Priests' Abuse Toll 'Startling'
Bishop Warns about Cumulative Effect on Children. Findings Mirror Inquiry

By Colette M. Jenkins
The Beacon Journal [United States]
February 23, 2004

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has already warned that the findings of a long-awaited survey on the cumulative toll of sexual abuse inflicted on children by priests during the past 50 years will be "startling."

But folks in the Diocese of Cleveland may not be surprised when the local statistics are released later this week on the number of priests who have been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors and the number of victims that have come forward since 1950. Those figures are likely to mirror the findings of a seven-month investigation of the diocese by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason.

Mason's investigation, which was concluded in December 2002, showed that more than 1,000 people claimed they had been sexually abused by nearly 500 alleged sex offenders, of whom 145 were priests. His investigation did not include data on the amount of money paid to cover settlements, counseling and related costs -- information that will be part of the local report and national survey that is released on Friday.

While the survey looks at data from the last five decades, Mason's investigation included records that were more than 50 years old.

The bishops authorized the unprecedented national survey as part of a series of reforms to restore trust in their leadership after more than two years of scandal about the way they responded to abuse allegations.

In addition to the survey, a report on the causes and consequences of the abuse crisis is set to be released Friday by the National Review Board that the bishops established.

Bishop Martin J. Amos, auxiliary bishop to the southern portion of the Cleveland diocese, said the information is the first step in determining the extent of the sexual abuse of minors and what contributed to the abuse.

"The ultimate goal is to make a safe environment for children," said Amos, who oversees Summit, Medina and Wayne counties. "To do that we need to know the absolute scope of what has taken place and why it happened. Then, we will have insight into how to prevent this from ever happening again."

The nationwide accounting of abuse claims and costs, completed by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, will not break down statistics by individual dioceses. Bishops, however, are free to release local figures in the 195 U.S. dioceses.

Youngstown disclosures

On Feb. 13, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of the Diocese of Youngstown joined the more than 80 other bishops who have released their data. The Youngstown document, An Update on the Status of the Child Protection Policy, showed that none of the 19 priests accused of abusing children over the past 50 years is in active ministry.

Of the 19, four are dead, four have left the ministry, eight have retired and two left to serve other dioceses that had been told of the allegations. One allegation was unsubstantiated.

The most recent allegation of abuse in the six-county diocese, which includes Stark and Portage, was 13 years old.

From 1950 to 2003, the diocese paid about $200,000 for counseling for victims and their families and from 1950 to 1994, it paid about $300,000 to settle claims. In 1994, when the diocesan policy on abuse was established, it became diocesan practice not to offer settlements. The money paid to victims came from insurance coverage.

The report from Bishop Anthony M. Pilla in the eight-county Cleveland Diocese is expected later this week. Diocesan officials declined to comment on details of the report, saying it is not finished.

Pat Ritzert, the attorney who chairs the predominantly lay review board that investigates abuse allegations for the diocese, said the report will include an update on the status of the review board. She said more than half of the 20 priests who have been suspended because of allegations of abuse have requested to come before the board. She would not reveal the exact number or the status of each case.

Amos said he hopes the local and national reports will send a clear message that bishops across the nation are seriously committed to resolving the sexual abuse issue.

"We want to reassure the victims that we hear them and we are taking them seriously," Amos said. "Without minimizing what has happened to us -- because one victim is inexcusable -- we hope that by coming forward and opening this up, it will help other denominations and organizations deal with the issue. As terrible as this is, we hope people in the church and people in society will see that there are many faithful people committed to doing what is right."

Court battle

Meanwhile, a court battle to determine whether Mason can make public his files from the 2002 investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by employees of the Cleveland Diocese may be resolved in the next two weeks.

"The judge is putting the finishing touches on his opinion and it will be available soon," said Michael Roche, staff attorney for Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Brian Corrigan.

At issue are files that contain more than 50,000 pieces of sealed evidence from a grand jury investigation.

Mason has argued that the files should be publicly disclosed. At a minimum, the prosecutor wants permission to give the information to the diocese and other appropriate public agencies.

Mason has said he advocates the public release of substantiated allegations that were barred from prosecution because of the statute of limitations -- those include about 80 incidents involving priests. He objects to the release of the names of victims and unsubstantiated accusations.

Diocesan attorneys have argued that the information should not be released to the public. However, they do not oppose selective disclosure to the diocese and other government agencies.

Options for Corrigan include making the files public, releasing the files only to social service and police agencies, releasing the files only to the diocese, or not releasing them at all.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.