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Study Reveals Vast Scope of Priest Abuse

Clerics accused of molestation worked in three-fourths of the 288 parishes in the L.A. Archdiocese, a Times analysis finds.

October 13, 2005|Jean Guccione and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

The clergy sexual abuse scandal reached far more broadly across the Los Angeles Archdiocese -- and put far more children at risk -- than has previously been known, according to a Times study that examined the records of hundreds of accused priests.

Although the sexual abuse scandal has been the subject of more than 560 court claims and a report by the archdiocese, basic information on the dimensions of the problem have remained sketchy. The Times analysis is the first to quantify the breadth of the scandal in the archdiocese.

Molestations have been alleged at roughly 100 parishes. But because the accused priests moved around the archdiocese on average every 4.5 years, the total number of parishes in which alleged abusers served is far larger -- more than three-fourths of the 288 parishes, according to the study, which examined records back to 1950.

The affected parishes were in neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties both rich and poor, suburban and urban, some predominantly white and others with African American or Latino majorities. The study does not support the contention made by some critics of the church that problem priests were dumped into poor, Latino and African American communities.

Based on the allegations, the number of abusive priests peaked in 1983. More than 11% of the diocesan priests -- those who worked directly for the archdiocese, rather than for religious orders -- who were in ministry that year eventually were accused of abuse.

The widespread placement of alleged abusers raises the question of whether molestations may have gone unreported at many parishes.

J. Michael Hennigan, the lead defense attorney for the archdiocese, said he thought the immense publicity about clergy sexual abuse had drawn out most victims.

But David Clohessy, executive director of the victim support group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he believes many victims remain unknown and unwilling to pay the emotional price for stepping forward.

There's "a great misconception" that when one victim comes forward, others will follow, Clohessy said. In reality, he said, "the next 15 victims breathe a sigh of relief" that someone else is shouldering the burden.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who has led the archdiocese since 1985, declined to comment on The Times study.

Hennigan said the church never knowingly put children at risk. Archdiocese officials routinely transferred priests, especially early in their careers, he said.

In at least eight cases, the archdiocese allowed priests to remain in ministry after receiving information about their alleged sexual interest in minors.

Hennigan said all priests who were transferred after complaints received psychological evaluation and treatment before they were returned to parishes. Mahony has since removed them all from ministry.

Church officials have said their policy toward alleged abusers evolved over time into the current "zero-tolerance" stance. But, Hennigan added, "I am not aware of a single instance in the archdiocese in which a credible allegation was made about sexual misconduct and the solution was to simply transfer him to another parish."

Since the archdiocese was confronted by a flood of lawsuits 2 1/2 years ago, Mahony has declined litigants' requests to tell parishioners if accused priests ever worked or lived at their churches.

Mahony also has fought release of confidential church files containing complaints, correspondence and priest assignments. The files would detail what diocesan officials knew about the allegations and what they did about them.

The cardinal and his lawyers argue that releasing the data would violate the privacy of individual priests and the church's constitutional right to keep certain religious matters confidential.

Lawsuits for the most part have been filed against the church, rather than individual priests, and in some cases identify the alleged abusers only as John Does. The parishes where they served during the accusations are not always named in the suits.

The litigation has been in closed-door mediation almost since the cases were filed, further limiting public airing of the facts of the scandal. Because the accusations are too old to prosecute and the church insists it intends to settle civil complaints out of court, most molestation complaints may never be proved or disproved.

To prepare its study, The Times tracked the assignments from 1950 through 2003 of 228 priests who have been named by plaintiff's attorneys or identified by the archdiocese as the subject of abuse complaints. The study does not include 19 priests whose names were released by the church on Tuesday. It also does not include as many as 30 priests whose names the church has withheld because church officials feel the complaints against them lacked credibility.

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