Friday, March 31, 2006

Sex-abuse accusations against the nation’s priests were down last year, but the flood of millions of dollars in payouts more than tripled and shows no signs of stopping, the United States’ Roman Catholic bishops said yesterday.

“It is disheartening to us bishops, as it must be to all Catholics, to find that there are still some allegations of abuse by clerics against today’s children and young people,” Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said during the release of the conference’s annual report on sex-abuse statistics.

The report, commissioned in 2002 by the USCCB’s Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, tracks what the country’s 195 Catholic dioceses are doing to end a sex-abuse crisis that has involved 12,537 youths — mostly boys and young men — and 4,827 priests.

The bishop cited himself as a sign of the scandal’s durability, adding that he is the target of a sex-abuse charge filed Dec. 27 by a woman who has accused him of abusing her in the early 1960s. He has denied the charge.

He said his own Diocese of Spokane, Wash., is bankrupt because of lawsuits. Bishop Skylstad insisted, though, that he is still happy with the USCCB’s “progress.”

But “I do so without being either naive or in denial about the power of this crisis to affect the ongoing life of the church and the lives of victims of abuse who suffer from its consequences for many years after its actual occurrence,” he said.

Accusations against Catholic priests decreased 28 percent last year, but the cost in millions of dollars to the nation’s Catholic dioceses shot up 219 percent last year, the USCCB said.

Specifically, $139,582,157 was paid out in sex-abuse cases in 2004 — for settlements, attorneys’ fees, victim therapy and other costs. Last year, that amount rose to $445,686,548, including the $100 million that California’s Diocese of Orange agreed to pay to 90 claimants in January and $120 million the Covington, Ky., diocese agreed to pay to more than 100 victims in June.

According to the Catholic News Service, the U.S. church to date has paid $1.3 billion in settlements.

A USCCB report shows 783 credible accusations of child sex abuse reported last year, down from 1,092 in 2004. Of the 783 charges, nine occurred last year, the USCCB said, and the others occurred mostly in the 1960s and 1970s.

Despite the charter and all the safeguards it imposed, the USCCB said cases still fall through the cracks. On March 20, the Archdiocese of Chicago admitted that it had allowed the Rev. Daniel McCormack to remain in ministry for months after he had been accused of pedophilia. Three boys have accused the priest of molesting them from 2001 to 2005.

The problem, said Bill Gavin, head of the Boston-based Gavin Group, which conducts annual “audits” on Catholic dioceses, is that his investigators are not allowed to research personnel files.

“The people in the Archdiocese of Chicago didn’t deliver to the cardinal the candor he needed,” Mr. Gavin said. “I expect the auditors didn’t get it, either.”

Moreover, about 104 dioceses that have been found fully compliant two years in a row with the charter were allowed to fill out a questionnaire last year in lieu of an on-site visit by investigators.

The sex of the abuse victims reported last year was the same as was reported for the years 1950 through 2002 — 19 percent were girls and 81 percent were boys. Almost half (49 percent) of the victims were between the ages of 10 and 14, 23 percent were ages 15 to 17 and 14 percent were younger than 10. The ages were not specified for 14 percent of the victims.

A supplemental report, issued by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said there were no warning signs for the typical abuser, who is a priest in his late 30s who has been ordained 11 years. Diocesan priests tended to be abusers twice as much as priests from religious orders.

“The red flags aren’t there,” said Karen Terry, the report’s principal investigator. Except for a small group of serial abusers who began abusing children around the time of their ordinations, “there are no identifiable psychological problems.”

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