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Clergy sex abuse allegations triple, U.S. Catholic bishops report

Victims of clergy sexual abuse and their family members react as Pennsylvania Atty. Gen. Josh Shapiro speaks in August 2018.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

U.S. Roman Catholic bishops said Thursday that the church tallied 4,434 sex abuse allegations against clergy in the 2018-19 audit year, triple the number seen the previous year, with much of the increase stemming from a wave of lawsuits and claims by survivors of decades-old molestation.

In the latest annual report on clerical sex abuse, dioceses and other Catholic entities reported paying out $281.6 million during the year for costs related to allegations, including payments for cases reported in previous years.

Only 37 of the new allegations were made by people who were minors in the audit year ending June 30, 2019. Of those, eight allegations were substantiated, while most of the others were either still under investigation or had been deemed unsubstantiated.

There has been a huge overall surge in allegations over the last three years as dioceses faced unprecedented pressure to address the decades-old problem of clergy sex abuse. There were 693 allegations tallied in the 2017 report and 1,451 in the 2018 report.

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The cases cited in the new report involved 2,982 priests and other church personnel. Of the allegations, 1,034 were substantiated; many others remained under investigation or were unable to be proved, it said.

Many dioceses across the U.S. became targets of state investigations after a Pennsylvania grand jury report in August 2018 detailed hundreds of cases of alleged abuse. In February 2019, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was expelled from the priesthood for sexually abusing minors and seminarians, and investigators have been seeking to determine if some Catholics of influence covered up his transgressions.

The California attorney general’s investigation into how the Los Angeles Archdiocese — and potentially other dioceses in California — handled abuse allegations over the years is a major step for prosecutors.

Many U.S. dioceses have established compensation programs for victims with credible claims of abuse, and some have sought bankruptcy protection. Hundreds of new allegations surfaced in lawsuits, for the most part filed by men in their 40s, 50s and 60s who said they were abused as children.

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Lawsuits could increase further in the current fiscal year, since legislatures in New York, New Jersey, California and elsewhere approved statute-of-limitations changes giving victims of long-ago child abuse new windows of time during which to sue the church and other institutions.

The new report also details church efforts to combat abuse. In 2019, it said, more than 2.6 million background checks were conducted on clergy, employees and volunteers, and more than 2.6 million adults and 3.6 million youths were trained to identify warning signs of abuse and how to report them.

It is the 17th abuse report issued since 2002, when the U.S. bishops established and adopted a comprehensive set of procedures to address sex abuse allegations.

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The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which advocates for survivors of clergy sex abuse, expressed concern about a section of the report indicating that only 60% of parishes nationwide were performing safety audits on their own.

“We remain convinced that the best avenue for change is through secular, elected officials like attorneys general,” the group said. “Every single sitting attorney general should be investigating cases of clergy abuse in their state, identifying enablers and removing them from power, and ensuring that hidden abusers are made known to their communities.”


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