The number of clergy sex abuse cases in the Catholic church in the United States continues to decline, and most of those newly reported stem from the 1960s through the 1980s, according to the latest report on how dioceses are complying with the ongoing requirements of the U.S. bishops' 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
The generally positive news in the report is tempered, however, by cautions against complacency from both Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Francesco C. Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People.
And, as has been the case for the 12 years the audit has been performed, the review board is forced to report that the church in the United States is not in full compliance with the charter because the diocese of Lincoln, Neb., and five eparchies, dioceses of the Eastern church, refuse to cooperate with the survey.
In his letter presenting the report, Cesareo warned against "Charter drift" and a "false sense of security."
"While substantive progress has been made, it should not be concluded that the sexual abuse of minors is a problem of the past that has been adequately addressed," he wrote. "The fact that there were six substantiated cases of abuse of current minors in this year's audit is indicative of the fact that there are still instances where dioceses fall short."
Kurtz, in accepting the report for the bishops, wrote: "Though our promise to protect and heal made in 2002 remains strong, we must not become complacent with what has been accomplished. It is my hope and prayer that as we continue to fulfill our promise, the Church will help model ways of addressing and bringing to light the darkness and evil of abuse wherever it exists."
According to a survey by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate included in the report, more than 80 percent of credible allegations of abuse reported between July 2013 and June 2014 date back over 25 years, with the majority occurring from the 1960s to the 1980s. Two of the 294 credible accusations reported occurred in 2014. Of the remaining cases, some date back to as early as the 1920s. According to the audit, all new cases were reported to civil authorities.
Between July 2013 and June 2014, the church spent a total of $119,079,647 on settlements with victims, therapy for victims, attorneys' fees and other costs related to sex abuse allegations, according to the report. During that same period, the church spent $31,667,740 on safe-environment training programs, background checks and other protective efforts.
In line with the requirements of the charter, more than 4.4 million children were trained in 2014, along with 99 percent of priests (35,319), deacons (16,089), and educators (160,757), and 98 percent of volunteers (1.9 million) churchwide.
Cesareo told NCR the caution was included because "with procedures and policies in place, we can easily begin to assume there are no issues or problems any longer, and we can become complacent and not as diligent in implementation of certain applications of the charter."
For instance, he said, dioceses that have no active cases of abuse may think the local review board has no reason to meet. But he said such groups should gather at least annually to see if procedures are being followed or if there are areas that need to be strengthened or policies that need updating.
He noted that the Lincoln diocese's refusal to cooperate is raised each year in the report. He said the board understands that the national organization of bishops has no jurisdiction over individual bishops, but said the board is hopeful "that bishops behind the scenes will encourage the bishop of Lincoln to participate."
The Review Board has not had the opportunity to discuss the April 21 resignation of Bishop Robert Finn of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo. Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor count of failing to report suspected child abuse after he did not report a priest who had child pornography on his computer. The Vatican gave no specific reason for the resignation, but the Vatican Congregation for Bishops had earlier conducted an investigation of Finn.
The matter "may end up on our agenda in June," Cesaro said. "Whatever the reason for his decision to resign -- if it was connected to the issue in his diocese -- hopefully that is a signal that bishops need to take responsibility for their actions."
Despite the cautions he wrote in his letter, he said he believes the church has made "significant progress on this issue" and that "as an institution, we are leading the way for other institutions dealing with this issue. The church can be a great resource for other organizations dealing with the question of sex abuse."
[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His email address is email@example.com.]