Boston Report Echoing in Other Dioceses
Some Said Other Cities Must Have Similarly Large Numbers of Church Abuse Cases. a Penn State Professor Was Skeptical

By David O'Reilly
Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]
Downloaded July 26, 2003

An official report that at least 789 minors were sexually assaulted by 237 priests of the Archdiocese of Boston has left many observers wondering if Boston is an anomaly or represents the true scale of the sex-abuse problem in the Catholic Church.

On Wednesday, Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly released a 16-month study of clergy sex abuse in the archdiocese. Drawing from church records, media reports and civil suits, his office concluded that 237 priests and 13 lay employees had sexually abused at least 789 children since 1940.

"I have absolutely no doubt the number is far greater," he told a news conference, saying the true tally of victims "likely exceeds 1,000." He called clergy sex abuse "the greatest tragedy to children" in state history.

"Every diocese will have these numbers," predicted Sylvia Demarest, a Dallas lawyer who led a massive and successful class-action in behalf of sex-assault victims against the Diocese of Dallas in 1994.

Demarest, who is assembling statistics on sex abuse in the American Catholic church, yesterday said: "We're looking at 6, 7, 10, even 15 percent of priests in some dioceses."

But Philip Jenkins, a professor of religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author of a book on the U.S. sex-abuse crisis, took exception yesterday to Reilly's methodology.

Jenkins said that the attorney general gave equal weight to unsubstantiated sources - such as news reports - as to harder data, such as criminal convictions and admissions of guilt.

"Don't get me wrong: Boston was misbehaving, but don't take these numbers at face value," said Jenkins, who was on a commission that studied sex abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. "I don't think they [levels of abuse in Boston] are as large as they appear."

Last year, the Boston archdiocese paid $10 million to settle claims by 86 victims against one priest, John Geoghan.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Bishops, said her office had been surprised by Reilly's figures but would not comment directly on them.

She noted that John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York is conducting an independent survey of the sex-abuse crisis in all 194 of the nation's Roman Catholic and affiliated dioceses.

The bishops' conference has estimated that fewer than 2 percent of priests have ever had sexual contact with minors.

Victims' advocates hailed the report, however.

"I think the only prudent thing to do is to assume Boston is not an anomaly," said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests.

"There's nothing in the water, nothing unique about the clerical structure of the leadership of the Boston Archdiocese," Clohessy said in a telephone interview from St. Louis.

He attributed the high statistics in Boston to factors including aggressive news reporting; state laws that let victims seek damages long after their abuse; community support for victims, and a 2001 injunction ordering the archdiocese to turn its personnel files over to plaintiffs' attorneys.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which has 1.5 million members to Boston's 2.1 million, last year reported it knew of "credible allegations" against 35 diocesan priests, involving about 50 victims, in the last 50 years.

Carmen Durso, a Boston lawyer who has represented 40 plaintiffs who said they were abused by priests of the Boston Archdiocese, said Philadelphia's numbers sounded very low.

"I can tell you right now there's something wrong with that," he said in a phone interview. "Boston is not an aberration. It's an example of what's really going on."

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office is conducting a secret grand jury investigation of sex abuse by Catholic priests in Philadelphia.

Catherine Rossi, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, declined to say if the archdiocese still abides by the figure of 35 priests and 50 victims. "The Archdiocese does not wish to comment regarding either the Archdiocese of Boston or the Philadelphia Grand Jury," she said in an e-mailed reply to a query.


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