Abuse by Priests in N.O. Seems to Be Low
But Story of Stats Is Difficult to Read

By Bruce Nolan
Times-Picayune [New Orlean LA]
December 7, 2003

There are reasons for caution all around, but the emerging picture of clerical sexual abuse of children in New Orleans suggests Catholics in New Orleans have experienced nothing like the frequency of abuse reported in some other communities, including infamous hot spots such as Boston and smaller centers of Catholic life such as Louisville, Ky.

With early data indicating that 1 or 2 percent of diocesan priests have been identified as abusers in the past half century, the New Orleans experience appears more in line with the national average, to the extent that a credible average has been established.

That conclusion is studded with qualifications and may yet change.

A national survey of Catholic dioceses, which Catholic bishops have pledged will be the most thorough accounting to date, will not be complete until February. Results are being compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Each of the nation's 195 Catholic dioceses is required to conduct such a review, but they are made without independent verification. Victims groups are calling the self-surveys suspect.

Data on New Orleans diocesan priests can, however, be matched against an independent survey published Jan. 12 by The New York Times that is regarded as the most authoritative national survey to date.

Cause for caution

In the past decade or so, there have been other regional accountings of Catholic clerical abuse, including a sensational state grand jury report in Massachusetts and an extensive in-house survey in Chicago led by a reform-minded cardinal.

In disclosing a summary of findings it said it reported in the John Jay survey, the archdiocese of New Orleans on Wednesday said its own files contain allegations of sexual abuse against 20 priests, or 2.3 percent of the 867 diocesan priests who have served here since 1950.

It judged 10 of the 20 complaints to be credible, amounting to about 1.1 percent of the corps of diocesan priests.

According to the archdiocese, the files contain 34 complaints against the 10 guilty or confessed abusers. That puts the estimate of the number of abused New Orleans children somewhere in the range of 35 to 45, assuming that some complaints might cover more than one child.

Significantly, the survey of those files includes less than a quarter of all the priests who have served in New Orleans during those years. Data on another 3,130 priests belonging to various religious orders have yet to be disclosed, another reason for caution and skepticism from critics.

That means there is a further accounting to be made of another possible set of victims.

Another cause for caution: Victims insist the incidence of clerical sexual abuse is grossly under-reported. That's partly because many victims never come forward, and because many who have were angrily dismissed as liars and their complaints never put into church archives, said Lyn Hill Hayward, a Louisiana victims advocate.

Acknowledging mistakes

In releasing the data this week, archdiocesan spokesman the Rev. William Maestri conceded that in past years a different mind-set guided the church. "Were mistakes made? Would we handle things differently? Yes definitely, in what we know today, . . . yes we would," he said.

Even with all due caution as to the reliability of any conclusions, the data the archdiocese released this week can be placed alongside findings of other surveys:

-- A 1992 in-house investigation in Chicago under the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin asserted that by using a standard of "preponderance of evidence," investigators found that perhaps 1.7 percent of the 2,252 priests who had worked in the Chicago archdiocese from 1951 to 1991 committed some sort of inappropriate sexual act.

-- Earlier this year, The New York Times survey, based on self-reporting by dioceses and surveys of litigation and news clippings, estimated that 1.8 percent of all Catholic priests ordained between 1950 and 2001 had been accused of abuse. The survey did not catalog which cases were deemed credible.

Both are reasonably close to early estimates of New Orleans' experience.

The New York Times, however, found extraordinarily high rates of abuse in some localities. In Baltimore, for example, 6.2 percent of priests were implicated in the abuse of minors. In Manchester, N.H., the newspaper estimated 7.7 percent of priests were accused.

Other accounts of acute crises in various cities include:

-- In 1994 in the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., Bishop Wilton Gregory removed 10 percent of his priests, addressing a scandal there that brought him to the national stage as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

-- In Louisville, Ky., a jurisdiction less than half the size of New Orleans, 27 priests were accused, The New York Times found, compared to the 20 priests local officials announced in New Orleans.

-- And in Boston, an archdiocese four times larger than New Orleans, a yearlong investigation by state Attorney General Thomas Reilly found that at least 237 priests and 13 other church employees were accused of molesting at least 789 minors, and probably more than 1,000.

Human faces

Last year, New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes disclosed that between 1990 and 1993, when he was Boston's vicar for administration, or chief of staff to Cardinal Bernard Law, he removed 14 priests from ministry based on accusations of sexual abuse in just three years -- compared to 10 priests credibly accused in New Orleans over 54 years.

Survey numbers are still being released, with the largest set to be made public Feb. 27, when the bishops' Office of Youth and Child Protection releases the findings of its national survey.

As far apart as they may be on the accuracy of the statistics, victims advocates and church leaders agree on one thing, as Maestri said this week:

"Behind the figures are human faces, lives touched by a terrible scandal."

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