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 CNS Special report:
 Coverage of John Jay report, National Review Board study.

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Transmitted 03/01/2004 1:53 PM ET

Clergy sex abuse report and study mark major milestone

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The U.S. Catholic Church reached another key milestone in dealing with its clergy sexual abuse crisis Feb. 27 when two major documents on the extent of the abuse and its causes were released simultaneously.

Milestones aren't end points. They only serve as progress alerts.

But the National Review Board report on the causes and context of the abuse and the John Jay study of the nature and scope of the abuse mark two important breakthroughs.

They provide for the first time a full objective accounting of how bad the problem was and a thoughtful independent critique of what led to this sad chapter in church history.

"This study and this report, while painful to read, form a vital benchmark," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, at a press conference following the release of the two documents.

The John Jay study -- conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, one of the nation's top institutions in that field -- said its survey found that at least 10,667 people had reported plausible claims of childhood sexual abuse by 4,392 priests or deacons between 1950 and 2002. This represents 4 percent of the approximately 110,000 diocesan and religious priests who served in the United States in those years.

Are those numbers an underreport? Certainly. No one claims all victims have come forward.

Diocesan records of some claims may have been destroyed years ago under different approaches to record-keeping, and church officials who were involved have long since died or forgotten about it.

Some claims may have never been put in the personnel files for a variety of reasons -- including in the past an often too-ready willingness to dismiss the claims of a child because the accused adult denied it. That problem -- still with us in many forms throughout our society -- was much more of a problem in both church and society at least until the 1980s.

By now, it's also a virtual certainty that some victims of abuse in the 1950s, '60s or '70s have died without ever bringing their claims to church or civil officials. From the heart-wrenching stories of drug and alcohol abuse, sexual and relational problems and attempted suicide told by many who have reported the traumatic impact of their childhood abuse by a priest, it's clear that at least some fellow victims from the earlier decades covered by the study took their secret horror and shame to the grave.

In addition, the John Jay study by its nature had to establish an end-date for data collection. Because the survey was conducted in the middle months of 2003, the survey asked for reports received by the end of 2002.

In California alone, prompted by a one-year suspension of the statute of limitations for civil suits for sexual abuse of minors, approximately 800 lawsuits claiming sexual abuse by Catholic priests were filed in 2003. Most priests named had previous accusations against them, but a substantial number of the new lawsuits involved claims against priests not previously accused.

Bishop Gregory said the bishops need to discuss what will be included in future annual reports from dioceses regarding allegations and their disposition since the end of the John Jay report.

William Burleigh, coordinator of communications for the National Review Board, told Catholic News Service that the bishops will face "real pressure" to abide by the board's January recommendation that future annual diocesan audits include yearly updates on new sexual abuse allegations, their disposition, costs, and other factors covered by the John Jay study.

So the figures in the John Jay study suffer several limitations and are not as complete or comprehensive as they might be in an ideal world.

That said, the oft-repeated laments by advocacy groups, that the John Jay study can't be trusted because it relies on self-reporting by the fox in charge of the hen house, seem unmerited.

The John Jay researchers got a 97 percent response from dioceses -- an almost unheard of level of cooperation in a sociological study -- and more than 60 percent response from religious orders, representing more than 80 percent of religious priests in the country. The religious orders' response -- voluntary because those orders were not mandated to participate by the bishops' 2002 charter to protect children -- was also unusually high for such a study.

Certainly the data are flawed on many counts. But there is simply no evidence to warrant accusations that any bishop, or those they assigned to supply the data for the John Jay study, intentionally lied or covered up the extent of the problem in their diocese.

The National Review Board's report on the causes and context of clergy sexual abuse of minors is revealing on many counts. The report relies on the findings of the John Jay study, the national study of first annual diocesan sexual abuse compliance audits completed last year and reported this January, and interviews with more than 80 victims, priests, bishops, lay leaders and experts in a variety of fields.

The report will give little comfort to those U.S. bishops who have not moved aggressively in the last two or three years to halt sexual abuse of minors by priests and to remove abusers from ministry.

Most of today's bishops would not fit in those categories, however. Since the bishops adopted their 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," almost all -- if not all -- bishops have removed from public ministry all priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor. The borderline cases have involved disputes over what constitutes a "credible" accusation.

At least 700 priests were removed from all ministry in 2002-03 as a result of the charter or in anticipation of it -- about 1.6 percent of all priests then serving.

The report highlights a closed seminary environment up to the 1960s and a too-open reactive seminary environment in the 1970s as part of the institutional problem behind the crisis. In the former, future priests got little or no training to deal with questions of intimacy and sexuality, and some of those ordained were so psychosexually immature that they identified with, and acted out with, children and teenagers. In the latter, seminary faculty unequipped to cope with the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s offered too little guidance to students who were part of that culture.

The review board said that whatever the ideological viewpoints of the witnesses it interviewed "all agreed that the rapidly changing (seminary) climate -- from a strictly regimented atmosphere to an 'anything goes' atmosphere -- contributed to the current crisis" by failing to form seminarians for a mature celibate commitment.

Experts say the seminaries have made major strides in screening and formation in celibacy and sexuality in the past 15 years. To the extent that sexual attacks on children by adults are part of the sinful human condition, it is inevitable that some of those adults will be found among the nation's 45,000 Catholic priests. To the extent that conditions in society or an institution enable or contribute to such conduct, the epidemic character of priestly abuse of minors appears to have been a phenomenon of the 1960s, '70s and early '80s.

Issues of mandatory celibacy and homosexual orientation in the priesthood receive nuanced treatment in the review board's report. It raises some tough questions for bishops to deal with, but it does not fall prey to the easy solutions of the left -- let priests marry -- or the right -- ban all homosexuals.

Some of the report's most scathing criticisms are directed at the bishops who failed to recognize the horror of sexual abuse of children, ignoring the human and pastoral needs of victims and mollycoddling abusive priests.

The church has seen a sea change in that area over the past two years. While some bishops do a better job of it than others, most now meet personally with victims. Only a tiny minority still refuses to do so. There are still many steps to be taken on the demanding road of pastoral care, outreach, healing and reconciliation, but at least most bishops are on the path.

As a whole, the bishops of the nation have taken the lead in confronting their past failures and have set an example that other institutions entrusted with the care of children would do well to follow. The John Jay study and the National Review Board report are significant signposts of that work.

If the bishops continue along that path, there is good reason to believe Bishop Gregory's comment on the release of the two documents, "The terrible history recorded here today is history. ... We are determined that this troubling past will give way to a healing and reconciling future in which we will continue to fulfill our commitments to those who have suffered and to their families, to our children and young people who are our future, to the Catholic community and to all of society."

END

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