Nearly 4,500 Priests Accused of Abuse, Draft Report Finds
11,000 Victims, CNN Says, Citing Study of Diocese Data

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post [Washington DC]
February 17, 2004

Nearly 4,500 Roman Catholic priests have been accused of sexually abusing a total of 11,000 children in the United States between 1950 and 2002, CNN reported yesterday, citing a draft of a study scheduled for release at the end of the month by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Those figures are two to three times as high as previously reported, but senior Catholic officials have warned for weeks that the study's findings could be "startling" if viewed in isolation.

While victims groups contend that the numbers of victims and abusers are probably even higher, Catholic leaders say that no other large religious group, corporation or profession has conducted a similar self-examination.

"We're the only institution in the country that has done a study like this, so it's hard to compare," Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington said in an interview last week.

The study was commissioned 11 months ago by the National Review Board, a panel of prominent lay Catholics appointed by the bishops conference. It hired researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York to collect and analyze confidential data reported voluntarily by U.S. dioceses.

The goal is to produce the first full accounting of the "nature and scope" of sex abuse in the church, including the number of accused priests; the number, age and gender of the alleged victims; and how much money the church has spent on legal fees, settlements and psychological counseling.

Worried that someone might leak partial data to advance a particular cause, the review board warned last year that if any findings were made public before Feb. 27, it would immediately release the entire study to avoid any misrepresentation.

But the board backed away from that position yesterday. Its members declined to confirm or deny the CNN report, although they suggested that CNN may have obtained preliminary figures that John Jay researchers gave to some board members to aid in the writing of a companion report on the "causes and context" of the scandal.

"We are awaiting the receipt of the John Jay report, which is still in the process of being written," said Washington lawyer and board member Robert S. Bennett. "We're still drafting our report, and they're still drafting their report, and as far as we're concerned, the 27th is when both will be released."

Another board member, former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, said, "We're all a little frustrated that this thing has leaked out." Noting that the CNN report contained a brief summary of the scandal's possible causes, he said, "It appears that somebody is piecing together bits of information."

CNN's report gave only a smattering of details and no information on the financial cost of the scandal or the gender of the victims. It said 78 percent of the 11,000 alleged victims were between the ages of 11 and 17, 16 percent were 8 to 10 years old, and nearly 6 percent were 7 or younger.

Of the 4,450 accused priests, it said, more than half faced a single allegation, 25 percent faced two or three allegations, 13 percent had four to nine allegations, and 3 percent had 10 or more allegations.

David Clohessy, national director of the 4,600-member Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said that if more than half the priests faced a single allegation, "then it's obvious there are many, many victims out there who have yet to come forward."

"No one who knows anything about sexual abuse thinks it's a one-time event," Clohessy added. "This is just a self-reported survey, not an independent study, much less a thorough investigation. Common sense tells us the real numbers are much higher."

When the John Jay researchers sent out a request for information to all 195 U.S. dioceses last spring, some bishops balked, and the original chairman of the National Review Board, former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating (R), said church leaders were acting like "La Cosa Nostra" in their devotion to secrecy.

Keating subsequently resigned, and the board's remaining members made extensive efforts to repair relations with the bishops. Ultimately, all but a few bishops provided confidential information for the study, and many have made public the results of their reviews of local church records. As of Monday, according to the Associated Press, 84 dioceses had publicly reported a total of 2,990 claims of abuse against 1,413 clergy members since 1950.

Among the most controversial findings in the final report will be the percentage of U.S. priests accused of abuse. There are about 46,000 active priests today, but the number who have served since 1950 is far higher. CNN did not say what percentage has been accused.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued a report this month concluding that the incidence of sexual abuse of minors "is slightly higher among the Protestant clergy than among the Catholic clergy" and "is significantly higher among public school teachers." But it was unclear how the league could have reached that conclusion before the percentage of alleged abusers in the priesthood has been made public.


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