HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) – The storm ispassing. In mid-July, when the Archdiocese of Los Angeles reached a$660 million settlement with more than 500 victims of clergy sexualabuse, it also brought to a close the largest number of abuse cases inone diocese still pending in U.S. courts.
Attemptsto lift the civil statute of limitations in other states, allowingvictims abused as long ago as the 1930s to bring suit against theirdiocese, have failed everywhere but Delaware. That means the tidal waveof clergy-abuse allegations that followed California’s temporarylifting of its statute of limitations is not likely to recur.
Throughout the United States, the number of criminal allegations against priests and religious also continues to drop.
According to a report compiled by the Georgetown University-basedCenter for Research in the Apostolate (CARA), both the number ofvictims and allegations has dropped each of the past three years.
Of the 632 allegations made in 2006, 60 percent of the perpetratorswere named in previous allegations and 70 percent were either dead,already removed from ministry or had left the priesthood or religiouslife by the time the allegation was reported. Ten percent of theallegations were proven unsubstantiated.
“The worst of the litigation is over,” affirmed Judge Michael Merz,chair of the independent National Review Board, established by the U.S.bishops in response to the scandal. “And with it, will go thepolarizing public attention that accompanies big litigation and theattempts to garner press attention that make people feel the matter isstill red-hot.”
Despite the loss of public scrutiny that will occur once the abusescandal moves off the front pages, Merz thinks it highly unlikely thatanyone in the American Catholic hierarchy will again be tempted to hushup abuse allegations or shuffle offenders from parish to parish.
“$2 billion is a lesson that’s hard not to learn,” said Merz, referringto the more than $2 billion paid out by U.S. dioceses in settlementcosts. “The people who make the decisions have got the message.”
Getting it right
Mary Gautier, a senior research associate at CARA, also pointed to the“stringent measures” put in place by the bishops in the 2002 DallasCharter for the Protection of Children and Young People as asignificant check on the problem’s re-emergence.
“Although the policies are voluntary, the dioceses have been almostuniversal in implementing them,” she said. “That’s absolutely a check.”
Those policies include background checks on all church employees andvolunteers who come into contact with children, as well as mandatory“safe-environment training,” which helps children and adults bothidentify and respond to improper behavior. The new policies alsoinclude not allowing offenders to remain in ministry.
“There are just more eyes out there now,” Gautier said. “We have a new level of awareness.”
Merz also believes the screening process at the seminary level for menwho could likely exhibit pedophilic behavior has improved. He admits,however, that there is still a great deal of uncertainty over how toscreen out men who are not true pedophiles, but who rather, years aftertheir ordination, commit single acts of abuse against minors.
“I’m much more skeptical about the processes in place for seminarians,”he said. “We’re still not sure of how to screen for all possible typesof offenders.”
Loss of faith
As the storm of litigation that has consumed dioceses across thecountry for the past five years dies out, and as the church in theUnited States moves ahead with her plan for preventing future storms,the question people are beginning to ask is, “How much damage lies inthe storm’s wake?”
Assessing that, said Merz, is an almost impossible task.
“It’s like asking somebody at the Council of Trent how much damage wasdone by the Reformation,” he said. “We won’t know the real cost foryears.”At least in the short-term, however, the cost appears to be far lessthan some expected.
According to Dean Hoge, professor of sociology at The CatholicUniversity of America, the overwhelming majority of Catholics have notexperienced the sex-abuse scandal as “ a crisis of the creed or acrisis of the faith.” Rather, he said, they believe “the crisis is thatthis church isn’t being managed as it should be.”
“If there’s been a loss of faith, it’s been a loss of faith in thechurch’s leadership. And that’s leadership at the highest levels – thebishops, not the pastors,” he noted.
But even that effect is beginning to wane, with a survey conducted byCARA showing that the number of people who were “very” or “somewhat”satisfied with the bishops’ leadership rebound from 57 percent inJanuary 2003 to 74 percent by October 2005.
Hoge also said there’s no research that suggests any widespread moraleproblem among priests, while The Official Catholic Directory shows thatadult conversions to the Catholic faith held steady throughout thecrisis, with between 140,000 and 150,000 people continuing to enter thechurch each year.
One possible long-term effect that does concern Hoge is the scandal’s impact on young people.
“They’re not as committed to the institutional church as olderCatholics, and they give their trust much less automatically,” he said.“The church’s leaders really have to buy the younger generation’s trustwith their own actions.”
And there is, of course, one major piece of devastation that nobodyexpects to go away anytime soon – the scars left on the lives of thevictims of sexual abuse.
“There are still an awful lot of people out there with a lot of hurt,”said Merz. “That’s going to be with us a very long while.”
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Emily Stimpson writes from Ohio for Our Sunday Visitor.
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