Reversing his stance on a sensitive issue, Bishop Robert Vasa is allowing the Santa Rosa Diocese to continue offering child safety training in its schools and to participate in a nationwide audit that determines whether <NO1><NO>dioceses <NO1><NO>have provided the training intended to prevent child sex abuse.

Auditors working for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will visit the diocese for two days this month. They will examine records and interview the bishop, some priests and other church officials, including members of the review board that handles sex abuse complaints.

Santa Rosa was among the <NO1><NO>Catholic dioceses that passed last year's audit<NO1><NO> for compliance with the child safety standards, including training for children and adults, adopted by the bishops conference in 2002.

The 165,000-member diocese, where the sex abuse scandal surfaced in 1994, has been found compliant with the standards since the first audit in 2003.

But Vasa, who took over as head of the diocese last July, had refused to provide children's safety training or participate in the audit in his previous post as bishop of the Baker diocese in eastern Oregon.

The Baker diocese was cited for failing to provide the children's training in 2005, and subsequently refused to participate in audits in 2006, 2008 and 2010, according to audit reports.

Vasa said last <NO1><NO>week <NO1><NO>his decision to let Santa Rosa's child safety training program continue and to participate in the audit was "not a change of heart."

The bishop said he still questions the efficacy of the program for Catholic school children, but wants to demonstrate the diocese's commitment to their safety.

"I want to manifest that I have the best interests of the children at heart," he said. "The audit seems to be the indicator of that fact."

In the Baker diocese, Vasa said his decision to opt out of the audit was financial, based on the audit's $10,000 cost and knowing the diocese would be found non-compliant for failing to offer child safety training.

"It was dollars and cents," Vasa said. "It had nothing to do with an absence of care with our children."

The Baker diocese offered training to parents and church volunteers, but not to children, and Vasa said he still believes parents are the best line of defense against child sex abuse.

In its report on the 2011 audit, the bishops conference said that safe environment training is "powerful" for adults and children. "This training provides, to children in particular, critical, life-forming messages about the skills necessary to protect themselves from the harm of child sexual abuse," it said.

"That's a great motive and intention," Vasa said, regarding that statement. "Does it actually do it? I don't know."

David Clohessy, national director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it was "dreadfully arrogant for Vasa to think that he knows more about preventing abuse than child safety experts and virtually every one of his brother bishops."

"Training kids to protect themselves from predators isn't controversial," Clohessy said. "It's been going on for years."

Nationwide, more than 4.8 million Catholic children received sex-abuse safety training last year, along with 1.8 million volunteers in parishes and schools, nearly 400,000 employees and teachers and 38,150 priests, according to the 2011 audit report.

The Santa Rosa diocese, which includes 42 <NO1><NO>parishes and 17 schools from Petaluma to the Oregon border, said it fingerprinted and provided training last year to 750 employees and 3,200 adult volunteers and provided training to 8,925 children in kindergarten to 12th grade.<NO1><NO>

Ten percent of students in parish schools and religious education classes at their church were not trained due to absence the day it was offered, said Deirdre Frontczak, diocese spokeswoman.

Those children will presumably receive the training in future years, she said.

Vasa said he was "not going to dismantle" the diocese's child safety training program, and predicted the diocese would pass this year's audit "without problems."

Clohessy said that Vasa would "be risking considerable public and parishioner pressure if he insisted on watering down child safety measures in a diocese with a horrific record on child safety."

Seventeen Santa Rosa diocese priests have been accused of sexual misconduct dating back to the 1970s, and victims have been paid about $25 million in legal settlements.

The audit report said that U.S. dioceses paid almost $109 million in sex abuse-related costs last year, and more than $2 billion since 2004.

(You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.)