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Does Catholic Church have bigger sex abuse problem than other religions?

There were 105 Child Victims Act lawsuits against religious organizations in Western New York in the first two days those cases could be filed.

But only two of them targeted religious organizations that are not Catholic.

One lawsuit was filed against a Lutheran organization and a former Lutheran religion teacher who allegedly raped and molested a 13-year-old girl at First Trinity Lutheran Church in the Town of Tonawanda from 1978 until 1981. The other was filed against Buffalo’s Temple Beth Zion, alleging that a Hebrew tutor there repeatedly molested a 12-year-old female student during a nine-month period in 1970.

Ninety-eight percent of the 105 lawsuits against religious organizations in five Western New York counties named as defendants the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, priests and other individuals and institutions associated with the diocese.

Despite that, Nora Kovach, 54, who accused her former Lutheran religious education teacher, Bruce Arlen Connolly, in her lawsuit, said her case shows that child sexual abuse is not just a problem in the Catholic Church.

“In my opinion, the kind of thing that happened to me happens in all religious denominations,” Kovach told The Buffalo News. “I believe it happens in all churches, all organizations that deal with children. I believe the abusers are people from all walks of life … not just from the Catholic church.”

She alleges that Connolly groomed her for months by “telling me I was special” before raping her in a church basement and repeatedly kissing, groping and molesting her when he was supposed to be teaching her about religion. She said the sexual abuse made it difficult for her to trust anyone and “affected every part of my life since then.”

Her attorney, William A. Lorenz Jr. of HoganWillig, said most of the childhood abuse victims who come to his law firm for help are making complaints about Catholic priests.

But over time, Lorenz believes that more complaints will surface against other religious institutions.

“Throughout this country, over the past 10 years, the public spotlight has been on the abuses that happened in the Catholic churches,” Lorenz said. “I think all the publicity has made Catholic abuse survivors more willing to step up and tell their stories in lawsuits. But there are cases against other religious organizations and other institutions that deal with children.”

What research shows

According to BishopAccountability.com, the Catholic Church in the United States and its insurers have paid more than $3.2 billion to settle thousands of sexual abuse lawsuits, many involving sexual abuse of children. The vast majority of those payments have been made since 2002, said the not-for-profit organization, which tracks how Catholic church leaders handle abuse claims.

An average of 712 claims of sexual abuse of children were made annually against Catholic priests during the years 1990-2002, according to a 2006 study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

By comparison, the nation’s Protestant churches have paid much less money to settle a much smaller number of lawsuits, according to a study last year by three criminologists, Andrew S. Denney, Kent R. Kerley and Nickolas G. Gross.

The study by the three criminologists said insurance companies that provide coverage for 165,500 churches and religious organizations, most of them Protestant, reported 7,095 claims of alleged sexual abuse by clergy, church staff, congregation members or volunteers between 1987 and 2007. That is an average of 260 sexual abuse claims annually, resulting in payments totaling $87.8 million to all the victims.

Under its voluntary compensation program, the Buffalo Diocese has paid $17.5 million – just in the past year – to 106 childhood victims of clergy sexual abuse, The News reported earlier this year.

Scott Berkowitz is president of a national not-for-profit organization called the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. The group, which calls itself RAINN, is dedicated to helping sexual abuse victims and studying trends in sexual abuse cases.

The Catholic Church in America “has been particularly negligent” in its handling of child abuse claims, Berkowitz said when told about the high number of Child Victims Act cases filed against the Buffalo Diocese.

“You will find cases against every religious organization and every group that deals regularly with children,” Berkowitz said. “But the Catholic Church’s refusal to deal with this problem for so many years has put it in a situation where so much damage has been done that you have dioceses all over the country in bankruptcy.”

Opposing views

Amherst attorney Steven Boyd, whose firm has filed about 90 Child Victims Act lawsuits, said he believes the Catholic church does have a bigger problem with child molesters than other religions.

“Based on the people who come to our offices, no other denomination has the depth of problems experienced by the Catholic church,” Boyd said. “Religious groups that allow their people to get married certainly don’t have these problems.”

David F. Pierre Jr. takes a much different view. He is a devout Catholic and Massachusetts-based author who has written three books claiming that a large number of the abuse allegations made against Catholic priests are false.

“There is no question that there are legitimate cases where horrible things happened,” said Pierre. “But all the publicity about lawsuits and the amount of money that is available makes it more and more likely that people will file false allegations against the Catholic church.”

Based on his studies, many other church organizations in the United States have serious problems with sexual abuse of children but do not get the publicity that has been given to the difficulties experienced by Catholic churches.

A 2017 study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that blatantly false allegations of child molestation by priests are rare.

An audit of 695 new allegations between June 30, 2016 and July 1, 2017 found only 4 percent were determined by diocese or religious orders to be not credible and 25 percent were deemed credible.

The rest were still under investigation (35 percent), unable to be proven, usually because the accused was deceased (17 percent), or referred to another diocese for investigation (19 percent).

Temple Beth Zion responds

Connolly, the alleged abuser of Nora Kovach, has not responded to calls from The News for comment on the allegations against him. Lorenz said he has a copy of a letter Connolly wrote to Kovach, apologizing for what he did to her.

Jeff Clark, executive director of Temple Beth Zion, said officials of the Jewish organization take the Child Victims Act lawsuit “very, very seriously” and are going through old records in an effort to determine what happened.

He said he is not aware of any other complaints alleging abuse of children at the temple, which is on Delaware Avenue and dates back to 1863.

The plaintiff in that case, an Angola woman now in her early 60s, said she was molested “every week” for nine months by a tutor at the temple. She said Temple Beth Zion exposed her to a “pedophile” who repeatedly exposed himself to her and “forcibly touched” her. She said the experience has caused her lasting physical and psychological injury.

“This is a very serious matter and we take it very, very seriously,” Clark said. “We’re going back through our old records and doing everything we can to determine what happened.”

The behavior described in the lawsuit is “absolutely unacceptable,” Clark said.

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