Lent is a time to take stock, confess sins, and, when necessary, begin anew. It is fitting, then, that the U.S. Catholic bishops have chosen Lent to issue their reports on the church’s catastrophic sexual-abuse crisis. This year’s report from the National Review Board (NRB) and the Office of Child and Youth Protection (OCYP) was published February 12. It makes clear the ongoing need for such an accounting-Lent in, Lent out. The startling thing about the report is that it nearly didn’t happen. Although the sexual-abuse crisis is acknowledged to be the worst failure in the history of the U.S. Catholic church-one that has undercut the church’s authority and profoundly alienated priests and laity alike-last February a small group of influential bishops, including archbishops and cardinals, tried to delay the audit on which the report depends. Other bishops and the laity, most prominently members of the NRB itself and groups like Voice of the Faithful, stymied this ill-conceived initiative. Had the audit been abandoned, the image of the church would have been further damaged, its reputation all the more weakened. So this new report, the second by the OCYP, is something of an achievement. Based on both a six-month audit conducted by an independent consulting firm and a survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, the full report and summaries from each participating diocese are available online at www.usccb.org. Of the 195 U.S. dioceses and eparchies (Eastern Rite dioceses), 194 took part in the audit and 181 participated in the survey. (The Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, refused to participate in both.) The survey also included data from 158 religious institutes of men, which were not covered in last year’s report, and which add significantly to our understanding of the scope of the scandal. Facts speak for themselves. In 2004, there were 1,092 credible new allegations of the sexual abuse. They were made against 756 diocesan and religious priests or deacons. The majority of the incidents took place between 1965 and 1974, but more than 20 have occurred since 2000. Eighty percent of the victims were male. More than half were abused between the ages of ten and fourteen. Since it sometimes takes up to twenty years before a victim comes forward-some wait until after parents or the perpetrator have died-more crimes will be disclosed in the years ahead. In 2004, dioceses and religious institutes paid out more than $158 million, including $36 million for attorney fees. (According to last year’s report, the church paid out nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars between 1950 and 2002.) Insurance covered less than a third of this cost in 2004. But Kathleen McChesney, the outgoing director of OCYP, reminded us all of what is most important: “It is imperative,” she wrote in an introductory letter to the report, “that bishops, priests, religious, and laypeople representing the church continue to recognize that sexual abuse has a permanent impact on its victims.” Comparing last year’s report with this year’s indicates that solid progress has been made. In 2003 nineteen dioceses and eparchies failed to meet the bishops’ own standards; in 2004 that figure dropped to seven, with only one repeat deadbeat. In 2004, the number of accused priests laicized by the Vatican grew, while the number of adults and children trained to detect and report sexual abuse increased. Furthermore, the bishops recommitted themselves to conducting a study on the causes of the scandal, to be released later this year. The 2003 John Jay College study on the recent history of sexual abuse in the church, coupled with the proposed annual audits, should reassure Catholics and the American public that the church is taking the issue seriously. Still, as McChesney noted, it is a mistake to think that compliance with the norms “is all that is necessary to prevent abuse, restore confidence in the church, and bring healing to those who have been harmed.” This year’s report, for example, does not call for greater transparency throughout the church, the need for more lay involvement, or aver to the fact that not a single bishop has been disciplined in the wake of the scandal. Neither does it tackle another serious issue: the fact that many dioceses are structured as a “corporation sole,” meaning technically the bishop owns all the diocese’s assets. In dioceses that have been forced to declare bankruptcy, conflicts have arisen between bishops and members of the diocese concerning assets. This matter deserves attention from the church at the national level. In light of all this, there is one Lenten resolution the church clearly needs to make: a commitment to greater transparency. For many in the episcopacy, this will entail a real conversion. A first step is for bishops to recommit themselves, in the spirit of penance and reconciliation, to the annual independent reviews.

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Published in the 2005-03-11 issue: View Contents
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