Roman Catholic dioceses and religious orders said they received 594 credible claims of clergy sex abuse last year, with all but a few of the allegations involving wrongdoing that occurred decades ago, according to a study released Tuesday by American bishops.
Church officials reported paying more than $144 million in settlements and related costs last year, as the scandal over priests who molested children continued to batter the church.
The findings are from annual reports commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to check compliance with the 2002 child safety plan they adopted soon after the crisis erupted in Boston and spread nationwide. The policy includes a pledge to remove all credibly accused priests from church work, create support programs for victims and conduct background checks on employees who work with children. Dioceses have spent tens of millions of dollars on abuse prevention programs over the last decade.
The number of credible claims increased last year from 505 in 2010, while settlement-related costs, including attorney fees and counseling for victims and offenders, dropped by about $5.6 million. (Settlements are often not paid in the same year that a claim is brought.)
The cases fit the pattern researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice have identified in several years of studying the church data: The majority of victims who came forward in 2011 were males who said they had been molested between the ages of 10 and 14. Most of the alleged abuse occurred between the mid-1960s and mid-1980s.
About one-third of the clergy named in 2011 allegations had not been accused before. Most of the accused clerics had already been removed from ministry or had died.
This year's report was released while church officials faced new scrutiny about their compliance with the plan. In Philadelphia, a trial is under way against the first Catholic official in the U.S. charged with endangering children by keeping accused priests in ministry without warning parents or police. In Missouri, Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has been charged with misdemeanor failure to report suspected child abuse in the case of a priest whose computer had hundreds of suspicious photos of young children.
In the national report, auditors warned of "growing complacency" about child protection.
About 30 dioceses were cited for failing to provide safe environment training for all children in parishes or schools. The auditors said several dioceses assumed that the children had undergone the training in their public schools, when they hadn't. The Diocese of Shreveport, La., hadn't convened a meeting of its local review board in two years, partly because the diocese hadn't received any new allegations. Bishops formed review boards in every diocese to help monitor child safety.
The auditors rely on information provided by church officials and conduct onsite visits of each diocese just once every three years. The process is overseen by the National Review Board, a lay advisory panel the bishops formed that has no enforcement authority. The dioceses of Baker, Ore., and Lincoln, Neb., along with six eparchies, or districts, for Eastern-rite Catholics, did not participate in the 2011 audit.