Catholic Church says reported U.S. cases of child sex abuse lowest since 2004

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

With clergy sex abuse scandals unfolding across Catholic Europe, a 2009 survey of the U.S. Catholic Church released Tuesday showed the lowest numbers of child victims, allegations and financial payouts since the annual survey began in 2004, shortly after the issue exploded in the United States.

The survey -- funded by the bishops but conducted by independent researchers -- relies mostly on data supplied by dioceses. It shows 398 new victims came forward in 2009 with "credible allegations of sexual abuse" of a minor, down each year from 889 in 2004. They named 286 priests and deacons, 45 percent of whom had not been named before.

Last year, the U.S. church paid out $104 million, including $6.5 million for victims' therapy, $10.9 million for offenders (including therapy and living expenses) and $28.7 million in lawyers' fees.

Some advocates for abuse survivors called the survey a sham, noting it relies on data provided by church bodies and participation was not required. Dioceses, eparchies and religious orders were polled, and 15 percent did not complete the survey.

"Can anyone really think that the Catholic hierarchy's deeply rooted, centuries-old patterns of self-serving secrecy and deceit have suddenly been reversed and that heinous crimes once routinely hidden are now routinely revealed?" said David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

There is passionate disagreement about how far the American church has come in the past decade on clergy sex abuse.

Some believe the U.S. church has become a model for public schools and groups that work with children, pointing to the creation of reporting systems and abuse point-people at each diocese, payments and other outreach to victims, heightened screening at seminaries and criminal background checks of people who work in parishes with youth.

"The Church's efforts to come to grips with these problems within the household of faith -- which have been more far-reaching than in any other institution or sector of society -- have led others to look to the Catholic Church for guidance on how to address what is, in fact, a global plague," papal biographer and commentator George Weigel wrote last weekend after Pope Benedict XVI issued an apology to sex abuse victims in Ireland.

Others see only panels and paperwork and an internal culture that has not changed, never holding accountable bishops and church leaders who allowed offenders to continue their ministries.

"All this stuff affects the 99 percent of people who aren't part of the problem. It's the bishops and the priests" who are, Clohessy said. "As long as Catholic employees still see bishops minimizing, denying clergy sex crimes, they'll do it, too."

Clohessy noted Tuesday that the church spent more in 2009 on financial support for offenders and legal fees than on victims. He predicted that more cases will come to light in the future, in part because the U.S. church is forced to import priests from other countries as American men opt out of the priesthood.

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