don't want his prayers, thank you very much," Browning said. "I just wanted to puke."
Despite the Kalamazoo diocese’s intervention with the Vatican on Browning's behalf, the priest has continued to preside at celebrations and make public appearances over the past eight years, as shown in online videos. The Vatican didn't do anything.
"I get the impression," Browning said, "it is not a priority."
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