Boston Archdiocese Releases Abuse Report

By Denise Lavoie [Boston MA]
February 26, 2004

BOSTON (AP) The Boston Archdiocese, epicenter of the clergy sex abuse crisis that has shaken the Catholic Church, released a report Thursday showing that 815 children were abused by 162 of its priests since 1950.

The number of accused priests is about 7 percent of the 2,324 priests who served in the archdiocese between 1950 and 2003. Of the 815 victims, more than half were abused by just seven priests.

Abuse victims and their advocates immediately assailed the report, saying the numbers were remarkably low, given the hundreds of victims who have come forward since the scandal first exploded in Boston two years ago.

"These numbers need to be taken with a mountain of salt," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

"We'll never know the full truth because victims don't tell, and only the most naive would assume that church officials have done a complete 180-degree turn and are now telling everything they know."

The statistics were compiled as part of a nationwide survey of clergy sex abuse conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

The national report, scheduled to be released to the public on Friday, was overseen by the National Review Board, a lay watchdog panel formed by American bishops after the abuse scandal erupted in Boston in January 2002.

Critics say the system is flawed because it allows church officials to self-report on the abuse.

Boston attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who has represented hundreds of clergy sex abuse victims, called the report "an insult to victims everywhere."

"We have an entity here that has allowed the wholesale sexual abuse of children by clergy, and to allow them to count the numbers just doesn't make any sense," Garabedian said. "There is a huge credibility problem here."

The numbers are lower than those reported by Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly, who said last year that his investigation found close to 1,000 children had been abused by 237 priests and 13 other church workers between 1940 and 2000.

In addition to 162 archdiocesan priests, 44 members of religious orders, 10 visiting priests and three deacons were accused of sexually abusing a total of 150 people during the same time period.

Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley called the numbers "truly horrific."

"It's still very painful to look at these numbers and to realize the great pain inflicted on so many youngsters, and all that this represents," O'Malley said in an interview with The Associated Press. "It's alarming and very discouraging."

Although the national John Jay report contains figures from 1950 through June 2003, the Boston archdiocese's figures include allegations made through December 2003.

Of the 815 allegations of sexual abuse by priests reported since 1950, more than half took place between 1965 and 1982, but nearly 500 of the reports of abuse came in since the scandal broke in 2002, the report said.

Fifty-eight of the 162 accused priests are now dead, the report said.

The report did not identify the seven priests linked to more than half the incidents. But the late Rev. John J. Geoghan and Rev. Paul Shanley were among the priests named in dozens of lawsuits filed over the last two years.

Since 1950, the archdiocese has paid out $120.6 million to settle abuse claims, the report said.

O'Malley said he takes "some consolation" that the incidents of abuse appeared to decline over the past 20 years, a remark that angered some victims' advocates, who also complained that the archdiocese appeared to be trying to downplay the numbers by saying that just seven priests were responsible for much of the abuse.

"The suggestion that this was only a small group of bad apples and that the numbers have gone way down is an embarrassment to the archdiocese. When did these people become experts on child abuse?" said Boston attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represented more than half of the 552 victims who reached a record-setting $85 million settlement with the archdiocese last year.

The scandal began after internal church files revealed that Geoghan and many other priests were transferred from parish to parish rather than removed from ministry after they were accused of abusing children.

In December 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop of Boston the nation's fourth-largest diocese amid a storm of criticism over his handling of the crisis.

Alexa MacPherson, 29, who said she was molested by a Boston priest for six years, beginning when she was just 3, flatly rejected the archdiocese's numbers.

"They're wrong. I don't care what that document says. They're 100 percent inaccurate and they're low-balled, and they need to be adjusted to a true figure," she said.

But former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, who also served as U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, praised the report as an important attempt by the church to publicly acknowledge the extent of the problem.

"The openness here now that is being exhibited is an opportunity for lay Catholics to understand the problem and commit themselves to being active so that what happened in the past never happens to another child in the future," Flynn said.

O'Malley said the archdiocese went through every priest's personnel file it has to tally the number of accusations and number of priests. All allegations contained in the files were included, he said.

"I understand people's pain and upset, and that some people are skeptical," he said. "But I think the church has made a very bold move in commissioning this John Jay study, and we know that it will be for the good of our church and our society."