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Victim Advocates Of Clergy Abuse Say They Won't Bury the Past


Pope Francis this week responded to the report of Catholic priests in Pennsylvania sexually abusing a thousand children by saying, quote, "we showed no care for the little ones." But the pope also said that most of the cases belong to the past, and that's a point many Catholic leaders have made. Advocates for the victims are not so sure. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The Pennsylvania grand jury's report on child sex abuse is hard to spin, but church officials take some solace in the fact that only two of the 301 priests identified in the report committed their crimes in the last decade. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Washington archbishop, himself accused of covering for some abusers when he was a bishop in Pittsburgh, readily acknowledged the abuse problem when he sat down last week with a Washington TV station, Fox 5. But then he said this.


DONALD WUERL: When you look back and you see all of that, it sounds as if we didn't do anything. But when you look at the actual numbers from 2002 on, those numbers dropped dramatically.

GJELTEN: 2002, Cardinal Wuerl pointed out, was when U.S. bishops approved a charter laying out how to deal with priests who abuse children.


WUERL: Certainly from the time of the charter, that stream of abuse has pretty well dried up.

GJELTEN: A Vatican spokesman said the grand jury's findings were consistent with previous studies showing that Catholic Church reforms, quote, "drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse." That is not to deny that some priests are still sexually assaulting children. Victim advocate Terence McKiernan each year updates a list of priests around the country accused of being abusers.

TERENCE MCKIERNAN: There are - let me see - one, two, three, four, five, six priests just on the most recent list who were ordained in the 2000s.

GJELTEN: And that may be just the tip of the iceberg.

MCKIERNAN: Most of the men ordained in the 2000s who sadly are abusing children - their activities are not going to be known for 20, 30, 40 even 50 years.

GJELTEN: Because it often takes many years for abuse victims to come forward with their stories. Church officials recognize that reality. In fact, researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in a church-commissioned report on clergy sex abuse, considered that reporting lag. They still concluded that abuse numbers have declined sharply. They did so by looking at data going back more than 50 years. Terence McKiernan, who cofounded the group Bishop Accountability, wonders whether the reporting of abuse may have gone down more than the abuse itself. Still, he doesn't have a big quarrel with the John Jay conclusion.

MCKIERNAN: Bishops haven't been very good with their own accountability, but they have been quite aggressive dealing with priests guilty of abusing children. I think there are fewer men in the priesthood abusing children.

GJELTEN: Church leaders citing the John Jay report have described clergy sex abuse as an historical phenomenon almost as if it no longer exists. Some critics of the church, even while acknowledging that abuse may be declining, question whether that's even the key issue.

KATHLEEN SPROWS CUMMINGS: I believe that that may be true. However, I think that's largely beside the point.

GJELTEN: Kathleen Sprows Cummings directs the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame.

CUMMINGS: I would caution against thinking of this as a historical phenomenon, something that - oh, that happened in the past. For the victims, this is something they continue to feel the pain every day, and it affects their relationships with spouses, with their children.

GJELTEN: She also says priests got away with abusing children because of a Catholic culture that put the clergy on a pedestal. And that culture, she says, is still largely in place. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.


Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.