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NCR research: Costs of sex abuse crisis to US church underestimated

  • Plaintiff Lee Bashforth holds a photo of himself outside Los Angeles Superior Court on July 16, 2007, the day that the Los Angeles archdiocese and attorneys for more than 500 victims of clergy sex abuse arrived at a $660 million settlement. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The U.S. Catholic church has incurred nearly $4 billion in costs related to the priest sex abuse crisis during the past 65 years, according to an extensive NCR investigation of media reports, databases and church documents.

In addition, separate research recently published calculates that other scandal-related consequences such as lost membership and diverted giving has cost the church more than $2.3 billion annually for the past 30 years.

Between 1950 and August of this year, the church has paid out $3,994,797,060.10, NCR found.

That figure is based on a three-month investigation of data, including a review of more than 7,800 articles gleaned from LexisNexis Academic and NCR databases, as well as information from and from reports from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Up until now, "nearly $3 billion" has been the most widely cited figure by media, academics and activists for the cost to the U.S. church for clergy sex abuse and its cover-up. NCR research shows that figure is too low, probably by as much as a billion dollars -- and perhaps much more.

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Making direct comparisons between NCR figures and official figures from the bishops' conference is difficult, perhaps impossible, for a number of reasons:

  • There are no uniform reporting standards for public disclosure of financial records for U.S. Catholic dioceses. For example, of the 197 dioceses and eparchies that are members of the U.S. bishops' conference, NCR could find only 60 that had made some kind of public financial report available for 2014. Previous reporting (NCR, Feb. 27-March 12) found the quality of these financial disclosures varies dramatically. Very little information about how much a particular diocese spent on counseling for victims of abuse or for monitoring priest offenders can be found in these reports.
  • The NCR research relies largely on media reports, which tend to report only court cases or large settlements and in major media markets. Areas with little media coverage will be underrepresented in the results.
  • Settlements with nondisclosure or confidentiality restrictions are not included in the results. NCR found nearly 150 such settlements since 1950, most (74) in 2003 or before, but many even in recent years, seven in 2015 alone. Media rarely report routine financial data related to sex abuse, such as a particular diocese's cost of training church volunteers to be in compliance with the U.S. bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
  • Information from the bishops is incomplete. Because of the way they report on sex abuse, they provide no data for 2003, and data released after 2013 isn't directly comparable to data released before 2013 because of changing data collection methods.
  • NCR figures are reported for the year in which the settlement was reached and announced (the year the liability was recognized), while the bishops' figures are reported for the year the costs were actually paid out. This partially accounts for the large differences in amounts reported by NCR and amounts reported by the bishops in certain years. For example, some settlements are reached during one year, but the money is not distributed to victims until the next year or later.

The annual reports issued since 2004 by the bishops' Office for the Protection of Children and Young People have their own set of problems. As NCR has previously reported, the data collection is voluntary. The most recent annual reports have compliance rates of about 98 percent for dioceses and 70 percent for religious orders, but early reports had much lower reporting rates.

Related: Editorial: The deep, lasting financial cost of sex abuse

And the data are self-reported, unaudited and issued in aggregate. Data can't be double-checked or specific dioceses examined.

The NCR examination of reports from around the country unearthed amounts previously unreported in official church financial disclosures as well as amounts left out of reporting on other databases because they were not considered major settlements or judgments against the church.

Only data about settlements and judgments in two specific periods, 1950-2002 and 2004-2013, can be directly compared between the NCR research and reports from the U.S. bishops. (See accompanying charts below.)

While the NCR investigation unearthed amounts not reported in 2004-2013 by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), there was no way to determine precisely which amounts those are.

NCR arrived at its $3.99 billion total by adding to its findings two other sets of figures reported by the bishops:

  • The cost in 2004-2013 for therapy for victims ($78 million); support for offenders ($142 million); attorneys' fees ($433 million); child protection efforts, including training, background checks, safe environment coordinators, and other measures ($259 million); and for "other costs," a designation covering such items as abuse investigations, insurance premiums, emergency assistance for victims and monitoring service for offenders ($47 million).
  • $96,832,258.22 for similar services for the period 1950-2002 reported in the 2004 report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Dollar amounts for such services for other periods are not available, but most certainly would have been and are being spent. For this reason, the $3.99 billion figure is almost certainly a low estimate.

