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Spotlight Report

Diocese gives abuse data

Report finds 162 Boston priests accused since '50

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 2/27/2004

The Archdiocese of Boston yesterday said that 7 percent of its priests were accused of abusing minors from 1950 to 2003, a figure that appears to be substantially higher than the percentage in many other dioceses around the nation.

After more than two years of disclosures in newspaper articles, court documents, and a sweeping report by the state attorney general, the archdiocese for the firsttime offered its own report on the scope of abuse by priests in the 144 cities and towns that make up the archdiocese.

The archdiocese said that 162, or 7 percent, of 2,324 archdiocesan priests were accused of abusing 815 minors during the 53-year period examined. An additional 57 priests and deacons, most of them priests affiliated with a religious order, but some ordained by other dioceses and stationed in Boston, were accused of abusing 150 minors in the archdiocese during that same period.

"We've been aware that the numbers were high here ever since the attorney general's report . . . [but] it's still alarming and sad to see that they are so high," Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley said in an interview. "One case of child abuse is a tragedy, but certainly these kinds of figures are very disturbing."

The archdiocese also disclosed that it had spent $120.6 million through December 2003 settling abuse cases. O'Malley believes that most settlement costs are now complete, but said the archdiocese is still paying for a variety of abuse-related costs, including therapy for more than 400 people.

O'Malley said he hopes the church has now taken steps to prevent future abuse. He said he believes the screening, training, and supervision of seminarians have improved, that 6,000 church employees and volunteers have gone through criminal background checks and abuse-detection training, and that the church has a better understanding of how to spot and respond to abuse allegations.

"I do want to reassure Catholics that the archdiocese is trying to do everything we can so that this tragedy does not ever happen again," he said.

The vast majority of allegations involved abuse that took place before 1982, the archdiocese said in its report, though most of the abuse wasn't reported until after January 2002, when the Globe began publishing a Spotlight series on the church's handling of abusive priests.

The archdiocese said only eight priests ordained since 1980 have been accused of abuse; more of the allegedly abusive priests were ordained in the 1960s than in any other decade.

The archdiocese chose to release the numbers yesterday, in anticipation of today's release of two nationwide studies examining the scope, nature, and causes of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy since 1950. The studies, which are being overseen by a National Review Board of laypeople chosen by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, showed that about 4 percent of the nation's Catholic priests were accused of abuse during the period studied.

The Diocese of Yakima, Wash., said the national study found that 4,392 of the 109,694 clergy faced allegations of abuse, the Associated Press reported. Since 1950, dioceses nationwide received 10,667 abuse claims; of those, 6,700 were substantiated. Another 3,300 were not investigated, because the accused were dead, and 1,000 claims proved to be unsubstantiated, the diocese said. The national report also tallied abuse-related costs at $533.4 million.

O'Malley said he did not know why the percentage of allegedly abusive priests was higher in Boston than in other places, a question that is likely to concern researchers for some time.

"This percentage is much higher than . . . expected," said Stephen J. Pope, a theology professor at Boston College. "Some commentators have tried to contextualize the incidents of clerical sexual abuse by asserting that [the abuse rate] is lower than that of the general population, but this report shows this claim to be false, at least for Boston."

The archdiocese said seven priests accounted for more than half of the 815 abuse allegations against archdiocesan priests. They declined to name those seven priests, but the most prominent alleged serial abusers were the Revs. John J. Geoghan, Paul R. Shanley, and Joseph E. Birmingham.

The Rev. Joseph M. Hennessey, pastor of St. Joseph Church in Kingston, said he believes that well-intentioned church values, "when taken to an extreme, may have contributed to the generally poor handling of abuse complaints."

"These values are confidentiality, protection of reputation, avoidance of giving unnecessary scandal, presumption of innocence until guilt proven, due process," he said. "When taken together, and taken to an extreme, and out of context from the horror of the content of the accusations, they resulted in what seems to the outsider a climate of protection."

The Boston numbers were received with a mix of reactions around the region.

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly said the number of victims in the archdiocesan report seems low to him, but that "I don't think we'll ever know the full extent of victims, because of the reluctance of people to come forward. The numbers have to be higher."

In July, he released a report on abuse in the archdiocese, saying that over six decades, at least 237 priests and 13 other church employees were accused of molesting at least 789 minors and that the actual number of victims probably exceeded 1,000. His study looked at 10 more years than the archdiocese.

"This report confirms what we said, and it confirms the magnitude of this problem," he said. "This problem is bigger than this archdiocese. Tomorrow's report in Washington will show that what we're talking about here is more than 4,000 criminals, most of whom, like here in Boston, escaped prosecution of the coverup by the church leadership."

Victim advocates were skeptical of the numbers, because, they said, they do not trust bishops to be truthful.

"It's suspect, as all self-reporting is; it's severe underreporting," said Anne Barrett Doyle, a cofounder of the Coalition of Catholics and Survivors. Doyle said she believes the report understates the number of victims and abusers. She wondered whether the archdiocesan files on which the report is based are complete.

She said victims will ask Governor Mitt Romney Sunday to scrutinize the state's four Catholic dioceses. She said victims' groups want the dioceses to release a complete list of names of abusive priests, saying that "Archbishop O'Malley and the other bishops are sitting on the longest list of unregistered sex offenders in Massachusetts."

"They need to step forward and make sure children aren't being harmed," she said.

Roderick MacLeish Jr., a lawyer who has represented victims, said the archdiocese's figures on victims numbers were "ridiculously low," while Mitchell Garabedian, another prominent victims' lawyer, called the numbers "an insult to victims."

"We had two major settlements in the last two years, exceeding 650 victims, so their victim total makes no sense," he said. "You're talking about an institution that allowed the wholesale sexual abuse of children by priests. Why would anyone think they would produce credible numbers?"

MacLeish called on the archdiocese to release the names of all accused priests, as Baltimore and Los Angeles have done, saying that many victims have not yet come forward and suggesting that the release of names would spur those victims to do so.

An archdiocesan spokesman, the Rev. Christopher J. Coyne, said the archdiocese strictly followed the guidelines set out by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which conducted the national study, in determining how to count allegations. He said every allegation was reported. The allegations ranged from a kiss or a touch to rape. He said every allegation, substantiated or not, received by the archdiocese was included in the report.

Coyne said that, unlike some other dioceses, Boston decided not to report what percentage of allegations it deemed credible, because "we don't have a handle on that right now."

About two dozen priests who have been suspended have not yet been fully evaluated by the church. The report also indicates that 58 of the 162 accused archdiocesan priests are dead, and dioceses have generally not investigated accusations against deceased priests. The Rev. Robert W. Bullock, the president of the Boston Priests Forum, called the numbers "staggering" and said "it's a higher percentage than I thought." But he said priests have confidence in O'Malley's management of the clergy sex abuse crisis. James E. Post, the president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization, said, "This is the bitter harvest that we have reaped from a clerical culture that was dominant in Boston throughout this era. Looking at this, I believe any reasonable person would say that culture is dysfunctional, and has to change."Kevin Cullen of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Michael Paulson can be reached at

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