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Spotlight Report

Church hierarchy faulted by lay panel on abuse

700 priests removed by bishops in 2 years

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 2/28/2004

WASHINGTON -- The Catholic bishops of the United States have removed about 700 allegedly abusive priests and deacons from ministry over the last two years, a dramatic housecleaning at the end of a half-century in which 4,392 priests allegedly abused 10,667 minors.

A panel of 12 lay people chosen by the bishops yesterday sharply criticized the church hierarchy for what the panel called "the multitude of preventable acts of abuse." The lay panel, called the National Review Board, said that dioceses had failed to properly screen and train candidates for the priesthood, and that some bishops had failed to respond effectively to allegations of abuse.

"These leadership failings have been shameful to the church, both as a central institution in the lives of the faithful and a moral force in the secular world, and have aggravated the harm suffered by victims and their families," the board said.

The board released two studies sought by the bishops, one a quantitative study examining the nature and scope of abuse from 1950 to 2002 prepared by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the other the National Review Board's report examining causes of the abuse.

The John Jay study found that dioceses around the country had spent $572 million for victim compensation, treatment of victims and priests, and legal expenses by early 2003. The actual cost to the church nationally is certainly higher; 14 percent of dioceses did not report how much they had spent on abuse-related costs, in many cases because they still faced unsettled claims, and since the study was conducted, the Archdiocese of Boston agreed to spend an additional $85 million to settle cases.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the report "very painful to read," but said "the terrible history recorded here is history" and that "as far as it is humanly possible to know such things, I assure you that known offenders are not in ministry." Gregory apologized to victims, acknowledged "the fault of church leaders who failed to appreciate and effectively act on the gravity of the abuse problem," and urged victims who have not yet come forward to consider doing so.

Victims and advocates reacted with skepticism, saying they believe the study, which relied on self-reporting by dioceses, understated the numbers of abusers and victims. Victims' groups also charged that some abusers remain on the job and that some bishops are not honoring their pledge to meet with victims.

"Whether the numbers are accurate or not is subject for debate," said Gary Bergeron, a leader of a Massachusetts group, the Survivors of Rev. Joseph Birmingham. "By using the Catholic Church's own numbers, what is no longer debatable is the immense damage that has been done to the lives of thousands of innocent children."

The board members called for lay involvement in the selection of bishops, a process that now takes place in complete secrecy. They also called for greater power for existing structures that could serve as a check on the power of individual bishops, such as councils of lay people and priests, as well as a strengthened national conference of bishops through which bishops could correct one another.

"There appears to have been a general lack of accountability for bishops for the reassignment of priests known to have engaged in the sexual abuse of minors," the board said.

The board's report also criticized the Vatican's role, saying, Rome "did not recognize the scope or gravity of the problem facing the Church in the United States despite numerous warning signs; and it rebuffed earlier attempts to reform procedures for removing predator priests."

A lay organization, Voice of the Faithful, said it was launching a national petition drive to ask Pope John Paul II to hold bishops accountable.

"The glaring omission in this report is that there is no accounting of the number of bishops who knowingly transferred sexually abusive priests," said Voice of the Faithful's president, James E. Post. "This omission is unacceptable and stalls abuse survivors, the hierarchy, and the laity in their attempts to protect children and create a better, safer, and healthier church environment."

Members of the National Review Board said they expect that the number of abuse accusations could rise immediately, as publicity over the reports could cause more victims to come forward.

The board said the data from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study could be low for two reasons: Some dioceses may not have recorded or kept all reports of abuse allegations, and the self-reported data could be inaccurate. But the board called the study "the most complete and reliable picture to date."

The John Jay study confirmed a number of previously reported patterns to the clerical abuse: Most of the victims were male, most of the alleged abusers were ordained before 1979, and the vast majority of the offenders escaped any punishment by the criminal justice system. The study found that 81 percent of victims were male, leading the National Review Board to conclude that "the crisis was characterized by homosexual behavior."

