February 27, 2004
Two Studies Cite Child Sex Abuse by 4 Percent of Priests
By LAURIE GOODSTEIN
WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 Two long-awaited studies have
found that the Roman Catholic Church suffered an epidemic of child
sexual abuse that involved at least 4 percent of priests over 52 years
and peaked with the ordination class of 1970, in which one of every 10
priests was eventually accused of abuse.
The human toll amounted to 10,667 children allegedly victimized by
4,392 priests from 1950 to 2002, but the studies caution that even
these numbers represent an undercount. The totals depend on
self-reporting by American bishops, the studies note, and many victims
have never come forward out of fear or shame.
The studies were commissioned by the American Catholic bishops in 2002
in response to accusations of a massive episcopal cover-up of sexual
abuse by priests. They will undoubtedly provide fodder for
controversies between left and right in the church about issues like
homosexuality in the priesthood and whether the celibacy requirement
for priests should be revoked.
These reports provide the most comprehensive examination ever of child
sexual abusers in any institution, their authors said, so it is not
possible yet to determine whether Catholic priests are more prone to
molest children than any other professionals who work with youngsters.
"We wouldn't go near that because we just don't know," said William
Burleigh, chairman of the board of the E. W. Scripps Company and a
member of the group that prepared the report on the causes of the
One report is a data-driven study conducted by a group of academics at
the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York City. They sent
surveys to dioceses and religious orders asking for details about the
accused priests, their victims and the church's response, and compiled
their data from the responses.
They said that 97 percent of the dioceses filled out the surveys.
Among other things, the John Jay survey found that the church spent
more than $572 million on lawyers' fees, settlements and therapy for
victims and treatment for the priests. But the report said the figure
was prematurely low.
Researchers said in an interview that a more accurate total was about
three-quarters of a billion dollars, because the $572 million did not
include several recent settlements, like the $85 million paid to
victims by the Archdiocese of Boston and because 14 percent of dioceses
and religious orders provided none of the financial information
requested by the researchers.
The other report, on the causes and context of the crisis, was written
by a team of prominent Catholic lawyers, judges, businesspeople and
other professionals whom the bishops had appointed to a national review
They reached their conclusions after interviewing 85 bishops and
cardinals, Vatican officials, experts and a handful of victims, and
after seeing the data from the John Jay researchers. Those interviewed
were promised that their comments would not be attributed, which
resulted in great candor, the report said.
Their report, 145 pages and covered in purple to signify atonement,
dissects the culture in Catholic seminaries and chanceries that they
say tolerated moral laxity and a gay subculture. They make
recommendations for reform, but no judgments on whether church doctrine
or rules need to be changed.
"The problem facing the church was not caused by church doctrine, and
the solution does not lie in questioning doctrine," the review board's
The reports were prepared for release at a news conference in
Washington, D.C., on Friday morning. The New York Times had obtained an
embargoed copy, but the embargo was broken when the Diocese of Yakima,
Wash., disclosed the results in a press release on Thursday night, and
it was also picked up by The Associated Press wire.
Even the authors of the two reports do not agree on the meaning of the
findings. The review board's report mentions that more than 80 percent
of the abuse at issue was of a homosexual nature. The report theorizes
that the problem reflects a cohort of gay priests, based on their
figures that the percentage of male victims rose from 64 percent in the
1950's, to 76 percent in the 1960's and 86 percent in the 1980's.
"We do not seek to place the blame for the sexual abuse crisis on the
presence of homosexual individuals in the priesthood as there are many
chaste and holy homosexual priests who are faithful to their vows of
celibacy," the report said. "However, we must call attention to the
homosexual behavior that characterized the vast majority of the cases
of abuse observed in recent decades."
But the John Jay researchers differed, saying in an interview that they
have no data on sexual orientation of the perpetrators and that the
more likely explanation is that sexual abuse is a crime of opportunity
and priests had more unfettered access to teenage boys than to teenage
Karen Terry, an associate professor at John Jay who was the reports
principal investigator, said, "We don't know if that's because of
homosexual orientation or because that's who they had access to."
