Clergy, abuse, and jail time

Prosecutions are rare, but 75 priests or ministers have faced convictions, prison.

Despite the common perception that clergy who sexually assault children are almost never punished, more than 70 priests and ministers have been sent to prison for child molestation since 1985.

While this still represents a small percentage of the overall cases, the number of clergy put behind bars in recent years has been growing – as has the severity of the sentences.

A review of publicly reported convictions going back 17 years reveals that:

• At least 75 clergymen have been convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, criminal child-sexual-abuse charges since the landmark Gilbert Gauthe case in Louisiana in 1985.

• About half of those – 38 – were Roman Catholic priests. The rest included Baptist ministers, Methodists, Pentecostals, Episcopal priests, and others.

• Many sentences were for 10 years or more, ranging from 30 days to life in prison.

"There's been a definite effort to keep these convictions quiet and minimize them," says Richard Sipe, author of "Sex, Priests, and Power" and a former Catholic priest.

Indeed, unlike John Geoghan, the former Catholic priest sentenced last month to nine years in prison for abusing scores of children, most criminal cases involving clergy don't receive national news attention.

Still, convictions have occurred steadily.

Sylvia Demarest, a Texas lawyer, says 60 priests served prison time for child molestation between 1984 and 1995. Mr. Sipe says his list, a couple of years out of date, includes more than 80 convicted priests who have done prison time. Those numbers rely on some data sources beyond the news reports used for this report.

A spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops says there is no systematized national tracking of the number of priests convicted of child sexual abuse. "These things would not necessarily be reported to the bishops' conference," says Bill Ryan, a conference spokesman.

While Catholics are the focus of recent media reports, dozens of ministers from other denominations have also been convicted. These include 10 Baptist ministers, five Methodists, three Pentecostals, and two Episcopal priests convicted or pleading guilty to sexual abuse of children since 1985.

Still, victims groups, prosecutors, and others say most cases of child abuse by clergy never get as far as a prosecutor's desk, with many settled quietly out of court. For instance, more than 70 settled cases during the 1990s have now been reported in the Archdiocese of Boston alone. Hundreds more have been reported settled in dioceses from Dallas to Santa Fe, N.M., to Bridgeport, Conn. Some put the cost at $1 billion or more.

Why so few convictions?

There are many reasons so few cases end in court – and fewer still in prison terms – say prosecutors and police investigators.

First, the legal standards for criminal cases are higher than for civil cases. Often, the criminal statute of limitations has run out for adults who were abused as children.

Second, the accused are often influential and well-liked in their communities, while the victims are often the most vulnerable – children from broken homes, for instance.

Third, churches have been reluctant to report clergy to police. Richard Cage, who has investigated pedophile cases for the police in Montgomery County, Md., for 25 years, says cases involving clergy are the most difficult.

"Our biggest challenge is when it involves the church," he says. "Denial is our biggest problem. Parents are reluctant to have their child interviewed. [And of] children that have been abused, at first 99 percent will deny it."

Others have observed similar patterns of reluctance to testify, priests being moved out of state, and denial that clergy could be guilty.

Robert Larson, a former Wichita, Kan., Catholic priest pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse last year and is serving a 2-to-10 year sentence. It never made the national news. But prosecutors recall how hard the case was.

"I had [one] victim who wanted to do anything but testify," says Harvey County Attorney Matt Treaster. "He didn't want anyone to know he had been molested."

What made the conviction possible, Mr. Treaster says, was that the church, apparently trying to protect Mr. Larson, sent him out of the state for treatment. That stopped the clock on the statute of limitations. The case ended in a plea bargain, and Larson could be released a year from now on parole.

'Aura of goodness'

Lisa Trabaudo, a deputy district attorney for Bernalillo County, N.M., who has prosecuted three clergymen, says a key problem always recurs: "If you're a priest, you automatically get an aura of goodness.... You don't usually get that with the accused stepdad."

Jalal Harb, assistant state attorney in southern Florida, prosecuted James Lee Williams, pastor of the Modest Street Church of God in Lakeland, Fla., and won a sexual-battery conviction and a life sentence in 1995. But two years later, the state Clemency Board heard comments from 30 people who spoke on his behalf. Gov. Lawton Chiles accepted the board's clemency recommendation.

"He told us from the start, he told the police and us, that he had powerful connections," Mr. Harb says. "I guess he was right."

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