As a way of illustrating the magnitude of the costs to the U.S. church, if that amount were divided evenly among the nation's 197 dioceses, each would receive nearly $20 million.

In attempting to compile as thorough a record as possible, articles surfaced that provided some insight into why it will probably be impossible to ever get a complete picture. In 2002, for instance, The Washington Post reported that three years earlier a judge gave permission to the Milwaukee archdiocese to shred documents that it wanted destroyed because those papers "showed how much money it had spent on treatment, litigation and settlements related to sex abuse."

Other articles recount the efforts by the church in several states to block legislation that would either temporarily lift or permanently alter statutes of limitations, laws governing how long victims have to report allegations of sex abuse. The cost of this work, done through bishops' state Catholic conferences, is not publicly reported and can't be included in cost estimates.

It is probably impossible to calculate the effect such great losses have had on the church's ministries and outreach, since some of the restructuring of the church in the United States has simply resulted from shifts in population from old centers of Catholic life in the Northeast and Upper Midwest to the South and Southwest.

However, Charles Zech, director of Villanova University's Center for Church Management and Business Ethics, said that just the interest off the amounts lost over the years to the sex abuse crisis would help the church more justly compensate its lay workforce.

Zech, who has strongly criticized Catholics' lack of support for the church (he points out that Catholic giving is half that of Protestants), said bishops also are responsible for financial shortfalls that affect the level of ministry and the level of pay. "We don't treat our laypeople very well," he said, noting that one of the prevailing attitudes is that there is no need to pay lay ministers a decent wage because they are performing ministries.

[Jack Ruhl is a professor of accountancy at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. Diane Ruhl, a clergy abuse survivor, is a registered nurse and veterinarian in Kalamazoo.]

Settlements and judgments against the church
2002 and before (USCCB) 2004-2013 (CARA) Total (USCCB and CARA)
$ 475,674,835.73 $ 2,044,614,703.00 $ 2,520,289,538.73
NCR research NCR research NCR research
$ 290,413,017.88 $ 2,343,003,083.00 $ 2,633,416,100.88
Difference Difference Difference
$ 185,261,817.85 $ 298,388,380.00 $ 113,126,562.15
Note: These figures do not include other costs associated with the abuse crisis, such as therapy for victims, support of offenders, and operation of safe environment programs.
Sources: Jack and Diane Ruhl/US Conference of Catholic Bishops/CARA


Year Bishops' data on settlements
and judgments
NCR data on settlements
and judgments
2002 & before $ 475,674,835.73 $ 290,413,017.88
2003 No comparable data $ 187,659,500.00
2004 $ 106,241,809.00 $ 152,099,500.00
2005 $ 399,037,456.00 $ 256,854,000.00
2006 $ 277,213,420.00 $ 226,302,000.00
2007 $ 526,226,283.00 $ 1,134,022,583.00
2008 $ 374,408,554.00 $ 94,102,000.00
2009 $ 63,575,843.00 $ 52,814,000.00
2010 $ 88,737,073.00 $ 36,699,000.00
2011 $ 73,681,782.00 $ 321,100,000.00
2012 $ 68,302,318.00 $ 14,255,000.00
2013 $ 67,190,165.00 $ 54,755,000.00
2014 Not comparable time frame $ 61,210,000.00
2015 Not yet available $ 55,650,000.00
TOTAL $ 2,520,289,538.73 $ 2,937,935,600.88
Note: These figures do not include other costs associated with the abuse crisis, such as therapy for victims, support of offenders, and operation of safe environment programs.
Sources: Jack and Diane Ruhl/US Conference of Catholic Bishops/CARA


This story appeared in the Nov 6-19, 2015 print issue under the headline: NCR research: Costs of sex abuse crisis to US church underestimated .

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