February 27, 2004

WASHINGTON (AP) - A panel of prominent Roman Catholics rebuked U.S. bishops Friday for failing to stop widespread clerical sex abuse over the last half-century, calling the leaders' performance ``shameful to the church.'' The top American bishop pledged that the church's mistakes will never be repeated.

``The terrible history recorded here today is history,'' said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The exchange came as the National Review Board, a lay watchdog panel formed by the bishops, issued two highly anticipated studies documenting the molestation problem from 1950 to 2002.

One report is the first church-sanctioned tally of abuse cases: It found there have been 10,667 abuse claims over those 52 years. More than 80 percent of the alleged victims were male and over half said they were between ages 11 and 14 when they were assaulted.

About 4 percent of all American clerics who served during the years studied - 4,392 of the 109,694 priests and others under vows to the church - were accused of abuse.

Victims' advocates immediately decried the figures as low. ``Thousands of victims haven't reported and dozens of bishops aren't telling all they know,'' said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. ``They have no incentive to.''

The second review-board report examines the causes of the molestation crisis and puts much of the blame on American bishops for not cracking down on errant priests.

``This is a failing not simply on the part of the priests who sexually abused minors but also on the part of those bishops and other church leaders who did not act effectively to preclude that abuse in the first instance,'' the review board said.

``These leadership failings have been shameful to the church.''

Gregory said the reports tell ``a tragic story.'' But he assured disillusioned Catholics that the bishops are fully committed to stamping out abuse.

``I can say with absolute assurance that the bishops now have in place the means of responding immediately to allegations, assisting victims and removing offenders from ministry,'' he said.

The John Jay College of Criminal Justice conducted the tally of abuse claims for review board, receiving survey responses from 97 percent of the 195 U.S. dioceses, plus 142 religious communities.

It found that, of the 10,667 reports of assaults on minors, more than 10 percent were could not be substantiated and roughly 20 percent were not investigated because the priest accused was dead or inactive when the allegation was received. Researchers said that approximately 6,700 claims were substantiated.

The John Jay report also calculated abuse-related costs such as litigation and counseling at $572 million, and noted that the figure does not cover settlements within the past year including $85 million in Boston.

A White House spokesman said the Bush administration has noted developments in the crisis. ``It's a very serious matter, the church is actively working to address it,'' said presidential spokesman Scott McClellan. ``Certainly our concern is with the victims and the families.''

The abuse tally also shows that the number of reported cases grew through the 1950s and '60s and peaked in the 1970s, then began to drop off - slipping notably in the last decade. Victims' advocates say that's because there is a reporting lag; victims often do not come forward for years or even decades.

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