Bishops say abuse accusers top 1,000

Group's report says $157m spent last year

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff  |  February 19, 2005

WASHINGTON -- More than 1,000 men and women across the nation came forward last year to say that they had been sexually abused by a Catholic priest or deacon, indicating that the clergy sexual abuse crisis is not yet over, according to a top official of the US bishops conference.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops yesterday released the first of what it promises will be annual reports on the number of abuse complaints lodged against Catholic clergy and the amount of money the abusive behavior is costing the church. According to the report, American dioceses spent $157 million on abuse-related costs, including legal settlements, last year -- on top of $572 million spent between 1950 and 2002 -- and received abuse allegations last year from 1,083 men and women -- in addition to 10,667 allegations from 1950 to 2002.

Most of the new allegations concerned incidents that took place between 1965 and 1974, and many were lodged against priests who had died, retired, or left the priesthood. But the report said that 300 of the allegations brought forward last year concerned priests and deacons who had not previously been accused, and that 22 allegations concerned victims still under the age of 18 in 2004, meaning the abuse was alleged to have taken place relatively recently.

The bishops conference said that 148 priests were defrocked by the Vatican in 2004. The Vatican is still considering what to do about many more priests accused of abuse; the president of the bishops conference said he did not know how many are awaiting decisions from Rome, but the study found that 339 cases were referred to the Vatican in 2004.

"The crisis of sexual abuse of minors within the Catholic church is not over," declared Kathleen McChesney, the former FBI official who has served as executive director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection. McChesney is leaving the job next week, and a replacement has not yet been hired.

"What is over is the denial that this problem exists, and what is over is the reluctance of the church to deal openly with the public about the nature and extent of the problem," McChesney said.

In addition to the new report on allegations and costs, the bishops conference yesterday also released its second annual audit of 194 of the nation's 195 dioceses -- one refused to cooperate -- conducted by the Gavin Group of Boston, which evaluated the dioceses for compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

In that charter, adopted by the bishops in 2002, the bishops pledged to conduct outreach to victims, to implement a process for responding to abuse allegations, to cooperate with public authorities, and to permanently remove from ministry all abusive priests and deacons.

The Gavin Group found that 96 percent of dioceses are fully compliant with the charter, up slightly from the first such audit, conducted last year. Of the 194 audited, seven were non-compliant last year, including one in Massachusetts. But McChesney cautioned that the bishops conference has yet to undertake a study of the effectiveness of the measures being implemented.

"Compliance with the charter is crucial to providing a pastoral response to persons who report abuse and for abuse prevention," she said. "However, compliance does not guarantee that there will be no instances of abuse in the future, or that every victim or accused offender is treated justly."

According to the bishops conference, at the time of the audit, 283 priests around the country had been removed temporarily from ministry pending an investigation, and another 42 "remain in active ministry pending a preliminary investigation." Asked about those 42, McChesney said some dioceses take a few days to decide whether an allegation has enough substance to justify the temporary removal of a priest from ministry; she said the bishops have offered no guidelines for how long a diocese can wait before removing an accused priest from his job.

The only diocese in the country that was found noncompliant in both 2003 and 2004 was the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparchy of Newton, a nationwide Eastern Rite Catholic church headquartered in Roslindale. The eparchy decided not to teach children about abuse prevention, but instead to offer a brochure to parents, so parents can talk to their children about abuse.

"The parent is the primary educator of their child," said the Rev. Andre St. Germain. "Many of our parents wouldn't send their kids to these classes. They don't want their kids to have the first [conversation about sex] being brought to their attention because of some deviance of some priests or people who prey on children. It's a terrible thing to do."

The diocese of Lincoln, Neb., refused to cooperate with the auditors. The bishop there insists that he is only accountable to the Vatican.

The Boston archdiocese was found to be in full compliance, as were the dioceses of Fall River, Springfield, and Worcester.

"The Archdiocese is gratified and encouraged by the results of this audit," the Archdiocese of Boston said in a statement. "The faithful and clergy of the Archdiocese of Boston, under the leadership of Archbishop Sean O'Malley, remain firmly committed to reaching out to those who have been harmed by the tragic reality of sexual abuse by clergy and to the causes of prevention and education among all our people. The ongoing hard work of many is based in the sincere commitment to keep the children and young people of this archdiocese safe."

This year, most dioceses will be allowed to undergo what auditor William A. Gavin called "verified self-audits," in which diocesan officials fill out a questionnaire and mail it to auditors, who can call or e-mail with questions and then visit if necessary. Gavin defended the effectiveness of such audits, but also said 11 dioceses, including Boston, have already requested full on-site audits.

The audit and related numbers released yesterday were criticized by a number of victim advocacy and lay reform organizations.

"The audits represent an important and necessary step to restoring trust within the Catholic church," said James E. Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, the national lay reform organization headquartered in Newton. "However, across the country, we have actually seen a softening of support for education programs and for outreach to survivors."

David Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, criticized the bishops for taking no steps to discipline the handful of dioceses that are not complying with the charter. He also said that more than one-third of religious orders of priests are not participating in the audits, and said the auditors have talked to "fewer than one victim per diocese."

But another victim advocacy organization, Linkup, gave a somewhat more positive assessment of the audit. Linkup's president, Susan Archibald, praised the bishops for simply conducting the audits.

"The systems of protection and prevention put into place are commendable," she said. "Never before has an institution taken bolder steps in the name of vulnerability. One must ask, however, if the vulnerability of the young or the vulnerability of assets was the motivating factor behind the effort?"

A Boston-based victim advocacy organization, BishopAccountability.org, said the Boston archdiocese needs to do more to reach out to parishes where abusive priests had served and dismissed the audit as "a public relations vehicle to keep attention away from the grave and unresolved question of their own coverup of abuse," according to a statement from the organization's codirector, Anne Barrett Doyle. Doyle also said that the auditors did not consult with enough victims.

The president of the bishops conference, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., defended the efforts.

"It is out of our love for the church that we have taken the steps needed to confront the terrible problem of sexual abuse of young people by clergy, including providing the public with last year's report and this year's," he said as he released the report at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington.

The survey of annual abuse allegations and abuse-related financial costs was conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Georgetown University research center. The study found that dioceses paid for therapy and other services for 3,227 victims last year.

The audit found that, since June 2002, more than 1.4 million adults and 3.1 million children have received abuse prevention training through the Catholic church. The audit also found that dioceses have conducted criminal background checks on 1.2 million priests, deacons, educators, employees, and volunteers. Child protection programs cost the US church $20 million last year, the report said.