Scandals, compensation programs lead Catholic clergy sex abuse complaints to quadruple in 2019

By Michelle Boorstein
June 26, 2020

James Grein is among the men alleging sexual abuse or harassment by now-defrocked cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Here Grein shows postcards from McCarrick. The McCarrick scandal is among the reasons experts think complaints against the church went up in 2019.
Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta

[Note from For the first time in 13 years, since the report about the data for 2006, this new report doesn't show the aggregate total responses to the survey. In previous years, the surveys were reproduced at the back of the report, with the total responses added for each question. See, for example last year's report. In this this year's report, those responses are omitted.

In last year's report, the survey for religious orders omitted the question: "Of the total number in item 32, the number that have had one or more previous allegations reported against them prior [to the period of the report]. See that question in the report on data for 2016-2017, and see its omission in the report on data for 2017-2018. Dropping this question from the religious order survey meant that it was not possible to calculate the number of religious order priests accused for the first time during the survey period. That question was restored in this year's report, but the number was not provided, either in the copy of the survey at the end of the report or in the text. This means that for a second year we don't know how many religious order priests were accused for the first time in the survey period.

By contrast, it is possible to calculate that number for diocesan priests: 2017-2018: 156 diocesan priests accused for the first time (436-280=156; see the survey) 2018-2019: 598 diocesan priests accused for the first time (1,391-(1391x.57)=598; see the text)

The number of priests accused for the first time each year is significant. It allows a running total to be calculated as BA does on this page, which is being updated to include data from the new report.]

The number of allegations of Catholic clergy sex abuse of minors more than quadrupled in 2019 compared to the average in the previous five years, U.S. church officials reported this week, in part the result of new church-run compensation programs for victims as well as survivors driven to come forward by several major clerical abuse scandals.

The annual audit of nearly 200 dioceses and church entities across the country has been done since 2002, when reports of clergy abuse and coverups exploded and U.S. bishops approved reforms, including a yearly review of complaints and compliance. The reform package is often called the “Charter."

The report released Thursday by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the 2019 report — which covered July 2018 through June 2019 — counted 4,434 allegations of clergy sex abuse against minors. That number was 1,451 in 2018, 693 in 2017, 1,318 in 2016 and 903 in 2015.

Of the 4,434 allegations covered in the report, about half — 2,237 — were deemed credible by the church.

Thirty-seven of the 4,434 allegations came from people who were minors during the time period the report covered — eight of which the church-run bodies deemed substantiated, according to the report. In recent years, that’s about average for substantiated, past-year claims. There are about 37,000 diocesan and religious order priests in the country.

The complaints the church deemed credible were analyzed further by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a church-affiliated research center on the Catholic Church. CARA found that of those whose time frame could be determined, 57 percent of credible allegations that came in 2019 happened before 1975, 41 percent between 1975 and 1999, and 2 percent since 2000, the report said.

Church officials said the fact that there remains such a small number of claims of recent abuse shows that their reforms are working and that the jump in reporting of older claims reflects confidence complaints will be taken seriously.

“It reflects the same pattern we’ve been seeing — there hasn’t been a real uptick in cases since the Charter,” said Francesco C. Cesareo, the chairman of the National Review Board, a committee created by the Catholic Church in 2002 to oversee the implementation of the Charter. “I think the data is out there to show that the Church has been the one institution that has really taken an institutional approach to this and put in place policies and protocols that have resulted in a much safer environment within the Church."

Some survivor advocates saw other things in the report. SNAP, a clergy-abuse survivors’ organization, emphasized the report’s finding that the status of 863 allegations is “unknown” and another 956 are ongoing.

“Church officials pretend they’re reporting on a past problem when in fact thousands of proven, admitted and credibly accused clerics who have committed or concealed child sex crimes remain ‘under the radar,’ living and working among unsuspecting neighbors, friends, co-workers and even relatives,” SNAP wrote. The Church, it said, should be focusing on locating all still-living child abusers to protect from future abuse and “punishing the still-living ‘enabling’ clerics who are ignoring or hiding those criminals.”

Cesareo wrote in a letter attached to the report that the Church needs to allow a more in-depth and truly independent audit. While the report uses the word “independent” six times, the nature and scope of the audit is determined by the bishops, as are the questions. The audit is done by StoneBridge Business Partners, using information given to it by dioceses. The dioceses also determine which allegations are credible.

A more independent process is needed “if the bishops hope to regain the credibility that has been lost among the laity,” Cesareo wrote.

The report says the spike in numbers is in part due to the fact that multiple dioceses around the country created compensation funds for victims whose cases had passed the statute of limitations in their states to sue, as well as lawsuits and diocesan bankruptcies. The report says such cases account for 37 percent of allegations.

Catholic provinces and dioceses that responded to the CARA survey said they had paid out a total of $282 million related to allegations the came in between July 2018 and June 2019.

Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the USCCB, said researchers believe there are many additional factors, including “the news of high-profile revelations that also prompted people to step forward.”

In June 2018, the Vatican announced the suspension of then-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a popular U.S. church leader who was archbishop in Washington before he retired to serve as a part-time global diplomat for the Vatican. He was accused of child sexual abuse and then, later, of sexually harassing seminarians and young clergy. He was defrocked last year.


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