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

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Transmitted 02/27/2004 2:22 PM ET

Four percent of priests serving over last 50 years accused of abuse

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- About 4 percent of U.S. priests ministering from 1950 to 2002 were accused of sex abuse with a minor, according to the first comprehensive national study of the issue.

The study said that 4,392 clergymen -- almost all priests -- were accused of abusing 10,667 people, with 75 percent of the incidents taking place between 1960 and 1984.

During the same time frame there were 109,694 priests, it said.

Sex-abuse related costs totaled $573 million, with $219 million covered by insurance companies, said the study done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

It noted, however, that the overall dollar figure is much higher than reported; 14 percent of the dioceses and religious communities did not provide financial data and the total did not include settlements made after 2002, such as the $85 million agreed to by the Boston Archdiocese.

The study, released in Washington Feb. 27, was commissioned by the U.S. bishops' National Review Board, which also released its own report at the same news conference on the causes of the clergy sex abuse crisis that has rocked the church for the past two years.

The review board, named by the bishops and composed of prominent lay people, is monitoring compliance with the U.S. bishops' policies to prevent clergy sex abuse.

The John Jay study concentrated on providing statistics about the nature and scope of the crisis.

The study said the sharp decline in abuse incidents since 1984 coupled with the declining percentage of accusations against priests ordained in recent years "presents a more positive picture" than the overall statistics.

It said that 68 percent of the allegations were made against priests ordained between 1950 and 1979, while priests ordained after 1979 accounted for 10.7 percent of the allegations.

For the entire 52-year period "the problem was indeed widespread and affected more than 95 percent of the dioceses and approximately 60 percent of religious communities," said the study.

The study was based on detailed questionnaires returned by 195 of the 202 dioceses, Eastern eparchies and other ecclesial territories tied to the United States. This 97 percent compliance was "an extraordinarily high response rate," said the study.

The study also contains data from 60 percent of the religious communities in the United States representing 80 percent of the religious priests.

At the news conference, Gerald Lynch, president of John Jay College, said the study was "accurate and comprehensive" regarding child sex abuse in the church.

"This was not a sampling. We had an entire population," said Lynch.

Karen Terry, John Jay principal investigator for the study, said that "it is possible the bishops are not giving us everything."

But based on the data and church requests for help in getting information to researchers, "this was a good faith effort to provide information," she said.

The number of permanent deacons accused was 41, about one-quarter of 1 percent of the permanent deacons ordained during the period. The number is so small that the survey includes the figure in the overall total for priests.

Child sex abuse was more prevalent among diocesan clergy. Allegations were made against 4.3 percent of the diocesan priests and 2.5 percent of the religious priests, said the study. Of the total clergy accused, 929 were religious priests, it said.

Regarding substantiated allegations against priests in ministry at the time, the most common action by church authorities was to send the priest for medical evaluation or treatment, said the study.

No action was taken against a priest in 10 percent of the allegations, and in 6 percent of the allegations the priests were reprimanded and returned to ministry, reported the study. Other actions included suspending priests involved in 29 percent of the allegations and placing priests involved in 24 percent of the allegations on administrative leave, it said.

The study listed the main characteristics of the sex abuse incidents reported. These included:

-- An overwhelming majority of the victims, 81 percent, were males. The most vulnerable were boys aged 11 to 14, representing more than 40 percent of the victims. This goes against the trend in the general U.S. society where the main problem is men abusing girls.

-- A majority of the victims were post-pubescent adolescents with a small percentage of the priests accused of abusing children who had not reached puberty.

-- Most of the accused committed a variety of sex acts involving serious sexual offenses.

-- The most frequent context for abuse was a social event and many priests socialized with the families of victims.

-- Abuses occurred in a variety of places with the most common being the residence of the priest.

"Like in the general population, child sex abuse in the Catholic Church appears to be committed by men close to the children they allegedly abuse, many appear to use grooming tactics to entice children into complying with the abuse, and the abuse occurs in the home of the alleged abuser or victim," said the study.

Enticements included buying the minor gifts, letting the victim drive a car and taking youths to sporting events, said the study.

The concentration of abuse was among a small percentage of the accused priests while most of the priests accused, 56 percent, had only one victim, said the study. A further 27 percent had two or three victims, it added.

Slightly more than 3 percent of the accused priests had 10 or more victims and these 149 priests accounted for abuse of 2,960 victims, representing almost 28 percent of the allegations.

Although most of the incidents occurred before 1985, two-thirds of the allegations have been reported since 1993.

Regarding the drop-off in reported incidents after 1985, Robert Bennett, National Review Board member, said at the news conference that it was in part due to bishops becoming alarmed about the situation in the 1980s and '90s and starting to take preventive measures.

John Jay's Terry, however, was cautious about the statistical drop-off. She noted that there is generally a lapse of several years between a sex abuse incident and the making of a public allegation. She said many allegations about events in the 1990s may not have been reported yet.

The John Jay study said that pedophilia, an attraction to pre-pubescent children diagnosed as a psychiatric disease, was a smaller part of the sex abuse problem. It said that 22 percent of the victims were under 10. It added that 51 percent were 11 to 14 years old and 27 percent were 15 to 17 years old.

Regarding offenses, the study cataloged more than 20 ranging from verbal harassment to penile penetration. It said that most of the abusers engaged in multiple types of abuses.

Only 9 percent of the accused performed acts limited to improper touching over the victim's clothes, said the study.

Slightly more than 27 percent of the allegations involved a cleric performing oral sex and 25 percent involved penile penetration or attempted penile penetration, reported the study.

Most of the allegations involved touching over or under clothing.

The study said sexual abuse "includes contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult." It added that the abuse does not have to involve force or genital or physical contact.

Almost one-third of the accused "showed a history of substance abuse, questions about his 'fitness for ministry' or behavioral problems," said the study.

Almost 7 percent of the accused were reported to have been abused as children, it added.

Regarding action by civil authorities, the study said that "3 percent of all priests against whom allegations were made were convicted and about 2 percent received prison sentences."

The study said that the data gathered will be used for more detailed future reports and analysis on aspects of the clergy sex abuse situation.

END

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