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WASHINGTON — U.S. Catholic leaders processed more than 800 allegations of clergy sexual abuse in 2008, a 16 percent increase from 2007. The majority of the allegations involved abuse that occurred decades ago.
A report issued Friday (March 13) by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops showed 803 allegations were filed by 706 victims last year against 518 clergy. The church also spent more than $436 million in legal settlements, attorney fees and counseling costs.
Just 13 of the 803 cases involved alleged abuse of a minor that occurred during 2008. Nearly all of the cases involved accusations of molestation that occurred decades ago. The church said 83 percent of the accused clergy were dead, defrocked or missing.
The relative lack of recent cases shows that the American church has “turned a corner” in the abuse scandal that erupted seven years ago, said Teresa M. Kettlekamp, the director of the bishops’ abuse-prevention office.
“Is every diocese doing everything perfectly? No, we are not there yet, though we’re far closer than we were last year, and the year before that, and all previous years,” Kettlekamp wrote in the report.
Victims’ advocates, however, raised questions about a section in the report that said “many dioceses are conducting … investigations themselves without also making a report to civil authorities,” which would be a direct violation of the bishops’ 2002 reforms.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, worried that children may be at risk while church officials sift through allegations without first alerting law enforcement.
“To be honest, this is precisely what got us into this mess to begin with: untrained, biased church amateurs trying to be cops, investigators, forensic experts and prosecutors,” Clohessy said.
Kettlekamp, however, said her report raised the issue only as a cautionary warning to dioceses not to try to handle criminal behavior on their own. She said she would not include it in a “problem category.”
“Our rule of thumb is that if it involves a current minor, you involve the civil authorities immediately and rely on their expertise,” she said in an interview. “I’m not saying we have this problem; I’m saying I don’t want this to become a problem.”
The increase from 691 total allegations in 2007 to 803 in 2008 appears to be fueled by a 93 percent spike in abuse involving members of religious communities. Those allegations nearly doubled, from 92 to 178; 40 percent of the 2008 allegations involved one religious order.
By comparison, the total number of allegations reported by the nation’s 195 dioceses increased by 26, or 4 percent, from 2007.
Kettlekamp declined to name the religious order responsible for the majority of the increase, and referred calls to an umbrella group for men’s religious orders. A spokesman said officials were out of the country and unable to comment.
Other than the 16 percent increase in overall allegations, the report detected few dramatic changes, and reflected a largely predictable pattern that has emerged since the bishops started collecting nationwide data in 2004:
— The vast majority of victims are male (84 percent among diocesan incidents; 67 percent among religious communities) and most were between the ages of 10 and 14 at the time of the abuse.
— Most alleged abuse occurred between 1965 and 1974, and the rate of cases sharply dropped in the 1990s.
— Fifty-three diocesan priests, and 24 members of religious communities, were permanently removed from the clergy in 2008.
Twenty-three, meanwhile, were returned to ministry while 140 were temporarily suspended as allegations were investigated. About 43 clerics remained in active ministry pending a full investigation.
— A little more than 10 percent of all allegations received in 2008 were determined to be unsubstantiated or false.
— Two dioceses — Baker, Ore., and Lincoln, Neb., — and five ethnic Eastern rite jurisdictions refused to allow on-site audits of their compliance with the bishops’ sex abuse policies. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln also refused to cooperate with researchers from Georgetown University who collected data from all 194 other dioceses.
By Kevin Eeckstrom
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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