Local Activists Doubt Church Abuse Survey

The Express-Times [New Jersey]
February 17, 2004

Victim advocates say a national survey that reports 4,450 clergy have been accused of molesting minors since 1950 underestimates the number of cases because it is based on self-reporting by bishops.

The upcoming national survey of sex abuse claims against Roman Catholic priests has been viewed by CNN, which reported Monday that 11,000 abuse claims have been filed against the U.S. clergy during that period.

William J. Curtis Jr. of Bound Brook, N.J., a member of the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests who sits on a review board charged with assessing allegations of abuse in the Diocese of Metuchen, said he mistrusts reports from the bishops.

"They're still more concerned with public relations," he said of most Catholic dioceses, excluding Metuchen. "Their first concern is, 'How do we save face and keep this quiet?' "

The survey is being overseen by the National Review Board, a lay watchdog panel that the American bishops formed, and conducted by researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Juliann Bortz, co-chairwoman of SNAP in the Lehigh Valley, said she hopes the report convinces victims to share their stories.

"I know that there are more people out there. I know it because I get calls," said Bortz, who hears from victims on a weekly basis and encourages them to attend group meetings.

"Maybe this will help them understand this is bigger than they thought."

John Jay refused to comment on the CNN report, while board members contacted Monday by The Associated Press wouldn't say whether the latest statistics were accurate. They stressed the report is not finished and that any numbers tallied so far could change before the study is released Feb. 27.

Some individual dioceses, including the Diocese of Allentown, have released the abuse statistics they compiled for the national survey.

Since 1961, sexual abuse allegations have been made against 27 of the 773 priests who have served the Allentown Diocese, or 3.5 percent. Those accusations came from 34 people, the diocese reported.

It has spent more than $780,000 in settlements with victims of sexual abuse in the past 42 years. According to the diocese's figures, more than $222,000 was spent on counseling for priests, compared with less than $43,000 for victims' counseling.

Matt Kerr, spokesman for the Diocese of Allentown, deferred additional comment until the report is released officially.

The figures compiled by CNN are roughly in keeping with a trend the AP reported on last week.

Some individual dioceses have released the abuse statistics they compiled for the national survey, and the AP has been tracking those reports. Through Monday, 84 of 195 U.S. dioceses had reported claims -- with 1,413 clergy accused of abuse since 1950. That statistic is already much greater than the scope of abuse previously estimated by victims' groups and the media.

"I would hope that the public would kind of withhold any immediate judgment until they get the full story on Feb. 27th," said Leon Panetta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff and a National Review Board member.

Robert S. Bennett, a prominent Washington, D.C., attorney and another review board member, said survey drafts are circulating only among board members and John Jay researchers.

No bishops have seen the draft, said Bennett, who also is overseeing the board's investigation into the causes of the clergy abuse crisis. The results of that inquiry will also be released Feb. 27.

"Both the National Review Board report and the John Jay study are still in the process of being written," Bennett said. "People should wait until then to draw their conclusion."

The bishops commissioned the unprecedented study as part of a series of reforms meant to restore trust in their leadership. The 84 dioceses that released their statistics have reported 2,990 abuse claims so far.

CNN reported that the draft survey said 78 percent of those abused were between the ages of 11 and 17 and that more than half the accused priests had a single allegation filed against them.

It said the report blames the sex abuse crisis on the bishops' failure to grasp the gravity of the problem, their misguided willingness to forgive and their emphasis on avoiding scandal, among other things.

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