Church releases abuse data

The Modesto Bee/January 23, 2004
By Amy White

Ten priests in the Catholic Diocese of Stockton were accused of sexually abusing minors from 1962 to 2003, with $9.535 million paid in settlements and court judgments, according to a review of diocesan records released Thursday.

The diocese collected the figures, based on its records, for a comprehensive study compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The diocese sent copies of its review to member churches Thursday; information will be distribu-ted to members at services this weekend.

The national study, to include statistics on clergy abuse nationwide, is set for release Feb. 27. It will not include a diocese-by-diocese breakdown.

Commissioned in June 2002 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the study tracked cases of abuse and costs nationwide back to 1950.

Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire said Thursday that the diocese already has implemented many of the recommendations in a separate audit last year.

About 30 percent of the nation's dioceses have chosen to release their data, said Sister Barbara Thiella, chancellor of the Stockton Diocese, which includes 33 parishes in Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Tuolumne, Calaveras, Alpine and Mono counties.

According to the diocese report:

Twenty-nine individuals alleged sexual abuse by clergy affiliated with the Diocese of Stockton and its predecessor between 1950 and 2003. Seventeen of the allegations were against one priest -- Oliver O'Grady; one of those was deemed false.

The 10 accused priests were among 404 priests exercising ministry in the diocese over that period, amounting to 2.47 percent of the priests in the diocese.

Law enforcement investi- gated six priests. No charges were brought against three priests. Two priests were convicted and received prison terms. A Supreme Court decision on the criminal statute of limitations on sexual abuse of minors pre-empted charges against one priest.

One priest was permanently removed from the clergy; one was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of a church investigation; and one did not work in the Stockton Diocese when the alleged abuse occurred.

Five priests are under investigation. Two of them had been dead for several years before the allegations surfaced; two returned to their country of origin years ago.

There are 12 lawsuits pending against the Diocese of Stockton, filed in 2003 during the time when the statute of limitations was lifted in California. Some are not yet public.

Of the $9.535 million paid in settlements and court judgments, $5 million was paid by insurance carriers and $4.535 million by the Diocese of Stockton. Counseling services amounted to $190,000 -- half estimated paid by insurance. Lawyer fees are estimated at $200,000, mostly paid for by insurance, according to the diocese. The diocese did not release the records itself.

Blaire said he was not surprised by the findings. The diocese has been dealing with the magnitude of the O'Grady allegations since the 1990s. O'Grady served time in prison, was deported to Ireland and reduced to lay status. A second priest, Oscar Pelaez, was sentenced to six years in prison in 2002.

"We knew our situation," Blaire said. "What could be a surprise is how extensive the problem is (nationally), as far as what the John Jay study will indicate. ... There is no question it was a serious and extensive problem."

Among other dioceses that have released statistics, the Sacramento Diocese reported receiving complaints accusing 21 priests of sexual misconduct and paying $1.5 million in settlements and victim services since 1950; the Santa Rosa Diocese reported 16 accused priests, 59 victims and $8.6 million in costs.

Most of the cases in the Stockton Diocese -- including recent filings -- were from the 1970s and 1980s and involved O'Grady, Thiella said.

The church began actively dealing with the problem in the 1990s, Blaire said. In the past, offending priests often were allowed to return to ministry after completing treatment.

"We now know that anyone addicted in those areas can never be returned to ministry, because there is always a chance of relapse," Blaire said. "Now we know that 'low risk' is still a risk."

In recent years, the diocese has overseen "healing rituals" for parishioners and support groups for priests, fine-tuned pastoral screening and created programs and protocols dealing with clergy abuse.

A 2003 audit of dioceses across the country by the Gavin Group of Boston found the Stockton Diocese compliant with the Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, drafted in 2002 to address allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

"You can never be totally sure you can prevent future abuse ... but in terms of making a safe environment for children, I think it will be about as safe as we can do," Blaire said.

In earlier days, prospective priests didn't undergo psychiatric evaluations, he said. "(All they needed) was to come from a good family and have a letter of recommendation from a pastor," Blaire said. "Now there is a very extensive evaluation system."

For years, "the church did not know the extent of the problem," Blaire added. Now that it is recognized, "we cannot express often enough our sadness and deep sorrow," he said.

Victims and their attorneys argue that the church has known about abuse within the church for decades.

Laurence E. Drivon, a Stockton attorney handling 464 clergy abuse cases in California, called it "a centuries-old cover-up." He estimates there are at least 750 cases pending in the state.

Sacramento attorney Joseph George has seven pending clergy abuse cases in the region, including four involving O'Grady. He has mixed feelings regarding the diocese's release of statistics, which he called a "pre-emptive strike on behalf of the local diocese ... to soften the blow" for the national release.

He questioned the accuracy of the diocese's records.

"The history has been less than stellar with regard to their honestly and openly showing their books," he said. "It is kind of like doing your own tax returns and doing your own audit."

George said that he is convinced there are more cases of abuse than those listed in the diocese report. But he said he feels Blaire has been proactive in addressing the problem and victims' needs and that some good can come of the statistics.

Statistics used for the John Jay report cover 1950 through June 2002. Most of the Stockton Diocese figures go from Jan. 13, 1962 -- when the diocese was created -- to Dec. 31, 2003. Accusations of clergy sexual abuse before Jan. 13, 1962, are included in statistics of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and Diocese of Sacramento, which included this area before the formation of the Stockton Diocese.

The National Review Board, a lay group, also is compiling a report that will be released the same day as the next John Jay study late next month. A future study will analyze the causes of clergy sexual abuse.

"We now will know how extensive the crisis has been," Blaire said, referring to the John Jay study. "But we need to know why. Why did this crisis happen? What are the causes? If we can learn the causes, it will not only help us at the church, but will help as far as society."

At A Glance

Here are some of the actions the Stockton Diocese has taken in the last two years to comply with the principles outlined in the Bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People:

  • Hired a coordinator to provide safe environments for children.
  • Updated its written policy for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
  • Established a Diocesan Review Board that includes lay professionals.
  • Produced "Code of Pastoral Conduct for Priests, Deacons, Seminarians, Lay Employees and Volunteers" and "A Safe Environment Protocol (Child Abuse Prevention and Reporting)."
  • Distributed to all parishes pamphlets in English and Spanish on how to report allegations.
  • Updated its screening and evaluation techniques in the selection of candidates for ordination to the priesthood and diaconate.
  • Participated in a research study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to determine the "nature and scope" of the problem of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.

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