But the study also offered some new insight into the pattern of abuse. For example, the researchers found that 79 percent of the victims lived with both parents, a statistic that suggests that those prominent abusers, like the Rev. John J. Geoghan of Boston, who seemed to target the children of single mothers, were in the minority.

The review board report said the crisis cannot be understood without consideration of two controversial factors: homosexuality in the priesthood and the requirement for priestly celibacy. The group did not draw any conclusion about those factors, but said they deserve further study.

The review board, led in its research by Washington lawyer Robert S. Bennett, said that bishops did not understand that abuse was epidemic in the church because they did not effectively communicate with one another; that bishops prioritized protecting the institution of the church, allowed concern over litigation to interfere with their pastoral duties, and failed to understand the harm done by abuse to victims. They also said that canon law made it too difficult to remove priests from ministry.

The review board recommended better screening and training of candidates for the priesthood, greater accountability of bishops, more cooperation with civil legal authorities in reporting all allegations of abuse, and more meaningful participation by lay people in the church.

Among the review board's recommendations was a call for further study of the causes of abuse in the church and society, for ongoing audits of diocesan compliance with child-abuse prevention policies, and for periodic review of the effectiveness of the zero-tolerance policy.

Gregory said that all of the recommendations of the review board would be considered by the bishops' conference, but he did not commit the bishops to follow any of the particular recommendations, saying they had not yet had time to review and discuss the report.

The board expressed concern that if the church does not do a better job holding its leaders accountable, it invites government interference.

Some victims groups have eagerly sought such intervention -- in Boston tomorrow, a group of victims will call on Governor Mitt Romney to monitor the four dioceses of Massachusetts -- but the review board said it has been troubled by agreements between bishops and attorneys general that seem to give civil authorities power over the church. Such agreements have been reached in Manchester, N.H., and in Phoenix by dioceses seeking to avoid prosecution.

"In the board's view, any agreement between a diocese and civil authorities in which the diocese gives power to the civil authorities to oversee the diocese is a troubling infringement of the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion," the board said. "Unfortunately, it was the serious failings of some bishops that caused this exercise of state authority over Church matters. Finally, to the extent that a bishop avoids consequences for himself by agreeing to provisions that impose onerous financial or operational restrictions on the diocese, the board has grave concerns about the apparent conflict of interest."

The studies were conducted as part of the bishops' response to the abuse crisis that exploded in January 2002, after The Boston Globe published a series of stories about the Archdiocese of Boston's failure to remove abusive priests from ministry. In June of that year, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed to a series of reforms, including the establishment of the board that conducted the studies released yesterday.

The bishops also agreed to remove all abusive priests from ministry, and it is that pledge, Gregory said, that led to the removal of about 700 priests and deacons. Although a group of scientists and psychiatrists consulted by the Vatican this month questioned whether all abusive priests, including those with just one alleged incident, should be ousted, Gregory said yesterday that the bishops are fully committed to removing priests with a single accusation.

The crisis led to the resignation of Boston's archbishop, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, in December 2002. Law was singled out for criticism in the review board's report.

"the board is deeply disturbed by the situation in Boston," the board said. "The picture that emerged was that of a diocese with a cadre of predator priests and a hierarchy that simply refused to confront them and stop them.

"It is clear from the Review Board's examination of the Boston Archdiocese that Cardinal Law paid insufficient personal attention to the problem of sexual abuse of minors by priests under his authority and that the clerics to whom he delegated responsibility for this issue often failed in their handling of it," the report said.

"Nor did Cardinal Law properly supervise those to whom he delegated authority, essentially abdicating responsibility for a matter of paramount importance to the integrity of the Church. As one bishop said of Cardinal Law, `I think he wasn't even paying attention,' " the report said.

The John Jay study was conducted through three questionnaires mailed to dioceses and religious orders. According to John Jay College, 97 percent of the 195 dioceses, and religious orders, representing 80 percent of the religious order priests in the nation, participated in the survey. The college determined that approximately 4 percent of all priests were accused of abuse between 1950 and 2002.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.


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