School Climate & Safety

Report Tallies Alleged Sexual Abuse by Priests

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 10, 2004 5 min read
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About one in 10 of the alleged incidents of sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests in the United States over the past half-century took place in Catholic schools, according to a comprehensive report on the subject released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

By comparison, 40.9 percent of alleged incidents happened in a cleric’s home or parish residence, while 16.3 percent took place in church, and 12.4 percent occurred in a victim’s home, among other locations where such abuse reportedly happened.

The researchers also found that 5.1 percent of alleged incidents occurred during school hours.

The study, released late last month, was conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York and commissioned by the Washington-based bishops’ conference. The study found that from 1950 to 2002, 10,667 people made allegations that priests or deacons had sexually abused them as minors.

Nearly 4,400 Catholic priests or deacons—4 percent of priests—were implicated as having allegedly committed such acts. The researchers based their analysis on information provided voluntarily by dioceses and religious orders. They promised not to divulge the names of dioceses or priests in their report. The response rate among dioceses was 97 percent.

At the Feb. 27 press conference held here to release the statistical report, the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People—whose members were selected by the bishops’ conference to oversee compliance by dioceses with a tough new anti- abuse policy—released a separate report on the causes of the sexual-abuse scandal that has beset the church in this country over the past two years.

Robert S. Bennett, a lawyer and a member of the panel, said in the briefing that the Catholic Church is not the only sector of society to have ignored the problem of sexual abuse of minors, and he urged other sectors, such as public schools, to conduct detailed studies of the problem.

“The children of America are in deep pain, and no one is paying attention to them,” he said. “No one wants to talk about this problem. No one wants to study this problem. ... As a nation, we should hold our heads in shame.”

Mr. Bennett cited negligence by Catholic bishops in dealing with abusers, a lack of proper screening of candidates for the priesthood, and inadequate teaching in seminaries about the commitment of celibacy as contributing to the crisis.

Prevention Programs

The report’s data on schools show that Catholic schools are much safer for children than are Catholic parishes, noted David Clohessy, the director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, in a phone interview last week. But at the same time, he said, the school information “tells us that priests are afforded excessive deference, which enables them to pull kids out of class and be alone with them.” Many Catholic schools are operated by parishes and are adjacent to parish churches and rectories.

In June 2002, the bishops’ conference adopted a charter calling for all Catholic dioceses to implement “safe environment programs” and set up systems to check the backgrounds of adults who work with children in Catholic parishes or schools, many of which are operated by parishes. But an audit released Jan. 6 by the bishops’ conference found that 11 dioceses hadn’t implemented either measure. (“Some Catholic Schools Slow to Teach Sex-Abuse Awareness,” Jan. 28, 2004.)

But a vocal minority of Catholics are opposed to both safe-environment programs, which teach children how to recognize inappropriate touching and report it to adults, and criminal- background checks of adults other than priests.

For example, Christopher Mannion founded Parents United to Respect Innocence in Teaching the Young last December to fight the proposal of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., to implement a sexual-abuse-prevention program for children, called “Good Touch/Bad Touch,” even after the diocese promised to adapt it to Catholic teachings. He argues that only parents, not Catholic educators, should teach children about physical touching or sex.

The Arlington Diocese has since backed off from using “Good Touch/Bad Touch,” which is a secular program published by Prevention and Motivation Inc., of Cartersville, Ga.

Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde wrote in a Feb. 12 letter posted on the diocesan Web site that, instead, the diocese will consider using a safe-environment program for children that is scheduled to be released by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group Inc. this spring. The diocese will also look at other available “Catholic programs,” the bishop wrote.

David L. Vise and other Catholic parents attending St. Brendan Parish in Bellingham, Mass., have successfully resisted implementation of the “Talking about Touching” program in the parish’s religious education classes for children.

The secular program, published by the Committee for Children, was recently implemented in the schools and parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston, according to Joan C. Duffell, the director of marketing and community education for the Seattle- based nonprofit organization.

Deal Hudson, the publisher of Crisis magazine, a national Catholic publication, stepped into the debate by taking the side of parents in his home diocese of Arlington who have resisted safe-environment programs for children. He said in a Feb. 4 letter distributed on the magazine’s listserv that the “Good Touch/Bad Touch” program was “simply too graphic for young children,” though he acknowledged in an interview that he hadn’t reviewed the program in its entirety. (The program’s publisher doesn’t give out review copies.)

After nearly a decade of teaching religion classes to children at the Francis School in DePere, Wis., Carole L. Hummel said she resigned last month rather than follow the mandate of her diocese to teach her 1st graders about physical touching.

“I cannot teach something I don’t have the right to teach,” she said last week. The 63-year-old mother of four and grandmother of 10 also refused to fill out a form for a criminal- background check now required of teachers or volunteers at the school, saying it invaded her privacy.

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