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March 24, 2010

Column #1,491

(second of two parts)

Catholic Priest Scandal – Declining in US?

By Mike McManus

            This week America’s Catholic Bishops reported that in 2009 there were the fewest number of sexual abuse victims, allegations and offenders since 2004.  Each figure was about one-third lower than last year. And the 398 victims of 2009 were less than half of the 889 who came forward in 2004.

            Last year $55 million was paid to victims in settlements, a significant 83 percent drop from $324 million in 2008.  However, nearly $29 million was paid to attorneys vs. only $6.5 million for victim therapy.

            The report was gathered from 193 of the 195 dioceses by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a respected independent research group. One small diocese was late in filing its numbers and the Diocese of Lincoln, NE has never cooperated.

            One impressive part of the report was a separately conducted audit by The Gavin Group of Boston.  It examined 73 dioceses in depth, and found that six were non-compliant. For example, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis had failed to report the abuse of a minor by a priest to civil authorities, but did so when the matter was brought to the attention of the Archbishop. Although the priest had been removed from service, the Archdiocese initially felt the behavior was not grievous enough to report to the police.

            The audits turned up other flaws. “The Diocese of Baker does not provide safe environment training” for the diocese’s 3,818 children because the bishop does not feel it is appropriate to provide any type of sex education to any prepubescent child, believing that is the duty of parents.  However, no training was offered last year to the parents, either, though it is scheduled. The Diocese of Fresno had not trained 9,530 of its 36,181 children, but pledged to do so by June 30, 2010.

            The fact that these flaws are published is encouraging, for none would have come to light before 2002 when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops set up the annual reporting system. 

            However, two elements of the report struck this reporter as odd.  The CARA study of all dioceses reported only 398 credible victim allegations in 2009.  Yet the independent audit of only a third of the dioceses surfaced 738 abuse allegations, nearly twice as many!  The inevitable conclusion is that the bishops are still not reporting all of the allegations that come to their attention.

            “Any data they give is suspect,” commented Jeff Anderson, an attorney who has represented 4,000 victims. “I am suspicious of any self-reported, self-supervised and self-scrutinized data.”

            Second, only 21 of the 798 reported by the audit involved the abuse of current minors.  Some 97 percent of the complaints were made by adults who were recalling abuse of themselves as children, mostly 25 to 45 years ago.  Half of the accused priests had already died.

            A central flaw of child sexual abuse reporting is that children do not realize they have been victimized until decades after the incident.  One woman told me that she happened to see a priest touching a child inappropriately, which prompted her to recall a similar abuse of herself 35 years earlier. 

            The legal problem is that many states have “Statutes of Limitation” that require reporting of a criminal act by age 18 in New York, for example, or of a civil complaint for damages by age 23.  Victims groups, such as the 6,000 member Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), have urged states to lift their Statutes of Limitation. 

Maine passed such legislation and California offered a one-year “window” during 2003 in which adults of any age could file cases against anyone who had sexually abused them.  A thousand victims came forward with allegations against more than 800 Catholic priests plus another 150+ teachers, coaches or Boy Scout leaders. Some 300 new perpetrators were identified. Delaware created a two-year window that surfaced 200 new allegations.

Similar laws are under consideration in Arizona, Wisconsin, Guam, Connecticut and New York’s House of Representatives has passed the legislation four times, but it is only now moving in the Senate.  This is encouraging to Cardozo Law School Prof. Marcie Hamilton, author of “Justice Denied: What America Must Do To Protect Its Children.”

She would like to see the Federal Government appoint a Commission to investigate the Statute of Limitations issue, as was done in Ireland.

She charges, “Present law gives perpetrators the cover to go after more victims.”

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