Washington -- The financial costs of the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church rose dramatically in 2005, even as the number of new allegations fell, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Thursday.
Releasing an annual report on their efforts to prevent abuse of minors by priests, the bishops said U.S. dioceses spent $399 million last year on legal settlements with sex abuse victims and an additional $68 million on lawyers' fees, psychological counseling and related expenses -- about three times what they paid in 2004.
The church's cumulative expenditures on child sex abuse claims in the United States are now approaching $1.5 billion. The tally of known victims has topped 12,500. The number of priests and deacons who have been credibly accused since 1950 is close to 5,000.
In releasing the blizzard of statistics, however, Catholic Church officials and their academic consultants put a generally positive gloss on the data, suggesting that the worst of the crisis is over.
Karen Terry, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the vast majority of the abuse took place from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. There has been a sharp decline in the number of cases since the early 1990s, which a mathematical analysis indicates is not just a matter of a lag in reporting, she said.
"We know that sexual abuse is underreported and that more people will come forward," she said. "But the decrease in sexual abuse cases is real." She added that the decline mirrored the general societal decrease in crime, substance abuse and sex abuse in the 1990s.
Teresa Kettelkamp, a former Illinois state police officer who heads the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, said "it is important to acknowledge how much has been done" to remove abusers from the priesthood, including 57 priests who were suspended in 2005.
She said U.S. dioceses have conducted background checks on 1.6 million adults who work with minors and have provided "safe environment" training to 5.7 million children, 95 percent of all those entrusted to the care of the church.
Bishop William Skylstad, president of the bishops' conference, said he had both "a sense of progress" and "a great sense of the continuing impact of the sexual abuse crisis" because his own diocese of Spokane is in bankruptcy and he was recently accused of molesting a teenage girl in the 1960s. He has denied the allegation.
The bishops' conference said U.S. dioceses received 783 credible allegations of abuse against 532 clergymen in 2005. That was down from 1,092 allegations against 756 priests in 2004.
Of the new allegations, just nine -- or less than 1 percent -- were fresh incidents that took place in 2005 and were reported by people still under 18.