Leaked Numbers Provoke Dispute
Abuse Report 4,450 Alleged Priest Abusers over Last 50 Years

By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter [Washington]
February 27, 2004

Plans for a carefully orchestrated release of the most comprehensive data yet gathered on the extent of the clergy sex abuse crisis fell apart last week as an early draft of the report was leaked to CNN.

The cable network reported Feb. 16 that, based on its review of the study, 4,450 priests were found to have been 'credibly accused' of abusing approximately 11,000 children in the United States over the past half-century.

Whether those numbers are high, low or about what might be expected was a matter of some contention among experts and advocates familiar with the crisis. And whether the prematurely released numbers will be deemed accurate when the report is officially made public Feb. 27 is also an open question.

'The numbers reported in the media were apparently taken from a preliminary report completed in January 2004,' officials at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, authors of the study, said Feb. 17, a day after the initial CNN report.

'The college has received additional data,' which, said the statement, 'includes corrections to earlier drafts of the report.' John Jay said it would have no further comments until the report is released.

There are actually two reports scheduled for public release at the end of February. The first, conducted by the John Jay researchers, will provide a quantitative analysis of the national scope of clerical sex abuse over the last half century. The school's researchers used data provided by nearly all U.S. dioceses and religious orders to determine the number of victims and alleged priest abusers.

The John Jay study was commissioned by the National Review Board appointed by the bishops to investigate clergy sexual abuse; the review board's report on the 'causes' of the crisis, like the John Jay study, is to be released Feb. 27.

According to CNN, the John Jay study found that:

Approximately 4 percent of U.S. priests were credibly accused of abuse over the past half-century.

Seven-eight percent of the victims were between ages 11 to 17, while the remainder were younger than age 10.

A relatively small number of priests, 147, were alleged to have abused approximately 3,000 children.

More than half of the accused priests faced a single allegation, 25 percent faced two or three allegations, 13 percent had four to nine, and 3 percent had 10 or more.

Reaction to the numbers was swift.

'The big issue is that only a handful of sex abuse victims ever come forward,' said Gary Schoener, a Minnesota-based therapist who has consulted on hundreds of church-related abuse cases. Based on that reality, said Schoener, 'you've got to change the 4,450 figure to a pretty horrific number.'

Victim advocates share Schoener's analysis. 'If half of [the priests] face only one accuser, it clearly suggests that there are thousands of people who have yet to come forward,' said David Clohessy, executive director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The 'self-reporting' methodology of the John Jay study means that the numbers represent a 'floor' and not a 'ceiling,' said psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe.

'Any sociologist will tell you that you can expect minimization' when information is self-reported, said Sipe, a former Benedictine monk who has written extensively on clergy sex abuse and church reform. 'And this is a self-report.'

Further, said Sipe, the report findings 'don't seem to be entirely consistent' across dioceses. What one diocese may consider a 'credible accusation' may not meet the standards of another, he said. Sipe pointed to dioceses such as Baltimore, Boston and Manchester, N.H., where previously reported rates of abuse were found to be higher than the 4 percent of priests identified nationally in CNN's reporting.

Sipe's view was shared by victim advocates, who contend that sexual abuse is an underreported crime.

'I think virtually every reputable professional in psychology and law enforcement will tell you that the odds that a molester molested only once are extraordinarily slim,' said Clohessy. 'It speaks to the continued and inevitable difficulties victims face coming forward and to the unwelcoming climate' they face when they bring their stories to church officials, said Clohessy.

Like Sipe, Penn State University professor Philip Jenkins raised the question of whether 'different dioceses are using different standards as to what is 'credible.' ' Still, said Jenkins, author of Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, the 'overall numbers are exactly in the ballpark' and reflect the distinctions between those who abuse pre-pubescent children and those who abuse teenagers.

It appears, said Jenkins, that the study reflects '100 or so really intense serial pedophiles who account for most of the cases' of abused children under age 10.

Those who argue that the rate of abuse has to be higher than reported, said Jenkins, 'are taking the most extreme cases of serial pedophiles and treating them as if they are typical. If a man abuses a small child, like a 7- or 8-year-old, the odds are overwhelming that he will abuse five, eight or 20 children.' By contrast, he continued, a man who abuses a '16- or 17-year-old' is not necessarily engaged in a 'pattern of behavior.'

Though arriving at different conclusions, Sipe and Jenkins agreed that the age grouping reported by CNN -- placing 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds together with older teens -- does not provide an adequate picture.

'I wish they had done a better breakdown of the ages, and maybe they do in the final report,' said Jenkins. Sipe wondered whether the grouping was designed to 'minimize the number of pedophiles' in an effort to cast blame on gay priests.

Said Schoener: 'True pedophilia is extremely rare, so that the fact that you're dealing with mostly cases of adolescent [abuse] is no surprise.'

Meanwhile, dioceses throughout the country, some prompted by CNN's disclosures, were jumping the gun on the John Jay report and publicly releasing the data they provided to the researchers.

The dioceses of Bridgeport, Conn.; San Jose, Calif.; Arlington and Richmond, Va.; Anchorage, Alaska, Portland, Maine; and Rockville Centre, N.Y., are among many that provided local media with data they provided to John Jay.

In the nation's largest archdiocese, Cardinal Roger Mahony released a 34-page report on abuse in the Los Angeles archdiocese dating back to 1930. The report revealed that nearly 5 percent of the 5,000 priests who served in the archdiocese over the past seven decades faced allegations of abuse.

'The thinking in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s appears to have been that the victims, accused priests and the archdiocese itself would be better served by handling such matters pastorally and privately,' said the diocesan report. 'The common understanding within and outside the church was that this type of misconduct was treatable and curable by more intensive spiritual direction, with emotional and psychological counseling, and that this was better achieved privately.'

The report describes the abuse-related programs implemented by the archdiocese over the last 20 years, up to the current 'zero-tolerance' policy for priests with credible accusations against them. Still, said the report, 16 accused priests remain in active ministry; of those 16, allegations against 12 'either do not constitute child abuse or are not sufficiently credible ' to warrant removal from ministry without further corroboration.' While the other four 'are so recent that a preliminary investigation has not been completed or the information available at this time is not sufficient to warrant removal.'

At the U.S. bishops' meeting in Washington last November, review board member Robert Bennett issued a warning: If the findings of the eagerly anticipated report were disclosed prior to the scheduled release, the board would make the report public immediately. The idea, it was clear, was to avoid exactly what has transpired: a 'premature' release of highly charged data.

Now, following CNN's disclosure, the board has backtracked and has no plans to release the study prior to Feb. 27.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is


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