Sex abuse in church, beyond

Catholic Church becomes first group in US society to report on scope of alleged abuse.

As Roman Catholics faced this weekend the staggering realities of their long-running sexual abuse crisis, the church's effort to set things right raised compelling questions for other American institutions.

The largest US denomination became the first group ever to publicly document the amount of alleged abuse of children under its care, or to describe the managerial failings that lay behind it.

On Friday a lay board set up by Roman Catholic bishops to help restore trust in the church reported that over the past five decades 4 percent of priests, or about 4,400, were accused of abusing 10,667 minors.

The unfolding tragedy has shocked Americans over the past two years, causing other religious groups to scurry to shore up their procedures, but it may not have brought any deeper attention to the challenge abuse poses to the whole society.

An estimated 100,000 children are abused in the US each year, whether at home, school, or other places. While efforts to address the problem have grown in recent years, it remains unresolved. One expert on sexual abuse suggests that within the US school system, the number of students affected is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.

"About 6 percent of kids say they have experienced some physical sexual behavior by someone employed by the school during their school career," says Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., who studies abuse in schools.

The same faulty behavior exhibited by bishops occurs in school districts, she adds. In a study of 225 New York abuse cases, including rapes, all had gone through the school's system and some action been taken against a teacher, but none had been reported to the police or district attorney.

As Catholics now wait to see how the bishops respond to the recommendations in the reports, some professionals in other settings wonder if the crisis will spur more widespread reforms. "So far, I've seen no effect of this crisis on the education system," Dr. Shakeshaft says.

Others see some benefits from greater public awareness.

James Cobble, founder of Christian Ministry Resources, which provides materials to Protestant and Catholic churches to help reduce the risk of abuse, says the public is now more comfortable with the idea of screening people for employment or volunteer work in churches. Insurance companies are also demanding training and screening procedures for churches to get higher levels of coverage.

The fear factor

Dee Miller, a psychosocial nurse who works with many denominations on the problem, says, "We have made progress in public awareness, but unfortunately, the fear seems to be as great as ever as far as the institutions go." Their first fear, she says, is that they'll be sued not by the victims but by the perpetrators.

"In the late '80s, the Protestants were ahead of Catholics in getting policies and procedures together; that's just the first step, but people think it's the last," she says. "Some Protestant groups are doing training, but it's mostly larger churches, and the majority are small ones."

Sue Archibald, president of The Linkup, a group for survivors of clergy abuse of all denominations, says that in many Protestant denominations "the more common problem is sexual misconduct with adult congregants rather than child abuse."

Child abuse cases tend to get handled more swiftly in Protestant churches, where the employment of a minister often rests with a local congregation rather than a hierarchy.

Still, in some denominations, there is a tendency "to minimize the problem and a desire to push it under the rug," Ms. Miller says. "Most of the survivors are women and children, and what it comes down to is the status of women and children within the denominations."

In the Catholic case, however, 81 percent of the abuse victims were male and 86 percent were between the ages of 11 and 17, according to the report, prepared by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice using data supplied by dioceses. Some groups challenged the statistics because they were based on self-reporting by bishops, rather than material from plaintiff attorneys, for example.

Roots of priestly abuse

But survivor groups are less concerned with the data and more with what happens next. The Linkup commended the board for its simultaneous separate report on the causes of the crisis, calling it "thorough and unvarnished."

The high-profile body of prominent Catholics had strong words for the bishops and the church's seminaries, criticizing the failure to screen candidates properly or to adequately prepare students for the celibate life. The report called for greater study of celibacy nor homosexuality, while not labeling them root causes.

More important, the report said, was the response of some bishops, in effect cooperating with evil. It identified several reasons, including the view of priests as the representatives of Christ on earth, the bishop-priest relationship of father to son, the bishops' failure to discuss the problem seriously, and putting institutional concerns above the pastoral.

The search for solutions

While the board called for greater lay involvement, including in the process for selecting bishops, and for greater direct communication with survivors, it did not take a stand on whether bishops should resign. It is up to individual bishops what they do with the recommendations.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the bishops conference, said that no priest with an allegation remained in ministry. But the names of removed priests have not been made public, and survivor groups point to a few accused priests still in their jobs.

One response many are looking for in is an effort to deal with survivors' needs.The Linkup is establishing a healing center for victims, set to open in Kentucky in April, to which 25 bishops have contributed.

In education, Shakeshaft calls for revising federal laws affecting liability and state laws for teacher credentialing. "Superintendents and principals need to ... put this on a priority list."

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