Key local Catholics who have been dealing with allegations of sex abuse by priests over four decades point to declining sex abuse reports on the North Coast and nationwide as evidence the scandal may be subsiding.
Their hopeful note, disputed by critics, comes as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is scheduled to release today a first-ever national accounting of the scandal that had simmered in dioceses like Santa Rosa since the mid-1990s and erupted nationwide in 2002.
Bishops have acknowledged the survey's findings will be a shock to the nation's largest church, with 65 million members, but also unprecedented in that no other national institution has publicly documented child abuse within its ranks.
The report found more than 4,000 priests in the church's 195 dioceses have been accused of sexual misconduct since 1950 and that abuse-related costs exceed $500 million, according to the Associated Press.
Some dioceses, including Santa Rosa, already have released their findings included in the national survey. Santa Rosa Bishop Daniel Walsh reported in the diocese newsletter in December that 16 priests had molested 59 children and the church had paid settlements of $8.6 million.
Walsh, who read the national survey Thursday, said it found a "huge spike" in sex abuse allegations from 1965 to the early 1980s, followed by a sharp decline in the 1990s, said Deirdre Frontczak, diocese spokeswoman.
Walsh declined to draw any conclusions, saying it was possible children still are being molested despite all the precautions the church has taken, Frontczak said.
"We can't predict what we'll find," she said.
Critics warn a new wave of sex abuse revelations could come as children of the 1990s gain maturity to tell their stories to a more perceptive public.
"The problem itself is as old as mankind," said Mary Gail Frawley-O'Day, executive director of a New York City clinic for sex abuse victims. "This scandal is not going away anytime soon."
In the Santa Rosa Diocese, officials say the epicenter of abuse appears to have been in the 1970s.
"I think that's a fair characterization of what we've experienced," said Dan Galvin, attorney for the 150,000-member diocese, which covers 43 parishes from Petaluma to the Oregon border.
Of the 12 sex abuse lawsuits still pending against the diocese, Galvin said 11 allege sexual misconduct from 1966 through the 1970s and one case is based in the 1980s.
Julie Sparacio, victims assistance coordinator for the diocese, said she is "cautiously optimistic" that child abuse by priests will never again reach the level it did.
Sparacio, a school counselor for 16 years, said she is increasingly convinced that priest offenders are a "unique population" that may have flourished in the 1970s.
Since she took the coor-dinator's job last spring, no cases of abuse in the 1990s have been reported to the diocese, she said.
But victim advocates, some Catholic parents and others insist that conclusion is premature.
"I think it's hogwash," said Tricia Shingledecker, a Healdsburg Catholic and mother of three teenagers. Child abuse is more of an ongoing problem -- largely shrouded by secrecy and guilt -- than a phenomenon of the 1970s, she said.
But she and others acknowledged that priests -- as well as coaches, teachers and others -- will never be afforded unfettered access to children.
"As parents everywhere, we're more protective and suspicious," she said.
"The data tells us that the worst has to be over," said Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University who has written books on clergy child abuse.
Plante cited a "confluence of factors," including America's sexual revolution and the church's Vatican II overhaul, that contributed to a spike in clerical misconduct concentrated in the 1970s.
"It was kind of wild and wacky for a while," said Plante, who offered his theory in an article, titled "After the Earthquake," in the Jan. 5 edition of America, a Jesuit magazine.
"There is indeed hope for a better tomorrow for the Catholic Church in the United States," his article concluded.
But critics say overhauls aimed at stopping sex abuse instituted by U.S. bishops nearly two years ago are more public relations than profound change.
"Does anyone in their right mind really believe that putting words on paper stopped one child molester?" said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Experts say they expect a dip in the incidents of clerical child molestation cases in the 1990s because of the removal of hundreds of offending priests and a downward trend in child sex abuse cases nationwide.
Some counselors and therapists say children abused by priests typically can't recognize what happened to them and are unable to talk about it until they are young adults.
Sparacio believes there are victims on the North Coast who have never come forward and probably never will.
A family education program to be launched this spring will be partly aimed at enabling children to tell their parents if they have been molested, she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or e-mail email@example.com.