BALTIMORE – Accusations of recent clergy sex abuse against children have declined dramatically since the U.S. Catholic bishops in 2002 reformed how they handled abuse allegations and priests accused of abuse, according to church officials.
Dioceses across the country have received 302 allegations of child sex abuse that occurred in 2000 or later, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. That’s down from more than 5,932 reported offenses that were alleged to have happened between 1960 and 1984.
But advocates for survivors of sexual abuse said it’s too early to know how accurate the church’s data are because victims in many instances don’t reveal that they’ve been abused until years or even decades later.
The Buffalo Diocese received a deluge of 191 new complaints over the past year – due in large part to a new program offering compensation to victims of abuse – but not one of them involved an instance of abuse occurring after 2000, said Lawlor Quinlan III, a lawyer for the diocese.
Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the U.S., earlier this week praised the bishops who are meeting at a Marriott hotel here for adopting measures in 2002 that “led to a steep decline in the incidence of reported abuse today.”
“Archbishop Pierre was correct to point out that a certain amount of progress has been made. That progress has been made because survivors have come forward and there’s been enormous pressure on bishops to change,” said Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org.
But he also said that survivors of abuse come forward with great difficulty and reluctance and that there are current cases in dioceses in which abuse is “still happening and that abuse is still being ignored and neglected and brushed aside.”
“I don’t see that a lot of change has occurred in the culture,” he said. “There’s a problem of clericalism in the Catholic church and it’s within that atmosphere that the abuse was rampant. Why is it to some extent moderated now? I think it’s really because survivors have come forward, because the press has been courageous in covering it. Lots and lots of priests who would be abusing right now have been removed because of all that attention.”
The bishops, many of them the same men who crafted the 2002 reforms, are under heavy pressure here to take those reforms even further, by adopting measures that hold them accountable in cases of their own sexual misconduct or in instances where they mishandled allegations of clergy sex abuse.
Still, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami described 2002 as a “watershed” moment in the life of the Catholic church and said bishops had done much since then to prevent childhood sexual abuse.
Wenski urged his colleagues to “maintain a certain perspective” and “not allow ourselves to get distracted” by ongoing negative media coverage.
“We’ve done a lot and we have to tell our story better and not get played in the outrage business,” said Wenski. “If bishops do their job, they can regain trust.”
Many of his fellow bishops applauded Wenski’s remarks Tuesday during a wide-ranging discussion on what the bishops should be doing now.
The church’s ongoing sex abuse scandal has been propelled by revelations that Archbishop Theodore McCarrick continued to climb the church hierarchy all the way to cardinal despite multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against him and by the release in August of a Pennsylvania grand jury report showing that bishops across the state had helped cover up abuses by 300 priests against more than 1,000 children.
A fuller accounting of abuses in other dioceses also is trickling out, including in the Buffalo Diocese, where The News since February has been chronicling allegations of abuse that had been kept secret by church officials for decades.
Buffalo Diocese officials revealed little about its handling of abusive priests in the wake of the 2002 Archdiocese of Boston sex abuse scandal, only telling parishioners that they had taken unidentified priests out of ministry and not allowed them to re-abuse.
Only in recent months have they begun identifying accused priests and acknowledged that the same kinds of bad decisions made in Boston had indeed been made in Buffalo.
“We need to tell the stories of that abuse. Too many lives were ruined. That chapter needs to be exposed; those stories need to be told to move forward,” said Quinlan.
While the Buffalo Diocese has identified 78 priests accused of sexual misconduct with minors, it has declined to disclose how many children each priest allegedly abused or what year or where the abuse occurred.
Quinlan said that it wasn’t fair to the Catholic church not to mention the strides it has made on preventing childhood sexual abuse since a “sea change” by the church in 2002 on the issue.
“The positive changes have had a dramatic effect on the number of instances of child-related sexual abuse both here in our diocese and all across the country. The number of occasions since 2000 are very, very few,” said Quinlan.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrapped up its meetings Wednesday without voting to approve new standards of accountability for bishops or the creation of a new special commission for reviewing complaints against bishops for violating those standards.
Vatican officials earlier in the week told the bishops to hold off on the vote until after a worldwide meeting of bishops scheduled for February.
Also Wednesday, six abuse victims from across the country sued the USCCB in U.S. District Court, District of Minnesota, alleging that the bishops had failed to implement key elements of the reforms they adopted in 2002, such as reporting all known child sex abuse to law enforcement authorities.
The suit, filed by attorney Jeff Anderson in Minnesota, asks the court to order bishops in 196 dioceses across the country to disclose the names of all known clergy offenders.
Story topics: Clergy sex cases