The scope of sex abuse accusations against Roman Catholic clergy since 1950 appears to be much greater than previously estimated by victims' groups and the media, an Associated Press review of reports from dioceses has found.
The U.S. church will make an unprecedented, nationwide accounting of abuse claims and costs later this month, and some bishops already have started releasing local figures. The AP contacted dioceses across the country and found that 1,341 clergy members have been accused of molesting minors, with more than half the dioceses yet to report.
"What it's really doing is showing us in black and white that the problem is much worse than any of us thought," said Sue Archibald, president of The Linkup, a Kentucky-based victim advocacy group.
In 2002, the Tucson diocese settled lawsuits alleging four Catholic priests during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s had sexually abused children. The settlement was for an estimated $15 million.
Statistics have yet to be released by some archdioceses that have faced hundreds of allegations, including Boston and Los Angeles.
A January 2003 review by The New York Times counted 1,205 accused priests nationwide over five decades. Survivors First, an advocacy group compiling its own list from media reports and lawsuits, has counted 1,800.
But Paul Baier of Survivors First said he compared the numbers his organization collected with reports from 41 dioceses and found the dioceses' local statistics were double what he had counted.
"If those trends continue across 195 dioceses, we can see the number that's self-reported by the bishops being twice as high as the names in our public database," Baier said.
The figures the AP compiled are part of a first-of-its-kind national survey the bishops commissioned from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. By opening themselves up to greater scrutiny, the bishops hope to restore trust in their leadership following waves of scandal over abusive priests. The report is due Feb. 27.
The national survey won't break down statistics by individual diocese, but bishops are free to release local figures, and many said they are doing so to fulfill their pledge of transparency in the wake of the crisis that erupted two years ago.
The AP found 80 of 195 dioceses have released their reports so far. At least 60 additional dioceses plan to release their local figures by the end of the month. Others haven't set a date and a few did not participate in the study.
Determining how many priests actually were guilty of abuse is difficult since many cases were not reviewed by law enforcement and most of the claims involve alleged misconduct that occurred decades ago.
At least 179 of the accused clergy are dead, according to the diocesan reports. And the dioceses said at least 60 priests were exonerated of false claims.
The National Review Board, a lay watchdog panel that the bishops formed, has overseen the study and plans to also release the results of its own investigation into how the crisis occurred.
"Bishops chose to get the hard data ... to make sure the steps they've taken are adequate to addressing the problem," said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "This is an unprecedented study of a single profession. It takes the risk of concentrating even further attention on the Catholic priesthood a problem that is a human problem, that is engaged in by members of a family in regard to other members of their family."
The bishops who already released statistics said their dioceses received a total of 2,870 abuse claims from alleged victims or their relatives.
They also said they spent $186.1 million to either settle or litigate the cases, fund counseling for victims and perpetrators, or cover related expenses. Victim advocates estimate the U.S. church has spent $1 billion on abuse claims, while church officials say the number is closer to half that amount.
Victim advocates already are questioning the survey. Even though bishops are revealing more than ever about molestation cases, advocates say the survey ultimately will underestimate the number of claims, because it is based on self-reporting by churchmen eager to minimize the rate of clergy abuse.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the national figures are of secondary concern. He said it was more important to focus on whether bishops were now fully committed to protecting children.
"It's never been about how many priests, how many victims, how much money," he said. "It's always been about how bishops respond."