Survey finds cases of abuse by priests in most dioceses

Majority were ordained from mid-1950s to 1970s


The sexual abuse crisis that engulfed the Roman Catholic Church in the past 12 months has spread to nearly every American diocese and involves more than 1,200 priests, most of whose careers straddle a sharp divide in church history and seminary training.

Those are among conclusions drawn from a survey of documented cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests over the past six decades.

The New York Times survey, covering cases through Dec. 31, compiled the names and histories of 1,205 priests who have been accused. It counted 4,268 people who have claimed publicly or in lawsuits to have been abused, though experts say there are surely many more who have remained silent.

The survey provides a statistical framework for viewing the sexual abuse crisis against the modern history of the American Catholic Church. It found, for example, that most priests accused of abuse were ordained between the mid-1950s and the 1970s, a period of upheaval in the church, when men trained in the traditional authoritarian seminary system were sent out to serve in a rapidly changing church and social culture.

Most of the abuse occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, the survey found. Allegations decline sharply for the 1990s.

"This has been going on for decades, probably centuries," said Richard K. O'Connor, a former priest who says he was one of 10 boys sexually assaulted by three priests in a South Bronx, N.Y., parish in 1940, when he was 10. "It's just that all of a sudden, they got caught."

The survey also shows how pervasive the abuse has been. Using information from court records, news reports, church documents and interviews, the survey found accusations of abuses in all but 16 of the 177 Latin Rite dioceses.

Every region was seriously affected, with 206 accused priests in the West, 246 in the South, 335 in the Midwest and 434 in the Northeast. The crisis reached not only such big cities as Boston and Los Angeles but also Louisville, Ky., with 27 priests accused, and St. Cloud, Minn., which had nine.

The scandal has set off an intense debate within the church over what caused it and what can resolve it. Many Catholic conservatives blame the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and the social upheaval of the 1960s for removing inhibitions on sexuality and dissent. Liberals tend to find the root causes in what they call the church's repressive approach to sex, including celibacy, and its ingrained culture of secrecy.

The data, together with extensive interviews with priests, former priests, abuse victims, church historians, psychologists and experts on sexual disorders, suggest that although the problem has involved only a small percentage of priests, it was deeply embedded in the culture of the priesthood. Many priests began seminary training as young as 13, and all of them spent years being groomed in an insular world in which sexual secrets and transgressions were considered a matter for the confessional, not the courts.

The Times survey counted priests from dioceses and religious orders who had been accused by name of sexually abusing children. It determined that 1.8 percent of all priests ordained from 1950 to 2001 had been accused.

But the research also suggested that the extent of the problem remains hidden. In dioceses that have divulged what they say are complete lists of abusive priests the percentages are far higher. In Baltimore, an estimated 6.2 percent of priests ordained in the past half-century have been implicated in the abuse of minors. In Manchester, N.H., the percentage is 7.7, and in Boston it is 5.3.

Experts say it is impossible to know whether priests abuse more or less often than those in other professions, or even in the general population, because there are no reliable studies.

"You really don't have a true picture. I have worked with many clergy sexual abuse cases over the years, and very, very few of them were reported," said William R. Stayton, professor and coordinator of the human sexuality doctoral program at Widener University in Chester, Pa., who was shown the study.

These are among the findings:

Half of the priests in the database were accused of molesting more than one minor, and 16 percent are suspected of having had five or more victims.

Eighty percent were accused of molesting boys - nearly opposite the percentage of boys for laypeople accused.

While the majority of the priests were accused of molesting teen-agers only, 43 percent were accused of molesting children 12 and younger.

Those ordained in 1970 and 1975 included the highest percentage of priests accused of abuse: 3.3 percent.

Of the 432 priests removed from ministry last year, 183 were suspended. Bishops were known to have begun the most drastic step, defrocking, for only 11 priests, despite agreeing to a policy last year that encouraged this option. At least nine priests have been reinstated.

The Boston Archdiocese had the most priests accused - 94 - but not the most proportionally. More than a dozen dioceses had a higher percentage of active priests accused.

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