The U.S. Catholic Church has made some improvement in its response to its sex abuse scandal but still has a long way to go, according to analysts who have pored over the an annual audit released this week.
Dawn Eden Goldstein, a Catholic theologian and sex abuse survivor based in Washington, D.C., said it was significant that the 18th annual report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection shows Catholic dioceses paid out nearly $312 million in abuse-related costs in 2021, with most of the money going to victims and their attorneys.
“The enormity of the payments shows that, even though today fewer child abuse cases in the U.S. Catholic Church are reported than in the past, there remain many thousands of victims who are living with the wounds of abuse,” Ms. Goldstein told The Washington Times on Friday.
“As a Catholic author who writes about healing from trauma, my conversations with victims tell me that there is much more the Church could do to offer spiritual help to the abused and their families,” added Ms. Goldstein, a convert from Judaism who was sexually abused as a girl by a synagogue janitor.
She noted that while many dioceses help fund victims’ psychological care, “making such payments doesn’t relieve the Church of its obligation to offer spiritual accompaniment to survivors.”
The USCCB reported this week in the annual audit — conducted independently by the Rochester, New York-based Stonebridge Institute — that 3,924 adults came forward with 4,228 new allegations between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020. An additional 22 allegations came from current minors.
“The number of allegations is slightly less than that reported in 2019,” the report notes, adding that 838 of the allegations had been substantiated by the end of the audit period.
Last year’s report found 4,434 allegations for the annual audit period from 2018 to 20119.
Molly Fara, associate director of the secretariat, said Thursday that the annual report, which the bishops instituted in their 2002 Dallas Charter that implemented new child protection protocols, continues a trend in which the vast majority of new allegations stem from historical incidents.
“Three percent or less involve an alleged offense that occurred after the year 2000,” Ms. Fara told The Times.
However, she added that the church will continue encouraging survivors to report instances of abuse to secular and religious authorities “until the numbers are zero.”
“There have been significant gains over the past 20 years, but there is still more work to be done,” Ms. Fara said.
Tom Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and expert on sex abuse, said the U.S. bishops’ annual review offers “an excellent picture of the clergy abuse situation each year.”
“We want policies and procedures to be as airtight as we can get them for child protection in the Church. So this audit helps to see what is going well and what is not,” said Mr. Plante, who served on the Conference’s Child and Youth Protection National Review Board.
“Where there may be holes or problems we can then try and plug those holes or solve those problems,” he added.
Mr. Plante, who as a clinical psychologist screens seminary applicants and continues to serve on two independent review boards, said the independence of the auditing process makes it “highly professional and reliable” in weeding out “conflicts of interest.”
The report said auditors from the Rochester firm visited 61 dioceses either in person or remotely, in addition to collecting data from 135 others.
During the audit year, 22 allegations came from those who were minors at the time. Six of them were substantiated, two unsubstantiated, three unable to be proven, seven still under investigation and four categorized as “other.”
In 2020, the church increased its investment in protective services by 15%. That included more than 2.5 million background checks on clergy, employees and lay volunteers.
In addition, the report claims that 2.5 million adults and 3.1 million children were trained in how to identify the warning signs of abuse and how to report those signs. The report also said the church continued to provide outreach and support to 2,458 survivors and their families.
These numbers came as good news to some Catholic leaders this week.
The Most Rev. Michael Barber, bishop of the Diocese of Oakland, said “this audit shows the Church is keeping its promise to protect young people,” aid survivors, promptly investigate allegations, and “hold priests accountable.”
“We cannot let our guard down and must continue to train children and adults in protection, and continue to require background checks for all our staff and volunteers,” Bishop Barber told The Times in an email.
Rev. Jeffrey Kirby, a Crux contributor and moral theologian, added that he was “grateful for the ongoing vigilance of the U.S. bishops.”
“It’s essential that every parish and institution of the Church secure a safe environment for children and all vulnerable people,” said Father Kirby, a pastor in South Carolina.
Given that there were 49,926 members of the Catholic clergy and six substantiated charges involving minors during the audit period, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said in a press release, “this means that 99.9% of the clergy did not have a substantiated accusation” last year.
“In short, this problem has almost been wiped out in the Catholic Church,” Bill Donohue, Catholic League president, said in the statement Thursday.
Not all Catholics agree.
In a statement Thursday on a former Michigan priest who pleaded guilty to abusing three teenage boys in the 1970s, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) insisted that only aggressive secular investigations will keep the church accountable.
“Secular investigations are the most effective and indeed probably the only way to provide a small measure of justice for abuse that has been going on unabated for decades,” the SNAP statement reads in part. “These deep-dive inquiries also show the systemic cover-up by Church officials. No one knew more about these crimes, and no one did less to protect children, than the Catholic dioceses and religious institutions themselves.”
Last week, Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson issued a report documenting credible allegations by 258 victims against 57 officials in the state’s three Catholic dioceses, with all but 34 of the cases occurring before the year 2000.
Many of the cases now include allegations from “vulnerable adults” who were abused as seminarians in their 20s by religious superiors like ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was accused credibly in 2019 of abusing minors as well as young men.
Simcha Fisher, a Catholic blogger who writes often about clergy abuse cases, said many laypeople have begun to ignore the USCCB annual audit due to fatigue over the endless statistics that keep emerging on historical abuse cases.
“I guess we have to believe them when they say that there have been relatively few new reports and that they have all been followed up on appropriately, but in reality, it still seems like there’s this massive disconnect and unwillingness to acknowledge the profound and lasting harm they have caused,” Ms. Fisher said.
The New Hampshire-based writer added that she felt queasy when her local diocese “fell all over itself” to reassure churchgoers that the bishop, who had been accused of sexual misconduct, would remain in office and it would be “business as usual” while the investigation was conducted.
“They still somehow don’t seem to understand that there is this gaping, bleeding wound in the heart of the church, and ‘business as usual’ is the last thing we want,” Ms. Fisher said.
“They don’t seem to know that most Catholics have more or less given up the hope of meaningful change, let alone meaningful repentance, from the bishops. They just keep issuing reports,” she added.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Simcha Fisher’s state of residence.