NEW YORK (AP) – U.S. Catholic bishops have called the scandal over clergy sex abuse the worst crisis ever to hit the church in America.
To restore public trust, church leaders have overhauled how they handled the cases, paid multimillion-dollar settlements to victims and apologized repeatedly for failing to protect children. Still, the scandal persists. A handful of dioceses remain in bankruptcy court, one diocese faces criminal prosecution, and advocates for victims are pressing lawmakers in several states to lift time limits so more people who were molested can be compensated.
Here’s a look at how the abuse scandal played out in the United States:
HISTORY OF SCANDAL: Clergy sex abuse first drew public attention in the 1980s, with the case of a pedophile priest in the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana. Over the next two decades, scandals arose in several dioceses. But it wasn’t until 2002, when The Boston Globe persuaded a judge to unseal personnel files in the Archdiocese of Boston, that a full-blown national crisis erupted. Revelations about bishops moving guilty priests among parishes without warning parents or police caused an uproar so intense that every American diocese was compelled to take an inventory of how they had dealt with abusers and treated victims going back decades.
BISHOPS RESPOND: Under enormous public pressure, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted sweeping reforms in 2002 meant to safeguard children and restore trust in the church. The bishops created a streamlined process for removing any cleric who molested a child. Dioceses conducted background checks on priests and employees, trained teachers and volunteers on identifying abuse and set up programs meant to help victims. The bishops say they have spent tens of millions of dollars on child safety over the last decade. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, along with other advocates, say bishops often still treat victims as enemies, and note most dioceses have not released the names of perpetrators, which advocates say would help give other victims the courage to come forward.
PRIESTS ACCUSED: Since 2002, hundreds of clergy have been removed from church work and from the priesthood altogether. As part of their reforms, the bishops commissioned studies to tally the number of guilty priests going back to 1950. To date, more than 6,500 clergy have been accused of abuse, comprising about 6 percent of all priests who served during that period. More than 17,000 people said they were molested by priests and others in the church over the same period.
SETTLEMENTS: Dioceses have paid more than $3 billion on settlements with victims since 1950, according to the bishops’ own studies and news reports. Liability insurance covered some of the payouts, but many dioceses have had to sell off major properties to help cover the costs. A dozen of the 195 U.S. dioceses have sought bankruptcy protection in the face of abuse claims. Three of those bankruptcy cases – in Gallup, New Mexico; St. Paul and Minneapolis; and Milwaukee – are still in court.
DISCIPLINING BISHOPS: A few American bishops have been allowed to quietly step down over failures to stop abusers, but none has been publicly disciplined by the pope for leaving children at risk. Pope Francis in June announced he would create a tribunal to hear cases of abuse of office by bishops, but there is no sign the tribunal will be set up anytime soon. Just this year, three U.S. bishops stepped down amid scandals. Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Missouri, resigned in April, three years after he was convicted of failure to report suspected child abuse by a now-imprisoned priest. Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis also resigned this year, along with one of his auxiliary bishops, soon after prosecutors filed child endangerment charges against the archdiocese.
LAW ENFORCEMENT: Grand juries in several states have investigated how dioceses responded to abuse allegations. But child molestation victims often wait until they are well into adulthood to bring claims, far beyond the time limit for prosecution or civil lawsuits. Few accused priests have been criminally convicted, and only two church officials have been convicted for putting children at risk. Along with Finn in Missouri, a former supervisor of clergy in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Monsignor William Lynn, was convicted in 2012 of child endangerment.
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