Catholics Bracing for 2 National Studies on Abuse
'These Reports Will Be Very Sobering,' Warns a Bishop

By Don Lattin
San Francisco Chronicle [United States]
February 23, 2004

For weeks, Catholic bishops in Northern California and across the country have been putting price tags on the sexual abuse scandal in their cities and towns, adding up the human toll, issuing new apologies and getting ready for the next wave of bad news.

They are preparing the faithful for two new national studies -- both scheduled to be released this Friday -- on the causes and costs of five decades of priestly sex abuse and subsequent church cover-ups.

"These reports will be very sobering," warns Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In Northern California, the sexual abuse of children and teenagers by Catholic priests has been a major story and persistent scandal since 1994, when a leading San Francisco priest, Monsignor Patrick O'Shea, and two other Catholic clergyman were sued by nine molestation victims.

But the long-term scope and cost of the scandal are only now taking shape.

In the last month, the Catholic bishops of San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Santa Rosa, Modesto and Sacramento reported that over the past 50 years, 123 priests have faced credible accusations of sexually abusing minors, according to the dioceses' own surveys.

All together, the bishops say, the church has paid out over $35 million in court judgments, settlements and related costs.

What will the national figures show?

According to a report by CNN, a draft of the national report said that 4, 450 of the 110,000 U.S. clergy who served since 1950 were accused of molesting minors. That would mean roughly 4 percent had been accused of abuse, although not all the claims are likely to be deemed credible in the final report.

The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York was commissioned to conduct the survey based on statistics provided by the nation's 194 dioceses.

The Associated Press has been tracking those numbers and, as of last Friday, 112 of the 195 U.S. dioceses reported accusations against 2,243 clergy. The tally of abuse claims is 4,757 so far, and some dioceses that faced large numbers of cases, including Boston and Louisville, have yet to report.

Even before the release of the national report, various Catholic interest groups have begun arguing over whether the sexual abuse of minors is higher among Catholic priests than it is in the overall population -- or whether it is higher among schoolteachers or Protestant ministers, for instance, than men in Roman collars.

Last week, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights issued its own report "Sexual Abuse in Context: Catholic Clergy and Other Professionals."

League President William O'Donohue argues that it is "grossly unfair" for the news media to focus on Catholic priests, while paying little attention to the sexual abuse of children and teenagers in public schools. Their report cites a variety of sources, from newspaper articles to academic studies.

"In New York City alone," the league's report states, "at least one child is sexually abused by a school employee every day."

It also notes that "family members are the most likely to sexually molest a child."

Meanwhile, national estimates on the monetary cost of the scandal in the Catholic Church have been all over the map. Some church critics have said it could run up to a $1 billion, but other sources say the report will be closer to half that. But no matter what figure is reported this week, the fiscal toll will continue to rise.

In Northern California alone, the six Catholic dioceses still face an estimated 150 lawsuits involving sexual abuse. Church lawyers have asked the state Judicial Council to consolidate those cases in one courtroom -- and to make it in Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco, which includes Marin and San Mateo counties, reports that it has 66 abuse lawsuits pending against the church involving 23 priests -- 11 of whom are deceased.

In addition to the national statistical report, a lay watchdog panel the bishops formed to oversee the survey -- the National Review Board -- has conducted its own investigation into the causes of the crisis.

That report, says David Gibson, author of a recent book titled "The Coming Catholic Church," will be the one to watch.

"This crisis has moved beyond sexual abuse," Gibson said in an interview. "Catholics want to see changes in how the church is run. They want accountability for the hierarchy and reform in financial areas."

U.S. Catholics put an estimated $5.8 billion into the collection plate in 2002. And that does not count the hundreds of millions of dollars church agencies receive in government grants to run homeless shelters and other social services.

In an article this month in Commonweal magazine titled "Follow the Money, " Gibson says that the next big church scandal may be more fiscal than carnal.

"Dioceses today are sprawling, multi-tiered corporations," he writes. "Yet there is no mechanism in place for publicly accounting for these monies, or for doing so in a way that is remotely intelligible to the average parishioner."

Chronicle news services contributed to this report.E-mail Don Lattin at


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