The facts of clergy abuse

March 09, 2004

THE FINDINGS of two lengthy reports on the child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church underscore the need for ongoing monitoring of church policy and practice. The crisis may be over, the trouble of pedophile priests may have peaked in the 1970s, but the causes of the problem require further study and action.

The studies, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, offer an occasion to reiterate what would seem obvious: Abuse of a minor by a member of the clergy, whether priest, minister or rabbi, is not only a breach of trust but a criminal offense that must be reported to authorities. The focus over the past two years has been on the Catholic Church, but no denomination is immune. At the same time, it's important to recognize that nationally, 80 percent of reported child sexual abuse involves a family member, not a member of the clergy.

When the Catholic Church scandal broke in 2002 with the Boston Archdiocese's mishandling of two serial abusers, church officials responded with an action plan that has effectively removed some 700 priests from ministry and required bishops to report allegations of abuse to civil authorities regardless of state laws - commendable, if long-overdue, actions.

The two reports, released Feb. 27, provide a historical review of the extent of the problem from 1950 to 2002, the failings of church leaders to police problem priests and the financial costs to dioceses.

The shocking aspect of the finding that 4,392 priests - or 4 percent - allegedly abused 10,667 children is the fact that sex crimes are underreported. And abusive priests rarely paid for their crimes because, as the study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York found, the overwhelming majority of accused priests were never reported to police and 95 percent were never charged with a crime.

That must change, and it will if church leaders carry out the mandate set by the U.S. bishops. Annual audits of dioceses should be conducted to ensure compliance with the bishops' zero-tolerance policy, and there should be consequences for clergy - including bishops - who fail to report abuse to authorities. Maryland should join the 46 other states that set a penalty for failure to report child abuse or neglect.

The church-commissioned studies are compelling, if disturbing, documents. They candidly discuss the unfolding crisis over 52 years, dispel myths with grim facts and identify areas for further review - the recruitment and training of seminarians, the vow of celibacy and the sexual orientation of priests.

Ultimately, however, the safety of the church's most vulnerable members will depend on a commitment by individuals to put the well-being of children above the protection of an institution.

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