How the Study of Sexual Abuse by Priests Was Conducted

By Josh Barbanel
NY Times
January 12, 2003

[This article describes a survey reported in Laurie Goodstein, Trail of Pain in Church Crisis Leads to Nearly Every Diocese. See also a timeline and table and charts summarizing the survey results, with an Excel spreadsheet of the table.]

As the scandal of sexual abuse by priests roiled the Roman Catholic Church and the country, the true dimension of the problem remained elusive. Was it a crisis that was overblown by lawyers and the news media, as some church defenders say? Or was it a growing malignancy deep in the culture of the church?

To begin to address these questions, The Times created a database listing the names and stories of all known priests publicly accused of the sexual abuse of minors in America over more than 50 years.

The reports were culled from newspaper clippings, court records, church documents and statements, and were checked against public lists of accused priests created by victim advocacy groups. Dioceses across the country were called to fill in missing details and to gather information about abuse cases and actions taken by the church against accused priests.

Some accounts were specific and offered many details about a lawsuit, or a trial and convictions. Others were vague — a disclosure. for example, that a priest had been suspended for some misdeed in the 1980's and removed from office, without many other supporting details known.

By the end of 2002, The Times had identified 1,205 priests who were accused of abuse of minor children, as defined by state law. Of these, 432 faced action by the church this year, as disclosures about the Boston Archdiocese prompted a public outcry over the problem.

The database included only ordained priests identified by name who faced specific accusations of abuse of a minor; it excluded deacons, brothers, nuns or laypeople working for the church. Accusations involving adult parishioners and students were excluded.

Some dioceses have disclosed accusations against additional priests, but have refused to identify them by name. These too are not included in the counts. Officials of several dioceses with no reported abuse cases in the database refused to come to the telephone or specifically refused to comment at all on any accusations of sexual abuse against priests.

To better understand these cases and trends, The Times identified the year most accused priests were ordained, using information in The Official Catholic Directory and biographical information provided by dioceses. Ordination information was unavailable for priests who were trained abroad or who left the church or died many years ago.

The study also compiled data and estimates on the number of priests ordained each year from annual editions of The Official Catholic Directory; from the Annuario Pontificio, a Vatican directory; and from estimates provided the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, as well as a few individual dioceses.

The study found that 1.8 percent of priests ordained since 1950 have been accused of sexually abusing minors, including nearly 3.3 percent of priests ordained in two particular years, 1970 and 1975. Since ordination data was unavailable for 12 percent of all accused priests in the database, they were not included in the calculation. But if all of these priests were ordained after 1950 and used in the calculation, the figure could be as high as 2 percent.

The study, although the most complete of its kind, faces some methodological limitations that make it difficult for either supporters or opponents of the church to draw sweeping conclusions.

Although some facts were verified from the church or other official sources, some information was based on published reports that could not be independently verified by The Times.

The availability of the reports varied from diocese to diocese, depending on public awareness of the scandal, and the willingness of church leaders to provide names and details of accused priests.

In addition, some child abuse experts say that it may takes decades for victims to become aware of or understand the nature of abuse that occurred when they were children.

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