Extent of Abuse Cases Staggering, Official Says

By Joel Rutchick and James F. McCarty
Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH]
January 20, 2004

The top financial officer of the Cleveland Catholic Diocese has warned church leaders to expect "shocking" numbers when local figures are released as part of a nationwide report on the extent and cost of child sexual abuse.

The findings from the past 52 years are contained in a survey of the 190 U.S. dioceses conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The results of the survey, commissioned by the nation's bishops, are scheduled to be announced Feb.27

Many bishops around the country already have publicly disclosed the findings for their dioceses, and Bishop Anthony Pilla is expected to provide an advanced look at the Cleveland diocese's numbers in the next several weeks.

At a meeting last month of the Catholic Charities Corp.'s board of trustees, Chief Financial Officer Joseph H. Smith said the millions of dollars the diocese spent on settlements with victims, their treatment and legal fees will be disturbing and larger than any figures yet reported in the media, according to people who were there.

"People are going to be shocked," one board member said Smith told the group.

Smith, reached at home on Monday, did not deny the reports. But he declined to speak specifically about the Cleveland diocese's numbers. Smith said he had been working on the study when he was suspended by Pilla on Jan. 6 after questions of financial wrongdoing were raised against him.

Diocesan spokesman Bob Tayek would not speculate on the impact the report may have.

"I wouldn't put [the numbers] in any category," Tayek said Monday. "We'll do that when we reveal them."

Some of the factors that contributed to Cleveland's financial burden are already known. In December 2002, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason concluded a seven-month investigation of the diocese that found more than 1,000 people claimed to have been victimized as children by priests and church figures.

He also found evidence of accusations against nearly 500 possible sexual offenders, of whom 145 were priests.

Those numbers are among the highest in the country.

In the Boston Archdiocese, considered the epicenter of the scandal, more than 500 people had come forward with clergy-abuse claims by the end of 2002. The archdiocese recently agreed to an $85-million settlement with 540 alleged victims.

Last June, the diocese in Louisville, Ky., settled 243 sex-abuse lawsuits for $25.7 million.

And the totals for Boston and Louisville could be even higher. Neither diocese has released its final tally of the cost of the sex-abuse scandal.

Smith's gloomy assessment for the Catholic Charities board included warnings that donations are in decline and church attendance has waned in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal, several members said.

But Smith also reported to the board that all of the diocese's costs related to sex abuse have been covered by insurance and accounting procedures. Smith said no money from Catholic Charities or the diocese's general fund was used to pay sex-abuse-related bills, which are expected to be among the highest in the country.

Critics are skeptical about the accuracy of the study.

"We think the numbers will be underreported," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"By announcing the results early, the bishops get to say, Look how open we're being,' and they get to put their spin on the numbers. But how do we know they're telling the truth?" Clohessy asked.

Plain Dealer news researcher Jo Ellen Corrigan contributed to this story.

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