The Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s announced decision to release 3,000 pages of documents relating to sexual abuse of minors by 45 Catholic priests was just one of the latest developments in the clerical abuse scandal that — 11 years after the scandal broke into public view in Boston — promises to trouble the Catholic Church for many more years to come. 

The files, which will be posted on the archdiocese’s website by July 1, will be unpleasant reading, Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki said. 

“My hope is by making these documents public, we will shed much-needed light on how the archdiocese responded to abuse survivors over the past 40-plus years when confronting this issue and that they will aid abuse survivors and others in resolution and healing,” he said in an April 3 statement. 

“This issue really is going to be tough to deal with for a long, long time, if not forever,” said James Dwyer, spokesman for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., which released records in March of how the diocese handled 16 priests who abused children. 

So far, eight U.S. dioceses have declared bankruptcy, filing for Chapter 11 reorganization because of abuse claims, and an estimated $3 billion has been paid to those who were sexually abused as minors by Catholic priests.

Sweeping changes

Eleven years after The Boston Globe’s investigative series exposed widespread clerical abuse of children and its cover-up in the Archdiocese of Boston, many church officials say the U.S. Church has become a model of how to handle child sexual abuse by implementing nationwide standards for child protection, screening and education of adults and children, as well as providing clear policies and Church law on how to deal with allegations of abuse. 

Most U.S. abuse occurred in the 1960s, 1970s and peaked in the mid-1980s, according to statistics compiled and analyzed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  

The U.S. bishops in 2002 adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth, which was updated in 2007 and 2011. Another review is to begin in 2013, said Deacon Bernie Nojadera, executive director for the USCCB Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection. It has meant sweeping changes in every diocese, and annual audits of the dioceses by an independent firm to help them comply with the standards, he said.

‘Culture change’

Zero tolerance or immediate removal from public ministry of any priest credibly accused of abuse, victim outreach and mandatory reporting of all allegations to public authorities are also part of Church law in the United States, Nojadera said.  

The 10th annual Charter compliance audit report was to be published at the end of April, and Deacon Nojadera said it shows just six credible abuse allegations made by minors in the United States in 2012. The number of people reporting allegations from the past was the lowest number yet — 463, he said. In terms of education and screening, close to 4.6 million children have undergone safe environment training, and more than 2.5 million clergy and employees have been background checked and cleared. 

“The end goal is we want no reports of this type of abuse involving minors,” he said. 

Today’s approach focuses as much on teaching children to recognize “grooming behaviors” as it does on educating adults on the need to immediately report suspected abuse, said Alison D’Alessandro, director of Child and Youth Protection for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. In 10 years in the position, D’Alessandro said she has seen “significant culture change” take place in the large Maryland archdiocese, calling the succession of bishops there “great leaders” who focused on prevention and on outreach to those harmed by the Church.  

“I would challenge anyone who writes about this to see if there is any organization who does as much as we do,” said Joliet’s Dwyer. “It still happens, but the Church’s response to it is so much quicker than it ever was before.”

Push for release of files

However, the Church remains embroiled in conflict over the issue. In addition to seeking financial compensation, many victims and victims advocacy groups want release of all documents relating to priests who abused. 

In January the Los Angeles archdiocese published its abuse files and shortly afterward Archbishop Jose Gomez removed from active ministry his predecessor Cardinal Roger Mahony and Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Curry for failing to protect children.  

In the Joliet diocese, David Rudofski was fondled by the priest hearing his first confession when he was 8, and this year his lawsuit resulted in the diocese agreeing to turn over the files of 16 priests with substantiated allegations. It also added the priest who abused Rudofski, Father James Burnett, to its list of clergy with substantiated allegations against them. 

The Milwaukee archdiocese’s April 3 announcement that it would release files relating to sexual abuse of minors was greeted with satisfaction by victims’ representatives. But plaintiffs’ attorney Jeff Anderson and the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said they want the archdiocese to release files on 70 religious order priests they say abused minors while working at parishes and schools in the archdiocese. 

Peter Isely, a psychotherapist in private practice, now in his 50s, and SNAP Midwest director, said he was abused as a 13-year-old by a religious order priest who he says abused 35 other young people at a minor seminary in Wisconsin.  

The personnel files on the men are with the religious orders, and not with the archdiocese, said Jerry Topczewski, chief of staff for Archbishop Listecki. He said he did not know how SNAP arrived at the number of 70.  

“There is something about the Church with this issue which is challenging everybody. They have to dig deep into their souls and make changes that need to be changed,” said Isely, who said he believes the Church “is getting there.”  

Valerie Schmalz writes from California.