- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) | The price for failing to rein in predatory clergy keeps rising for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

The church has paid more than $2.6 billion in settlements and related expenses since 1950, according to an annual report released Friday by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The costs to dioceses and religious orders dropped in 2008 by 29 percent, to about $463 million. But 2007 was an unusually high year, when the Archdiocese of Los Angeles began paying its $660 million settlement to about 500 people - the largest deal by a U.S. diocese.

“The overall costs are still very high,” said Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. She compiles the statistics on claims and expenses each year.

New accusations continue to pour in, seven years after the abuse scandal erupted into a national story over evidence of a coverup by the Archdiocese of Boston, which put an unrelenting national and international spotlight on the problem and inspired victims to come forward by the hundreds.

“It’s proof that victims come forward only when they’re able,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The number of claims rose last year by 16 percent to 803. As in previous years, nearly all the new cases were brought by adults who said they were abused as children decades ago. Dioceses and religious orders said 98 of the new accusations could not be proven or were deemed false.

Most of the accused are dead, missing or already out of public ministry or the priesthood.

The statistics are part of an annual review of child safety in American dioceses and religious orders that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops mandated.

The evaluation is among the reforms that the bishops adopted in 2002, at the height of the abuse crisis. The plan includes background checks for employees and volunteers, training children to identify abusive behavior by adults and a discipline policy for offenders that removes them from any public church work.

This year’s audit found nearly all participating dioceses compliant with the child protection policy. Still, auditors urged church officials to improve contact with law enforcement so that police can evaluate claims, and to publicize contact information for the lay panels that help bishops respond to new cases.

Dioceses spent $23 million on child safety last year, the bishops said.

“There are areas we need to improve on, but the structures are in place,” said Teresa Kettelkamp, a former Illinois state police officer who leads the bishops’ child protection office. “People have victim assistance coordinators. They have safe environment coordinators.”

Regarding costs, attorneys for victims have repeatedly accused bishops of falsely crying poor when confronted with new abuse claims. The plaintiffs’ lawyers say dioceses have more resources - property, insurance or other assets - than they reveal.

Dioceses told researchers that insurers have covered about one-quarter to one-third of abuse-related expenses each year since 2004. To pay the rest, bishops have sold land and buildings, including diocesan headquarters, taken up special collections and cut staff.

Six U.S. dioceses have sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the face of abuse lawsuits. One of the bankruptcies - in Fairbanks, Alaska - is pending. Last month, the Jesuits of the Oregon Province became the latest to seek bankruptcy protection, blaming more than 200 expected claims. Many of the anticipated cases involve Alaska natives who say they were molested as children while living in remote villages.

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