U.S. Bishops can't shake off taint of sex abuse crisis

When will the American bishops be able to put the scandal of clergy sex abuse of children and its cover-up behind them — in the sense that “the bishops” as a group no longer are held to blame for those calamitous events? Eight, going on nine, years after the scandal erupted, the answer apparently is: no time soon. 

Most Catholics seem satisfied with their local bishop, but it’s different with bishops as a group. A Zogby poll last April found only 45 percent of American Catholics approved of the overall job the bishops were doing, and a hefty 72 percent took a negative view of their handling of sex abuse. 

Yet by most measures, things are looking up. 

This year’s annual, independently prepared report on diocesan compliance with the “zero tolerance” policy the bishops approved in 2002 found that of 398 new allegations in 2009 concerning abuse of children by clergy, only six — 2 percent — involved children younger than 18 that year. The vast majority of allegations arising in dioceses — 71 percent — were related to incidents between 1960 and 1984, with the heaviest concentration between 1975 and 1979. 

New developments 

But the bishops collectively get little credit for the improvement. Instead, the sex abuse albatross is likely to remain around their necks some time to come. There are several reasons. 

One is that new developments, beyond the bishops’ power to control, keep cropping up. For example, this year brought a rash of stories about disclosures of clergy sex abuse in several European countries, notably including Ireland, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. 

Even Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of the issue, as a diocesan bishop and then as a Vatican official, was challenged in the media. The New York Times led the charge with a series of “what did he know and when did he know it” stories suggesting the pope had been at fault. 

Among other results, this new burst of scandal-related coverage had the effect of reviving American Catholics’ recollections of events many had heard more than enough about and stoking their anger afresh. 

Similarly, 2010 brought new abuse-related lawsuits in the United States as well as new developments in old ones. Several seek to establish legal liability on the part of the Vatican or the pope for abuse by priests in America. Attorneys for the plaintiffs in one case, in Kentucky, announced this month that they were dropping the suit, but, legal merits aside, those that continue provide media-savvy lawyers with material for the press, and the coverage helps keep the scandal alive in people’s minds. 

Obviously the American bishops can do little or nothing about disclosures of clergy sex abuse in Europe, about media-generated controversy targeted at the pope, or about hostile lawsuits steered by lawyers experienced in working the press. But all this takes a toll on their image with people who think “the bishops” and “the Church” are names for monoliths in which the people at the top are responsible for everything. 

Upcoming report 

Ironically, the bishops have made it likely the publicity will continue when a project they commissioned comes to fruition late this year. 

This is the final report of a study attempting to explain the “causes and context” of clergy sex abuse conducted for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Barring delays, findings of the $1.8 million study are to be released in December — after the bishops’ general assembly in November in Baltimore. They’re likely to get heavy media attention. 

In the view of the bishops, this in-depth analysis by reputable independent researchers is a necessary step to prevent the recurrence of another scandal like this one, besides refurbishing their own image and honoring the commitment to “transparency” that they made in 2002. On all these points they’re correct. 

Unfortunately, however, releasing the John Jay study also is likely to have the effect of reviving memories of a troubled episode in Church history and — in the short run at least — provoking another round of complaints about “the bishops.” That’s so even though nearly all the bishops who were in office in the years when clergy sex abuse peaked — the 1960s and 1970s — have left the scene by now through death or retirement, while the number of active bishops who covered up sex abuse grows fewer with each passing year. 

The USCCB administrative committee, composed of 35 bishops from around the country, probably will discuss the John Jay report and the manner of its release at its scheduled September meeting in Washington. 

With that in mind, some advice for the bishops may be in order: Don’t leave decisions about how to release the John Jay study to the social scientists who wrote it. Last November, two of them made a preliminary report to the USCCB general meeting in Baltimore, with a credentialed press corps present and listening. Yet the academics refused to let reporters have their written text, insisting instead that they work from an official news release meant to tell them what to report. 

That procedure raises two problems. First, if you want reporters to get something wrong, don’t let them have your text. Second, as was predictable, the social scientists’ text was leaked to media anyway — which was fortunate for them and everyone else. “The bishops” don’t need more public relations fumbles next time around. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

By The Numbers (sidebar)

$6.53 million - Amount spent by U.S. Church on therapy for sex abuse victims in 2009.

5 million - Number of children equipped with skills to protect them from abuse. 

2 million - Number of employees and volunteers who have gone through Safe Environment training. 

Source: USCCB

Time Line of Bishops' Response to Crisis (sidebar)

June 2002 

During general meeting in Dallas, U.S. bishops approve Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which created a National Review Board and called for a study of the causes of clergy sex abuse of minors. 

February 2004 

John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which had been commissioned to conduct the study, releases its report, titled “The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002.” Among its findings are the following: 

4,392 priests/deacons were accused 

Allegations were made against 4 percent of the 109,694 priests serving during the period 

81 percent of the victims were males, and 19 percent were females 

50.9 percent of the victims were 11-14 years old  

27.3 percent were 15-17 years old 

75 percent of the abuse incidents occurred during 1960-84 

November 2005 

U.S. bishops’ National Review Board hires John Jay College to conduct a $1.8 million study of the causes and context of clergy sex abuse. The results of the study are expected to be released later this year. 

March 2006 

John Jay College releases supplemental data analysis to its 2004 study. It reiterated that  

55.7 percent of priests with allegations of abuse had one formal allegation 

The average abusing priest was in his late 30s at the time of the first reported abuse. 

November 2006 

U.S. bishops allocate $335,000 of a committed $1 million to fund the first phase of the John Jay study of clerical sex abuse. 

December 2007 

National Review Board issues a report updating Catholics on accomplishments in the five years since the adoption of the Dallas Charter, including the fact that more than 1.6 million background investigations on clergy and Church personnel had taken place. 

March 2010 

USCCB releases 2009 annual report, which shows, among other things, the following information: 

398 new credible allegations of abuse were reported by dioceses and eparchies in 2009 

6 of those 398 allegations involved children under the age of 18 in 2009 

Sources: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic News Service