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Church in Crisis

Times survey compiles thousands of abuse cases


The New York Times, following a months-long study, reported Jan. 12 that a total of 1,205 priests have been accused of sexual abuse of more than 4,000 minors during the last six decades.

The survey contains the names and histories of the priests, most of them ordained “between the mid-1950s and the 1970s, a period of upheaval in the church, when men trained in the traditional authoritarian seminary system were sent out to serve in a rapidly changing church and social culture,” said the story, written by Laurie Goodstein.

According to the Times report, most of the abuse occurred during the 1970s and 1980s, although some reports stemmed from as early as the 1930s, with accusations of abuse against priests dropping sharply by the 1990s. Accused priests were found in all but 16 of the country’s 177 Latin-rite dioceses, according to the report.

The survey is significant because while various experts and factions within the church have debated the dimensions of the scandal, the church has resisted compiling data on the number of priests and victims since the problem was first reported nationally in the mid-’80s.

The Times survey is not the final word, nor does it claim to be a complete listing of all priests credibly accused. But it is the most thorough to date publicly compiled survey, given the limits it placed on the information it was gathering.

“The Times survey counted priests from dioceses and religious orders who had been accused by name of sexually abusing one or more children. It determined that 1.8 percent of all priests ordained from 1950 to 2001 had been accused of abuse.

“But the research also suggested that the extent of the problem remains hidden,” the story said. “In dioceses that have divulged what they say are complete lists of abusive priests -- under court orders or voluntarily -- the percentages are far higher. In Baltimore, an estimated 6.2 percent of priests ordained in the last half-century have been implicated in the abuse of minors. In Manchester, N.H., the percentage is 7.7, and in Boston it is 5.3.”

The findings, then, raise the question of how many more cases would surface if pressure were brought to bear either by the courts or news coverage in other dioceses.

Goodstein said in a phone interview that the figures are “very conservative,” and emphasized that the paper did not include a number of accusations that did not appear credible, nor did it include cases that dioceses counted in their own records but for which they would not supply a name. In some cases, she said, dioceses would not give names for several reasons, including if the priest had died.

The paper also reported that some experts contend the drop in accusations in the 1990s was due less to the efforts of the church than to the reluctance of victims to come forward immediately.

According to the Times story, the information used was “culled from newspaper clippings, court records, church documents and statements, and were checked against public lists of accused priests created by victim advocacy groups. Dioceses across the country were called to fill in missing details and to gather information about abuse cases and actions taken by the church against accused priests.”

Availability of information varied from diocese to diocese “depending on public awareness of the scandal and the willingness of church leaders to provide names and details of accused priests.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 24, 2003