National Catholic Register

News

Abuse Studies Quantify Problem

Examination Of Conscience

BY Ellen Rossini

February 29-March 6, 2004 Issue | Posted 2/29/04 at 12:00 PM

 

WASHINGTON — The studies being issued by the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board promise to give Catholics the most complete picture yet of the clergy sex-abuse crisis in the Church.

The most anticipated study, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and using dioceses’ self-reported figures, gives the total number of children and teens abused, priests accused and costs incurred in U.S. dioceses since 1950.

A second, more qualitative study based on more than 70 individual interviews conducted by the review board during the past year delves into root causes — why the scandal happened and how.

Two weeks before the scheduled Feb. 27 release, 80 dioceses had already reported their figures, as they were encouraged to do by the review board once the study was released. The preliminary numbers showed that from those dioceses — less than half of the 195 in the country — 1,341 clergy were accused of sexually abusing minors. A handful of dioceses did not participate in the study.

A sampling of diocesan reports in the news confirms that the scandal has touched dioceses small and large, coast to coast.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco recorded 148 child-molestation cases involving more than 50 priests and a cost of $10.3 million in settlements. In Albany, N.Y., the number of accused molesters was 18 and the related costs slightly more than $3 million.

Indianapolis reported 20 priests and 12 lay people were credibly accused, and the cost to the archdiocese was $355,000 for attorney fees and counseling for victims.

Crookston, Minn., reported 37 allegations made against five priests, with more than half of those involving a single former priest; the cost to the diocese has been more than $2.3 million in legal fees.

In January the Diocese of Galveston-Houston announced that 50 credible accusations were made against 22 priests and four deacons; the cases cost the diocese $3 million in legal fees and settlements.

“Bishop [Joseph] Fiorenza felt strongly that he wanted the faithful in the diocese to hear these numbers, this information from him, first,” said diocesan communications director Annette Gonzales Taylor. “He did not want them to learn about this when the John Jay study came out through the media.”

The John Jay study does not include names of clergy, victims or of dioceses.

So far the reaction from the lay community in Houston has been minimal, Taylor said.

“I think our people knew we didn't have an inordinate amount of cases,” she said. “There has been a lot of publicity that Bishop Fiorenza had been one of the forerunners to implement guidelines and policies that would ensure the safest environment we could provide for children and young people. He was doing background checks before it was required, and he introduced things at the seminary level — entrance testing, psychological testing — many years ago.”

Questioning Its Value

Other dioceses waited for the Feb. 27 release before issuing their own reports.

“Our intention for some time has been to observe the original late-February release time frame for the John Jay study,” said Francis Maier, chancellor for the Archdiocese of Denver. “Frankly, we're surprised that others have not done so.”

Archbishop Charles Chaput has communicated “often and directly” with Catholics in Denver on the abuse crisis since it broke two years ago and will continue to do so, Maier said.

Archbishop Chaput wrote by e-mail that he was reluctant to speculate on the report or the possible response of the faithful.

“Each bishop will have to discover his own way to prepare his people, if they can really be prepared, since the situation in each diocese is different,” he said.

Each of the two studies is about 200 pages long. The statistical report, though done in aggregate form, also shows the data broken up by decade, age group and other categories.

Some groups representing victim survivors of abuse have criticized the bishops for managing the crisis much as a fox guards a hen-house — appointing the board that oversees them, self-reporting their compliance with the 2002 charter to protect young people and now self-reporting numbers of past cases.

“My understanding of the report is that it's even more of a self-report [than the compliance audit released in January],” said David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “Essentially the university people mailed the questionnaire to the bishops and the bishops mailed it back.”

Clohessy said the bishops should have looked to outside experts for monitoring and discipline.

“If the IRS catches me cheating on my taxes, I don't get to say to them, ‘Here is how I'm going to remedy this,’” he said. “But that's exactly what the bishops did. They said, ‘We're going to do what we've always done and self-diagnose and self-medicate. What they did is what they've always done — maintain their power: ‘We will define the problem, we'll hire the people.’”

Other victims groups, however, are hopeful that progress has been and will continue to be made.

Sue Archibald of the Linkup for Survivors of Clergy Abuse said even though self-reporting means there will be a certain amount of underre-porting of cases, there is value in the study. The report is the first time the Catholic Church — or any organization — has voluntarily gathered and released statistics on sexual abuse within its ranks, she said.

“It shows a positive move for openness,” Archibald said. “It seems as though having the exact figure isn't what's important here. What comes next is the most important part — the ultimate solution will come with cooperation between survivors and the Church [leadership] and the laity. It takes a willingness to let go of some of your fears and move forward. We have seen some signs that the bishops are willing to take some steps.”

‘Moment of Panic’

The problem with the bishops’ report is not underreporting but that it goes too far, said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

The League published its own survey in February showing that sexual abuse by Catholic clergy is no greater than any other denomination and far less than some groups, including Protestant denominations and public school-teachers.

Additionally, the report cites the statistic that nearly all the priests who abuse children are homosexuals, and 80% to 90% who abuse minors have molested adolescent boys, not young children.

“I think this was a major blunder to ever open up the door to investigations going back to 1950. I would say this is true of any profession,” Donohue said. “Look what's in the soup here: No. 1, we have priests who are dead, we have priests who have accusations made against them but [were] never verified, priests who have been exonerated. In some cases, we have the religious orders being reported twice, once by themselves and once by the diocesan reports.”

“Beyond that,” Donohue continued, “what are we supposed to do with numbers unless we have some comparative data? What happened [was that] it was a moment of panic in June of ‘02 and just to demonstrate that we're going to come clean totally I think they [the bishops] overextended themselves.”

The second study, spearheaded by board member and Washington attorney Robert Bennett, attempts to put the crisis into context. Interviews were conducted with cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, perpetrators, families, psychologists, lawyers, defense attorneys, commentators — anybody who had some insight into the causes of molestation of minors by clergy, said National Review Board member William Burleigh, a retired newspaper executive.

“I don't think there are any real surprises,” Burleigh said. “I hope it is received in the spirit in which it is offered, and it is being offered not as a polemic but as a very serious professional effort by a dozen people who deeply love the Church. We hope it will be a curative and offer some recommendations for the bishops to consider to restore the credibility of the Church and its leadership. It's not a whitewash.”

Then, after the reports are released, further action is up to the bishops, Burleigh said. “We've whacked the ball into the other court.”

Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.