IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Survey measures Catholic clergy sex abuse

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is due to release results from a nationwide survey trying to quantify the extent of the sex abuse problem among its clergy. Early numbers suggest more bad news for the church.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Next week’s release of a nationwide survey on sex abuse among Roman Catholic clergy seems almost guaranteed to hand the church more bad news.

Not only do the raw numbers look higher than anticipated, but the survey will disappoint those seeking proof that molestation among priests is no worse than it is in the rest of society. Yet the leader of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Friday the survey had to be done so the church can move beyond the abuse crisis.

“I’m not afraid,” said Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill. “We need this information to make sure that the steps we have taken thus far are adequate to the problem. We need to know the truth.”

A draft of the survey viewed by CNN said 4,450 of the 110,000 U.S. clergy who served since 1950 were accused of molesting minors. That would mean roughly 4 percent had been accused of abuse.

Many church officials have insisted the percentage was much lower.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, told Catholic News Service in December 2002 that “less than 1 percent of priests are guilty of acts of this type.”

Attempt to restore trust
When researchers made higher estimates in the past, many in the church dismissed them as sensational. Psychologist Richard Sipe, a former monk who researches sexuality in the priesthood, put the figure between 4 percent and 5 percent. The Rev. Andrew Greeley, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, had a similar estimate.

Bishops authorized their unprecedented study, to be released in its final version next Friday, to restore trust in their leadership following waves of revelations about abusive priests.

John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York was commissioned to conduct the survey based on statistics provided by individual dioceses — some of which have already released their figures.

The Associated Press has been tracking those numbers and, as of Friday, 112 of the 195 U.S. dioceses reported accusations against 2,243 clergy. The tally of abuse claims is 4,757 so far. Some archdioceses that faced large numbers of cases, including Boston and Louisville, have yet to report.

In addition to the statistical report, the lay watchdog panel that bishops formed to oversee the survey — the National Review Board — has conducted its own investigation into the causes of the crisis.

Experts recognize that no other denomination or profession has opened itself to such scrutiny on the abuse issue, even though child molestation is an acknowledged problem among teachers, coaches and other religious groups. Bishops said they wanted to demonstrate their willingness to confront wrongdoing.

Gregory said he will receive copies of both studies two days in advance and will distribute them to all the bishops. Some National Review Board members recently traveled to Rome and met with Vatican officials, but it’s unclear whether the sessions included a briefing on the findings.

No end to debate
Whatever the final results, they are sure to spark more debate.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said its own research proves the problem is no worse among Catholic clergy than in society at large.

But David Finkelhor, head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said that’s impossible to know.

John Jay researchers couldn’t review diocesan records to evaluate their quality, he said. And estimates of the molestation rate in the general population are “tremendously flawed,” making any comparison worthless, he said.

“There aren’t benchmarks here to compare this to,” Finkelhor said.

Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. bishops, said he wanted to see whether the study supported the contention that the number of abuse cases declined dramatically after bishops enacted new discipline policies in the ’90s.

He said it could indicate that the even tougher plan bishops adopted in June 2002 — at the height of the crisis — may be too harsh. It requires all past abusers be removed from church work.

The Vatican will soon publish its own report on the issue that draws heavily on scientific opinion, including experts skeptical about barring offenders from ministry, a psychologist who helped edit the report said.

That’s a discussion victims fear. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests argues that most victims wait until they are adults to report their abuse, so officials cannot conclude their strategies worked.

Gregory said that, whatever the studies’ findings, American bishops are committed to keeping molesters out of ministry.

“I don’t see the body of bishops lessening in that resolve,” he said.

Some experts say the report may have less value as criminology than as a guide to preventing future offenses. By tracking the age of victims and identifying patterns in how abusive clergy groom them, better programs can be developed to protect children, they said.

“If it’s more common or it’s the same, the problem is still how do you keep it from happening,” Finkelhor said.