Databases hold abusers’
Jan 10, 2003 - A group of church activists and a law firm have independently compiled databases that each contains the names of some 2,000 priests accused of abuse. Both groups have undertaken the project with the same basic premise that before the crisis of clergy sexual abuse of children can be resolved it must first be understood.
One database is being prepared by Dallas law firm Demarest, Smith, Giunta & Howell. That list, said lawyer Sylvia Demarest, was started in 1993 after she first saw signs that led her to think the church was involved in a conspiracy to protect abusers. She said she thinks her database is the most exhaustive list of abusers yet created. Of the 2,000 cases she has recorded, all have been reported in the U.S. media.
Paul Baier, founder of victims’ rights group Survivors First, told NCR his group has found only about 500 of the priests accused through media reports. He said the other 1,500 names in his database come from other victims’ advocates groups. These victims have chosen thus far not to tell their stories to reporters or, in many cases, to church officials, saying they don’t want their lives turned upside down by the pressures such accusations bring, he said.
Both groups have said they are searching for news stories published no earlier than 1984, one year before the bishops received a report co-written by Fr. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who consistently warned about the growing crisis. The report urged the bishops to start keeping records of such cases. The bishops ignored that idea. Since the clergy abuse crisis first broke open in Boston last year, the bishops have yet to release results of any new research into the problem.
Baier said he thinks the church’s moral authority has been severely damaged by the scandal, and he thinks uncovering the facts about the crisis is one of the steps necessary to restore moral authority. “It can’t be done until we prove there are no more skeletons in the closet,” he said. “The church is still asking mothers to trust that children will be safe at religious education programs and so on, and that’s damn hard now.
“In the corporate world, after an oil spill, we try to find out how many barrels of oil went down. For the church not to have found this sort of thing out is grossly irresponsible.”
There are some further fundamental differences between Demarest and Baier’s databases. Baier said that his group has had the resources to gather only the names of diocesan priests, while Demarest has listed religious order priests as well when she has been able to find them, a relatively small number of the total, she said. Further, unlike Survivors First, Demarest is compiling the names of priests who are alleged to have abused as long ago as the 1950s. Most of the cases recorded, she said, are alleged to have happened in the ’60s or later.
Baier told NCR that though the Survivors First list is not yet complete and is still being frequently updated, he believes it is not too early to begin estimating the percentage of diocesan priests alleged to have abused minors since 1965.
His group, he said, has had trouble estimating the percentage because it hasn’t known the number of diocesan priests who have served since 1965. His initial estimate, based on incomplete information uncovered at libraries, was that there had been about 83,000 priests during that time period -- which would have made the percentage about 2.4 percent. NCR obtained an estimate from CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, whose more substantial records indicate there have been some 65,000 diocesan priests since ’65. Using that figure, according to Survivors First’s calculations, approximately 3 percent of U.S. priests have been accused of abuse.
Since 1,500 of the accusations Survivors First has recorded have not been made public, Baier said there is a chance that a small number may be false. But as proof of the rarity of false accusations, Baier cited the experience of Patrick Schlitz, dean of the law school at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. Schlitz, quoted in a New York Times report Aug. 31, said that while he has served as defending attorney for U.S. dioceses in over 500 cases, he believes that “fewer than 10” priests were falsely accused.
Baier said that as a service to victims and the public, Survivors First has published on its Web site, www.survivors first.org, the names and some background information about 277 abusers whose cases have been or are being currently decided in the courts.
Demarest said she wants to complete her database and allow psychologists to study it before releasing it to the public or offering an estimate of the percentage of priests accused of abuse.
“We’re a few months away from forming any conclusions,” she said, but wondered, “What is an acceptable percentage? If people can show less than 2 percent [of priests] abuse, some think it is not such a big problem.” Yet, she said she thinks that only about half of abusers are ever publicly reported.
She thinks that unreported abuse of girls is particularly high. “We’ve seen substantial evidence the public is much more horrified by abuse of boys,” she said. “I would not have said that two years ago. But since then I’ve seen how difficult it is for [girls] to come forward. Some can’t even write a letter about it. They are more isolated and feel they don’t have the emotional support. There’s not this rallying around that there is with boys.”
Since the Survivors First Web site has been operational, Baier said, “a couple good things have happened. We’ve had five victims who had never spoken to anyone of their abuse come forward. So we were able to send them to get counseling.” Second, he said, the site has proven helpful in at least one instance to prosecutors. “A detective in Philadelphia learned two new names from us, two more names than he had. He said he and the district attorney had been having trouble getting all the names from the archdiocese.”
Putting the site together has brought some criticism as well, in the form of scathing e-mails and letters. “[Some people] think I’m dragging these names through the mud, that I’m overstating the problem, encouraging false allegations. But we have scoured the Internet looking for false allegations, and have found only three.”
The database, he said, has in some cases helped “move the conversation away from the emotions.” He said that many Catholics -- perhaps half of them -- think the claims are false and that the database may help prove this is not true.
“On the other hand,” he said, “if you have a Catholic kid who goes to a public school -- well, many kids think that half of priests are pedophiles. This database proves otherwise,” he said.
Baier, who works as a software entre-preneur in Boston, and is one of the founders of the church reform group Voice of the Faithful, said he took up the cause of calling for church reform when the crisis erupted again a year ago, because he wants to raise his 4-year-old daughter in a church whose leaders live by the same moral principles that they teach.
Survivors First has not had any contact with the bishops’ conference. As for Kathleen McChesney, the FBI agent chosen to head the bishops’ new Office for Child and Youth Protection, Baier said he tried to contact her when her appointment was announced but is yet to hear back. McChesney is expected to begin her new job this month.
For Demarest, one of two lawyers who won a multimillion-dollar judgment for victims of Dallas serial abuser Fr. Rudolph Kos in 1997, the creation of a database has been a much more lengthy project. Last January, she said, she devoted more resources to the project and has one staff person working on it nearly full-time.
A book or Internet report might be written by the end of 2003, she said, based on her findings. She said it would likely be referenced and cross-referenced, according to dioceses and religious orders. She said there are still has some legal questions that must first be answered about publishing the names of accused priests, but she intends for the database eventually, to “end up being the property of some nonprofit somewhere.”
She said that sexual abuse of minors is not a problem of Catholic clergy alone. In other faiths, however, those who abuse are prosecuted and go to jail to a far greater degree. In Catholic dioceses, she said, “You have the secrecy that extends to the chancery.” When the chancery fails to take action, she said, “you wonder, who is going to step up and discipline them?”
Gill Donovan is an NCR reporter and writer. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, January 10, 2003