Report details sex abuse numbers

La Crosse Tribune/January 9, 2004
By Gayda Hollnagel

The Diocese of La Crosse released statistics this week showing that from 1950 to 2002 it received 58 allegations of child sexual abuse against 28 priests.

Thirty-one accusations were substantiated against 10 priests or other clerics.

The report said 705 clerics, including 478 diocesan priests, 187 religious order priests and 40 deacons served in the diocese during the 52-year period.

Of the 58 allegations, 24 were unsubstantiated, and three were completely withdrawn or exonerated, said James Birnbaum, the diocesan attorney.

The report was released along with information about how the diocese fared in an audit report released Tuesday on how dioceses nationwide are complying with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted in June 2002.

La Crosse was among 20 dioceses cited as being not in full compliance with the document, a designation being disputed by Bishop Raymond L. Burke and other diocesan leaders.

Bill Ryan, spokesman for the conference of U.S. bishops, said the designation was not meant to imply the La Crosse diocese wasn't complying with the charter.

"It's 93 percent compliant with the charter, at least," he said. "The presumption is the rest is under way."

Ryan said the area of non-compliance involves Article 12 in the document which calls for dioceses to provide training about sexual abuse for clergy, staff, diocesan employees, volunteers and children. Ryan said he didn't know exactly what portion of the article was a concern.

However, diocesan officials said Tuesday that the issue is providing training for children. The diocese did not have a specific program at the time of the audit in September 2003, but has since adopted one. Officials have said they expect the training to be completed by the end of the school year.

Although the audit report listed the diocese as also being non-compliant in completing background checks of all adults and children who have regular contact with children, Ryan said information he had indicated that the diocese has complied.

"If there is a mistake, obviously the office will correct it," he said, referring to the Office for the Protection of Children and Young People, which oversees the charter.

The auditors are expected to release a report on Feb. 27 that will give precise numbers of all cases involving clergy nationwide since 1950.

Burke said he wanted the diocese's numbers released now because he leaves the diocese later this month and will be installed Jan. 26 as Archbishop of St. Louis.

The 10 substantiated abusers comprise 1.4 percent of the total clerics serving La Crosse since 1950, Birnbaum said. "When we're talking numbers, even one case is not something to be proud of, but to the extent you can be proud of a record, we are," he added.

Bishop Burke said of the 10 cases all were in the fairly distant past, except for a case in 2001 involving a priest from a separate religious group who was working in the diocese. The Rev. Timothy E. Svea, formerly of Wausau, was a priest with the Institute of Christ the King, a nondiocesan international religious group based in Italy.

The diocese had two well-publicized cases of child sexual abuse by priests in the 1990s, including one involving decades-old accusations against the late Rev. Thomas E. Dempsey, a priest then serving in the Archdiocese of Boston, where complaints about diocesan mishandling of sex abuse cases first surfaced in 2002.

The second case involved the late Bruce Ball, a La Crosse native who was charged in incidents in 1991 while he was a pastor of a parish in Colby, Wis.

The report released this week said the diocese paid out $15,807 for counseling alleged victims of abuse between 1950 and 2002. The assistance was available based on need, not culpability of the diocese or whether the allegation was substantiated, Birnbaum said.

In 2002, Burke told the Tribune the money for counseling came from the Bishop's Emergency Fund, not parish or general diocesan funds. Burke also said the diocesan insurance carrier paid out about $100,000 to settle a 1994 civil claim against Ball, who was removed from the priesthood after his conviction. Burke said that claim was the only claim ever paid by the carrier.

The diocese has had a formal sexual abuse policy since 1988 that was last updated in 1997. That policy covers all diocesan employees and volunteers.

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