Catholic Group Picks Academic Team to Study Problem of Sexual Abuse

By Laurie Goodstein
New York Times
March 12, 2003

committee appointed by the Roman Catholic bishops in the United States has selected researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City of New York to undertake the most extensive study ever of the extent of child sexual abuse in the church and how much it has cost the church financially.

For nearly two decades, Catholic bishops resisted proposals from researchers, and from within their own ranks, to conduct a full accounting of the problem. But at the height of the scandal last June at their meeting in Dallas, the bishops called for such an assessment and pledged their cooperation.

Researchers at the college say they will gather information about the number of priests and deacons who abused minors, the number of victims and how bishops and law enforcement handled abuse cases. The study will examine sexual abuse in dioceses, religious orders and Eastern Rite Catholic churches.

The study is more an authorized self-portrait than a fact-finding investigation. It will rely on surveys filled out voluntarily by the bishops and religious orders or their representatives. College officials acknowledge that there is no way to compel church officials to disclose complete information.

"Even though self-reporting has all the problems, we just don't see any other way to conduct the study," said Gerald Lynch, president of John Jay College.

John Jay was selected not by the bishops but by the national review board of prominent Catholic laypeople appointed by the bishops last year to study the issue and recommend solutions.

"This is a great opportunity to learn the true dimensions of the problem," said William R. Burleigh, a review board member and former chief executive of Scripps Howard. "Is it bigger than we had imagined, or has it been blown beyond its true dimensions, as we have heard some say? We want the truth insofar as humans can learn the truth."

In November, the review board, which is led by Frank Keating, a former governor of Oklahoma, hired a senior F.B.I. official, Kathleen McChesney, to serve as executive director of the bishops Office of Child and Youth Protection. In her work with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ms. McChesney had collaborated with scholars at John Jay on several projects.

"The review board thought it was important to contract with a secular institution so that it won't look like it's a Catholic study," Ms. McChesney said. "This is an institution that is known for its academic excellence in the areas of forensics and criminology, and we're talking about crimes and offenses here."

Many Catholics and victims advocates have long said they are eager to see a thorough assessment of the problem in each diocese. But when the study results are made public, they will not reveal a breakdown of the information by dioceses, and will not include the names of the offenders or victims, Ms. McChesney and John Jay researchers said.

Some people involved with the study said they believed that bishops would be more likely to provide accurate information if the records of each diocese remained secret.

Also, John Jay researchers said one reason for producing only aggregate numbers is that as scholars they must follow the guidelines of an institutional review board, or ethics committee, to keep certain information confidential.

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, based in Chicago, said: "On the one hand we're pleased that they've chosen a secular institution without obvious ties to the church. But we're hopeful that they will move beyond self-reporting by bishops and include thorough surveys of victims as well. Otherwise they run the risk of still having at best incomplete and at worst skewed results."

The college plans to mail questionnaires to every diocese and religious order asking for information about each abuse case. The surveys will arrive with a letter from Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, urging the bishops to cooperate, and a videotape with instructions for filling out the questionnaires.

For each incident, church officials would likely have to comb through files and extricate such information as the accused priests' assignments, therapy, treatment and discipline; the frequency of abuse; the age and gender of victims; whether drug or alcohol abuse was involved; any resulting settlements, lawsuits or criminal prosecutions; and how much the church paid, and from which accounts, to victims, lawyers and therapists.

The results should be ready later this year, Ms. McChesney said.

David O'Brien, director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said: "There's a lot of bishops who really do want to get it all out and would cooperate, and others who are nervous about it. I think the majority would be willing to give them the gross numbers, but if you pushed them further than that it would be tough."

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