The True Scope of Abuse

Hartford Courant [Hartford CT]
February 25, 2004

Connecticut's three Roman Catholic dioceses reported recently that 75 priests sexually abused about 200 youths over the past half century. To date, the dioceses have paid about $40 million to settle claims.

Numbers alone don't tell the story of the tragedy, which has left a trail of drug abuse, broken marriages, mental breakdowns and suicide among victims. For decades, dioceses across the nation were fixated on protecting accused priests instead of reaching out to victims.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is scheduled to release a nationwide tally of abuse Friday. Preliminary figures indicate that the scope of the abuse was worse than previously believed - about 4 percent of priests may have molested children.

Each diocese was asked to provide figures for the nationwide survey, but there's no way to determine the accuracy of the self-reporting. For starters, new allegations surface regularly. The bishop of Springfield, Mass., resigned recently, one day after he was confronted with allegations that he had molested two youths years ago.

Church officials in Hartford, Bridgeport and Norwich say that none of the accused priests in the three dioceses remain in active ministry. It would be more reassuring if they released the names of the priests and disclosed where they are living. The tragedy is compounded if abusers are moved to another community, with no guarantee that they will be kept away from children.

After decades of inaction, dioceses finally are establishing procedures for receiving complaints and reporting allegations to law enforcement authorities.

The Hartford Archdiocese is training employees to recognize signs of sexual abuse. It also has created an office for people to call if they suspect sexual abuse. Allegations will be turned over to the state Department of Children and Families and law enforcement authorities. These are long overdue steps.

Too often dioceses minimized complaints, negotiated secret settlements and moved priests to new assignments.

Releasing state and national statistics is a step toward greater transparency. Just as important is to actively reach out to victims to ensure they get help and to take steps to protect parishioners, especially children. Prosecutors must be vigilant to ensure that the church complies with state law on reporting abuse.


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