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Is that it? The bishops are still looking to weasel their way out of the sexual abuse scandal.

ONE OF THE SMARTEST things someone on the run from the law can do is to hide in plain sight. Move to a big city, walk your dog, eat at restaurants and do not bring suspicion on yourself by acting guilty. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is using this strategy to deal with the public uproar over the clergy child sex abuse crisis.

The child sex abuse crisis is one of the biggest scandals to rock the Catholic church. It is also one of the largest cover-ups of criminal activity in the history of the United States. Most people who get caught committing crimes go to prison or face some other sort of punishment for their actions. The bishops, however, when caught, issue press releases, followed by reports and studies. Very few other institutions could get away with this tactic.

Once the child sex abuse scandal exploded in 2002, the bishops discovered they could no longer remain silent about the decades of sexual abuse and their cover-up of that abuse. The negative backlash was so great that, in June of 2002, the USCCB enacted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People (Charter). The Charter created the establishment of a National Review Board, consisting of laypersons appointed by the bishops. One of the duties of the board was to produce two reports. The first was to be a "descriptive study of the nature and scope of the problem within the Catholic church in the United States, including such data as statistics on perpetrators and victims." The second was to create "a comprehensive study of the causes and effects of the current crisis."

These two reports were issued on February 27, 2004. The fact that days before the reports came out the Vatican "leaked" a draft of its own report calling for an end to the US bishops' zero-tolerance policy towards clerical abusers, saying it discouraged priests from seeking help and treatment, went largely unnoticed in the mainstream media. The first bishops' report (the "data") was subcontracted out to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and is commonly referred to as the "John Jay Report." The second, (the "cause and effect") was authored by the National Review Board and is entitled "A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States." These studies were widely analyzed by the media and are available on the bishops' website at A brief synopsis of both reports follows.


The statistical study produced by John Jay College used data based on an anonymous survey completed by 195 dioceses and eparchies (97 percent of total dioceses) and 140 religious communities (60 percent of total communities). Based on those surveys they determined that between 1950 and 2002, 4,392 priests had allegations of sexual abuse made against them (about four percent of total priests, with regional differences of three to six percent). John Jay College estimates that 10,667 individuals made allegations that, as children, priests sexually abused them. According to the tallied surveys, the Catholic church paid out more than $572 million in legal fees, compensation and treatment.

The report indicates that only about a third of the accusations came out before 1993; and the number of allegations against priests skyrocketed after the scandal broke in 2002. (Both the John Jay and National Review Board Reports admit that it takes many years, sometimes decades, for child sexual abuse victims to come forward. As a result, no one can predict how many more survivors will come forward with abuse claims in the future.)


This "cause and effect" report written by the USCCB National Review Board interviewed 85 witnesses including cardinals, bishops, priests, diocesan officials, victims, mental health professionals, law enforcement, academics and "concerned Catholics." The purpose of the report was to find the "root causes" behind the crisis.

Based on their interviews, the Board made several recommendations to the USCCB. These recommendations include enhanced screening, formation and oversight of seminary candidates, increased sensitivity and effectiveness in responding to abuse victims, greater accountability of bishops and other church leaders in actions related to victims, improved interaction with civil authorities and meaningful participation by the Christian faithful in the church. The Board also recommended "further study and analysis."

These reports generated much media attention. They are pleasing to the eye. They are lengthy and filled with all sorts of statistics and data. There are some inspirational passages from scripture. Every so often, both reports mention that yes, clergy sex abuse is bad--in fact, they admit, it is a crime. The National Review Board's report also mentions that the bishops did not handle the situation well.

But is that it? This is what the bishops across the United States are doing to address the clergy sex abuse crisis? Studying the problem is a wise idea, but no one seems to focus on how to provide justice and healing to the thousands of survivors who are left with the consequences and pain of clergy sexual abuse.

And there are serious flaws with both reports. The John Jay study is based solely on volunteered survey data given anonymously to John Jay by the dioceses and religions communities. John Jay readily admits that the dioceses did not grant them access to any confidential files. (According to canon law, any incidents related to clergy that deal with a "matter of morals" are kept under lock and key under the direct control of the bishop of each diocese.) The National Review Board report is designed to explain the John Jay data--instead, in many instances, it seems to be making excuses. At one point in the report, it states that very few clergy abuse cases are actual pedophilia (sex with children under the age of 11) but rather is ephebophilia (sex with adolescents). The Board claims that such action on the part of clergy is not a psychological disorder (they do admit it is a crime), but rather a form of homosexual activity. (p27, fn15) Why the Board thought it necessary to share this point is unknown--it does, however, provide little to comfort survivors abused in their teenage years.

It would be nice if all of us, instead of facing prosecuting authorities when accused of criminal activity, could hire a blue-ribbon panel to analyze our own data and then place strict controls on what evidence can or cannot be seen. It sounds silly when you put it in that context, but it is exactly what the USCCB did with the John Jay report. The numbers, which seem incredibly low, are indeed shocking. However, the bishops had nothing to lose by releasing those numbers because the whole world knew this was a crisis of epic proportion. Issuing the John Jay Report had advantages for the USCCB. First, it gives the appearance that the bishops are actually doing something about the crisis. Second, the bishops gain some public relations control by issuing their own lowball numbers which cannot be independently confirmed when discussing the crisis with the public.

In fairness, both reports do make reference to the pain suffered by survivors and their families; but clearly these sentiments are not the main focus of the reports. Lip service offers little solace to survivors. And nowhere do the reports offer solutions on how to provide justice and healing. Neither do they demand that bishops, who failed to follow canon law by stopping abusive priests, be punished by civil authorities or by the church. (The National Review Board's report admits that Canon 1395 provides strict administrative punishment to any cleric who commits sexual crimes against a minor. Canon 1389 also includes penalties, including dismissal from office, for a church official who fails to punish clerics who violate canon law. This would mean that bishops who failed to enforce Canon 1395 (forbidding crimes against minors) would be punishable under Canon 1389. This begs the question; why aren't the US bishops already being disciplined by the church for failing to discipline their wayward priests? The Board rationalizes the absence of punishment by simply pronouncing, "Church officials in the United States rarely enforced Canon 1395. Nor have any bishops in the United States been punished under Canon 1389 for failure to enforce Canon 1395." National Review Board Report, p.32)

There is no question that these reports caused a public relations stir. However, while analysts continue to crunch the numbers and moralists debate the effect the post-Vatican II era had on the crisis, no one in the USCCB is asking how the abusive clergy, and the bishops who pro totted them, are to be held accountable for the trail of human suffering left in the wake of their actions.

Hiding in plain sight....

MARK FURNISH is a lawyer and the Capital District chapter leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in Albany, New York.
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Author:Furnish, Mark
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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