Vatican abuse summit: $2.2 billion and 100,000 victims in U.S. alone

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Experts reject homosexuality as risk factor

ROME -- Two American experts told a Vatican summit today that the full costs of the sexual abuse crisis – including financial payouts, emotional distress, alienation among both clergy and laity, and damage to the church’s moral authority – is essentially incalculable, but massive beyond any doubt.

Focusing on the United States, the two speakers provided estimates suggesting that the American church has spent at least $2.2 billion settling litigation related to the crisis, and that there may have been as many as 100,000 total victims of clerical sexual abuse.

Before surveying the damage, Michael Bemi and Pat Neal rejected what they described as four “myths” about the crisis, which were:

  • The crisis is an American problem.
  • The crisis has been exaggerated by a Godless media that is antagonistic to people or institutions of faith.
  • The crisis has been instigated by avaricious attorneys whose only objective is to enrich themselves financially.
  • Homosexual orientation causes men to be sex offenders. (“Neither homosexual nor heterosexual orientation is a risk factor,” they said, “but rather, disordered or confused sexual orientation is a risk factor.”)

tWhile each of those claims may have “elements of truth,” the two speakers said, “none on its own, nor all of them combined, can even begin to explain and fully describe the misconduct crisis.”

Bemi and Neal are part of the leadership team for the “Protecting God’s Children” program, currently used in 115 American dioceses, designed to create a safe environment for children and vulnerable adults.

On the financial dimension of the crisis, Bemi and Neal noted that in the United States alone, a 2004 John Jay study estimated that $472 million had been paid out at that point on sex abuse claims, and there’s been an estimated $1.8 billion paid in the period since. Those estimates are likely low, they said, for a variety of reasons, including that some dioceses and religious orders have made confidential settlements whose dollar amounts may never be known.

Globally, the Catholic church has probably paid out an analogous amount, the two experts suggested.

“It is probably reasonable to estimate that the actual ‘out of pocket’ cost of the crisis to the church internationally is well in excess of two billion dollars,” they said.

Beyond cash payments, Bemi and Neal said, one also has to consider opportunity costs – institutions closed or never opened, ministries trimmed down or never launched, and so on, because of the crisis.

“The sad fact is that there is a huge amount of good that we could be doing now – and for years to come – that we will never do because of the money, time and effort already spent, and continuing to be expended, to address the sexual misconduct crisis,” they said.

Moving to human costs, Bemi and Neal estimated that there may have been as many as 100,000 victims in the United States.

“The John Jay study identified 10,667 victim allegations made in the period from 1950-2002, which number increased to 15,235 employing data through 2009,” they said. “In that it is a well-known and accepted phenomenon that many victims of sexual assault never report their victimization, some observers have estimated that there may be as many as 100,000 total victims in the United States alone.”

Bemi and Neal catalogued a host of physical and psychological maladies suffered by abuse victims, ranging from eating disorders and sexual dysfunction to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Victims of sexual abuse do not ‘just get over it,’” they said.

Bemi and Neal also suggest that families of abuse victims have been damaged, along with innocent priests who have seen their reputations damaged rank-and-file laity who feel alienated, confused, and betrayed.

Widespread efforts to create a safe environment in the American church post-2002, Bemi and Neal said, have offered one important safety valve.

“For Catholics living through this in the United States, one solution to help solve the problem was to heavily engage themselves in the Church-wide safe environment and victim assistance efforts,” they said. “Countless numbers of children and vulnerable adults are spared the torments of abuse due to the coordinated efforts of the Church members who came forward to recreate safe environments and programs.”

“It must be said that for some, they see this as a personal commitment to handle a situation that many church leaders mishandled,” Bemi and Neal said.

Overall, Bemi and Neal argued that despite the damage that has been done, the experience of the United States shows that the Catholic church can recover.

“Protocols, policies, procedures and programs exist that have demonstrated their value and utility,” they said. “Experience, including much that was painful, has been gained and can be shared. Training models exist that are “tried and true” and immediately available as templates.”

“No local church has to ‘start from scratch’ or ‘reinvent the wheel,’ they said. “We already have the means to help restore the church as the most recognized force for good in the world.”

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