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Santorum's slur

SENATOR RICK Santorum can't be serious when he says that localized liberalism has something to do with the sexual abuse scandal that convulsed the Archdiocese of Boston. But he repeated his three-year-old calumny this week, so a few facts are in order.

It's true that the percentage of priests implicated in sexual abuse cases since 1950 was higher in Boston than in any other US diocese. That 7 percent figure, reported by the archdiocese, significantly exceeded the national average of 4 percent. This figure comes from a study commissioned by the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, an arm of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

There's an attitude in Boston ''that is very open to sexual freedom," Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, said this week.

Boston does indeed have a liberal reputation, but what does that have to do with sexual abuse? The archdioceses in San Francisco and New York reported sexual abuse figures of 1.4 percent and 1.19 percent. If liberalism were a factor, surely it would have manifested itself in higher rates for those bastions of the left.

In a report last year, the National Review Board found other culprits in Boston. ''The picture that emerged was that of a diocese with a cadre of predator priests and a hierarchy that simply refused to confront them and stop them," it said. Perhaps it was the particular culture of the bishops and priests in the archdiocese, not the political climate of the broader society, that caused the scandal to fester here so long.

The Review Board report focused on the extent of the scandal and the steps taken by the bishops to stop the abuse and prevent future incidents. The board realized that deeper questions lingered about the cause of the abuse among priests throughout the United States, not just in Boston.

Last October, the board sought proposals for a study of the root causes, particularly of a spike in cases in the 1970s. Among the areas to be examined are the admission policies of seminaries, the reason why most of the victims were male, and -- in the words of the board -- ''social and psychological factors in American society and the Catholic Church which contribute to the abuse."

The board will select the researchers to do the study in the early fall, one of the board's members, Paul R. McHugh, a psychiatrist and professor at Johns Hopkins University, said yesterday over the phone. ''The work will be a landmark study in American public health," he said.

The board is to be commended for commissioning a searching inquiry into a sensitive subject. Hard facts and rigorous analysis need to prevail in place of Santorum's ridiculous stereotyping by geography.

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