Washington -- More than 10,600 children said they were molested by priests since 1950 in an epidemic of child sexual abuse involving at least 4 percent of U.S. Roman Catholic clergy, two studies reported on Friday.
The reports' release brought an apology from Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and complaints from victims that the reports focus on the actual abusers but not on the bishops who failed to stop them.
One of the reports, written by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, revealed that 10,667 children were allegedly abused by 4,392 priests from 1950 to 2002. But the report said the figures depend on self-reporting by American bishops and were probably an undercount.
This study found reports of abuse peaked with the ordination class of 1970, from which one in 10 priests was eventually accused of abuse.
Most victims were male, and of those, the largest single age group was boys 11 to 14 years old. Alleged abuses ranged from touching, with or without clothing, to oral sex and sexual intercourse.
Some $572 million has been paid in damages to abuse victims, the report said, but noted this did not include $85 million paid by the Archdiocese of Boston, where the sex abuse scandal first grabbed headlines two years ago, and that 14 percent of dioceses who were not able to provide figures.
The finding that at least 4 percent of American Roman Catholic priests were involved in child sexual abuse differs markedly from the figure of "less than 1 percent" offered in 2002 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The second report, a 145-page examination of the causes and context of the priestly sexual abuse crisis, was crafted by a panel of prominent Catholics who found systemic problems in the way candidates for the priesthood are chosen and guided. This report did not dispute the hard numbers of abusive priests and their victims reached by the John Jay researchers.
"It's always bad when a child is abused, but when the abuser wears a collar, it's worse," said attorney Robert Bennett, a member of a panel. "Much of the blame, unfortunately ... must be placed on the higher-ups."
The panel found two main factors contributing to priestly child sexual abuse, Bennett said at a news conference: dioceses failed to keep "dysfunctional and psycho-sexually immature men" out of the priesthood, and candidates for the priesthood were ill-prepared for lives of celibacy in a highly sexualized age.
"At heart, what we are talking about is not only a ... personnel crisis; it's the age-old question of right and wrong, good and evil," Bennett said.
This panel used interviews with 85 bishops and cardinals, Vatican officials, experts and a handful of victims to look at the culture in Catholic seminaries, where priests are trained, and chanceries, or church offices, that it said tolerated moral laxity and a gay subculture.
"The picture that emerges, sadly, is one of those who broke faith with their people, their priesthood and their religious values to use their sacred position to prey on the young and the vulnerable, instead of safeguarding them with the tender love of Christ himself," Gregory said at a news conference.
"On behalf of the bishops and the entire church in the United States, I restate and reaffirm our apologies to all of you have been harmed by those among us who violated your trust and the promises they made at their ordination," he said.
But Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said in a statement: "They want us to think it's all about a tiny group of bad-apple priests long ago. But it's not. It's about the bishops, not the priests. It's about the enablers, not the abusers."
The John Jay researchers said 97 percent of the dioceses filled out their surveys, and called this an historically high response rate. They noted that pains were taken to ensure anonymity.
The Archdiocese of Boston on Thursday released local figures from the reports, saying 7 percent of its priests were accused of abuse in the last 50 years.
The report recommended: further study and analysis of the problem; better screening and oversight of candidates for the priesthood; more sensitivity and effectiveness in responding to allegations of abuse; greater accountability of bishops and other church leaders; better interaction with civil authorities, and meaningful participation by church members.