James Levine, dean of graduate studies and research at John Jay, who
coordinated the study, likened the phenomenon to male prisoners who
have sex with men, not because they are gay, but because that is who
they have access to.
The report on the causes and context of the crisis assigns the blame to
everyone from the bishops who turned their backs on victims and
protected their priests, to the lawyers who advised the bishops and the
psychiatric professionals most of them in Catholic-run institutions who
had a vested interest in claiming that they had rehabilitated abusive
The John Jay findings rebut the notion advanced by some church
officials that many accused priests had merely given a youngster an
ambiguous pat that was misconstrued or made an inappropriate remark.
The report found that none of the priests were accused of only verbal
abuse or pornography and only 3 percent of the acts included only
touching over the victim's clothes.
Instead, the researchers say they were surprised at the high rate of
serious offenses: in 27 percent of the cases the cleric performed oral
sex on the child; in 25 percent of the cases the cleric succeeded in or
tried to penetrate the child with his penis.
Consistent with previous reports, a small group of multiple offenders
appears to be responsible for an inordinate amount of the abuse. The
John Jay study found that 149 priests who had more than 10 accusations
of abuse were responsible for abusing 2,960 victims or 27 percent of
all the accusations. The majority, 56 percent of the accused priests,
had only one accusation against them.
Both reports are highly critical of the bishops and church officials,
and the Review Board's report singles out a few by name. Among them are
Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who resigned his post as archbishop of Boston
as a result of the scandal; Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York for
failing in his former post as bishop of Bridgeport, Conn., to remove a
priest with a developing pattern of accusations; and Cardinal Roger M.
Mahony of Los Angeles for resisting grand jury subpoenas that sought
church files on accused priests.
The review board's report on the causes of the crisis said that board
members could not find a single expression of outrage in church
correspondence from a supervising bishop about any priest that the
bishops knew had been accused of abuse.
The board's report said there must be consequences for bishops,
seminary administrators and church leaders, but it did not recommend
any particular action.
The review board members said their interviews with Vatican officials
suggested that the church in Rome did not comprehend the seriousness of
the crisis and had little understanding of the seriousness of sexual
abuse. Among those interviewed was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who
famously remarked at the height of the American scandal that fewer than
1 percent of priests were abusers.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those
Abused by Priests, said: "We are a tad closer to the truth. The only
safe assumption is we're still not seeing or hearing the whole
As for why so few priests were disciplined, the review board says that
besides bishops who were oblivious, insensitive or protective of their
priests, the church's canon laws were partly to blame. The canons
favored the accused and made it very hard for bishops to remove men
from the priesthood, the board's report said. But the report also notes
that the bishops did not make use of the avenues in canon law available
to them to discipline the priests.
The review board report said that among those they interviewed "some
witnesses likened the clerical culture to a feudal or military culture
and said that priests and bishops who rocked the boat were less likely
The John Jay researchers found that only 14 percent of the priests
accused of abuse were reported to the police by their bishops. The rest
were never reported, never investigated. Ninety-five percent were never
charged with a crime. Of the 217 priests charged, 138 were convicted.
But both reports also suggest that the bishops and religious orders,
who supply one-third of the nations priests and many of which also
cooperated with the John Jay survey, were unaware of how extensive the
problem was until very recently.
One-third of all accusations were reported in 2002-2003, after the
scandal erupted in the Boston Archdiocese with news reports about two
priests who were serial pedophiles. Two-thirds of the accusations were
reported since 1993, the John Jay report found.
The John Jay report found that the problem did not occur only in large
archdioceses or those where cases have already become public. Priests
were accused of abuse in more than 95 percent of dioceses and about 60
percent of religious orders. Of the 195 dioceses and Eastern rite
eparchies that responded to the survey, only seven reported that none
of their priests had been accused of abuse.
Even these figures do not provide the full picture, said Michele
Galietta, an assistant professor of psychology at John Jay who worked
on the report.
"Every kind of sex crime is under-reported.," Ms. Galietta said. "This
should not be regarded as the full extent of the problem."