For the second consecutive year, the number of clergy sex abuse claims received by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops and religious orders has dropped, according to a new report on the church's child protection reforms. The vast majority of allegations date back decades.

Costs related to abuse cases also decreased - by about 15 percent over the past year - mainly due to a decline in what dioceses paid to settle molestation cases.

The findings, released Wednesday, are part of an annual review that the bishops commissioned in 2002 to fulfill their pledge to safeguard children as the clergy sex abuse crisis battered the church.

Bishop Gregory Aymond, head of the bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, said he was encouraged by the decreasing numbers. There were 1,092 abuse claims in 2004, 783 the next year and 714 last year. Still, he called the findings "sobering."

"The fact that there are any recent cases at all is very disconcerting," said Aymond, of Austin, Texas.

John Moynihan, a spokesman for Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group seeking more transparency from Catholic leaders, said he considers the 714 figure "huge" considering how long the crisis has lasted. More than 13,000 molestation claims have been filed against clergy since 1950. Bishops say abuse-related costs have exceeded $1.5 billion.

"One would think that after all these years it would have tapered off greatly," Moynihan said. "I'm sure we have not seen the end of it."

Dioceses and religious orders paid nearly $399 million in 2006 for settlements with victims, attorney fees and support for accusers and offenders. For 2005, the figure was $467 million - considered the highest ever for a single year.

Most of the people who came forward in 2006 said they had been victimized between 1960 and 1984.

Forty-three percent of the claims involved priests who had never before been accused of molesting children. Most of the accused clerics are either dead, missing or have already been removed from church work or the priesthood, making the new allegations difficult to prove. In dioceses alone, bishops said 11 percent of the 2006 allegations could not be proven or were considered false.

Only 17 of the people who came forward with complaints last year were under age 18.

The survey of nearly all 195 U.S. dioceses and non-geographic districts called eparchies was conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

An accompanying audit, by The Gavin Group, Inc., a consulting firm led by a former FBI official, checks whether the nation's dioceses are implementing the reforms spelled out in the bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

However, this year's audit was much more limited in scope, so that the bishops' Office of Child and Youth protection could shift the dates of its review to match more closely with the survey of the number of abuse cases.

Only 11 dioceses had full, onsite audits at their request and were found in compliance with the charter by the end of the audit period. Eighteen additional dioceses had limited audits that focused only on remedying past failures, mainly related to training children, volunteers and staff to identify and report abuse. Of that group, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., still had not completed the trainings by the end of the audit period.

The Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests views the audits and the survey as ineffective because dioceses control what information researchers see. William Gavin, president of The Gavin Group, noted in the 2006 report that no personnel files were reviewed and "the auditors had to rely on the truthfulness and integrity of those furnishing the information."

But defenders say the annual reviews play an important role in child protection.

"Vigilance is needed to overcome the natural regressive tendency to become complacent," the auditors wrote in their report.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network, said the findings are more evidence of the urgent need for state lawmakers to extend statutes of limitation on prosecuting child sex abuse. "Victims report decades later because it takes that long to understand you've been severely hurt and you have options," Clohessy said.

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