Catholic Church reports 1,092 new cases of abuse

Alleged victims of scandal are still coming forward

February 19, 2005|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,SUN STAFF

More than a thousand new sexual abuse complaints were lodged against U.S. Roman Catholic clergy last year, according a new report suggesting that the church is still suffering through a scandal that has rocked the institution since 2002.

Released yesterday, not long after convictions of two prominent sexual abusers - including defrocked Baltimore priest Maurice Blackwell - the audit of local dioceses found that the church paid more than $157 million last year in connection with the scandal, bringing the nationwide total to at least $840 million.

There were 22 new allegations in Baltimore, all of which involved sex abuse that occurred years ago by priests who are no longer active, officials said. But the national numbers indicate that many victims are still coming forward.

"The crisis of sexual abuse of minors within the Catholic Church is not over," said Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Child and Youth Protection, which commissioned the audit.

"What is over is the denial that this problem exists, and what is over is the reluctance of the church to deal openly with the public about the nature and extent of the problem."

Auditors recorded 1,092 new allegations reported against clergy in 2004, but only 22 of the sex abuse cases were said to have occurred last year, along with nine new allegations of child pornography.

Both McChesney and victims' advocates cautioned that such a low number is misleading, because abuse victims typically report several years afterward.

In fact, most of the new allegations concerned abuse that took place years, even decades, ago. Most of the 756 priests and deacons accused are either dead, defrocked or removed from ministry, church officials said.

In Baltimore, three of the 22 new allegations were not deemed credible, and in three more the identity of the priests was unknown, according to Alison D'Alessandro, the diocesan director of child and youth protection.

The audit also tracked the extent to which dioceses and religious institutions have complied with reforms the U.S. Catholic bishops adopted in 2002, known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. The rules were designed to minimize further abuse and make it easier for victims to come forward.

Most of the 194 dioceses were found in compliance with the charter, including Baltimore's. Seven were not, including the Eparchy of Newton, Mass., the only regional church organization to fail two years in a row.

But McChesney said that eparchy (the term for a diocese of the Eastern Church), is small and struggling with the finances required to carry out the procedures.

Nationwide, most of the deficiencies involved training and background evaluation procedures, said William Gavin, principal of the Boston-based Gavin Group, which assembled a team of former FBI agents to conduct the audit.

The diocese of Lincoln, Neb. refused to allow on-site auditors, which automatically made it noncompliant, the report said. Lincoln's Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz previously complained that the audit process has "inherent flaws."

The charter that set up the audit system is nonbinding, so no disciplinary action is planned for bishops who do not comply, conference officials said.

A small group of victims' advocates gathered outside the Washington conference room where the report was released yesterday. Afterward, they complained that he audit focuses too much on compliance with policies and not enough on effectiveness.

They said auditors interviewed far too few victims to provide an accurate picture. Gavin said 135 abuse victims had been interviewed as part of the audit.

"How is it that you have any fix on what's going on when you're not talking to the most important people?" asked Janet Patterson, who wore a picture of her son on a chain around her neck. Eric Patterson, who was abused by a priest in Kansas at age 12, committed suicide in 1999.

Victims' advocates also complained that an already weak auditing system will become more so next year.

The bishops have agreed on a change that would limit the number of mandatory on-site visits to noncompliant dioceses and institutions. And McChesney, a former top FBI official whose 2002 appointment was intended as a signal that the bishops intended to attack the problem aggressively, will step down next week - the end of the two-year term she pledged to serve.

But Bishop William W. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the bishops conference, said his colleagues have universally changed their attitudes. "In a certain sense, it will never be over," he said. "We can never again be complacent about how ministry takes place in the church."

The scandal reached crisis proportions in 2002 amid reports that priests who were known abusers had routinely been allowed to remain active and were often transferred from parish to parish when complaints arose.

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