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US Catholic Bishops Pledge New Measures Will Prevent Sexual Abuse - 2004-02-27

A pair of new studies has been released chronicling more than a half century of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the United States. The two studies, commissioned by U.S. church leaders, say more than 10,000 children were victimized over a 52-year period. U.S. Catholic bishops say new screening measures now in place will prevent any repeat of the scandal.

The two highly anticipated studies found that 10,667 children were sexually abused by U.S. Catholic priests between 1950 and 2002. Nearly 4,400 priests - about four percent of all Catholic clerics working in that period - were reported to have been involved.

The reports, issued by the church's National Review Board, also sharply criticized the church leadership for failing to aggressively confront the issue of child molestation by the clergy. The board called the failure shameful to the church.

The scandal has rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, and prompted an examination of the veil of secrecy behind which high-level church policy is made. Victims and their families have been sharply critical of many bishops who responded to complaints of child sexual abuse by shifting priests to new posts, and covering up the incidents. They also say the number of victims cited in the new studies is too low, and that there are far more victims too frightened or ashamed to come forward.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, chairman of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, moved to reassure church members Friday, saying that all problem priests have died or have been removed from service. In his prepared statement, he said new screening programs of both active clergy and priests in training ensure that the past will not be repeated.

"As far as it is humanly possible to know such things, I assure you that known offenders are not in the ministry," he said. "I can say with absolute assurance that the bishops now have in place the means of responding immediately to allegations, assisting victims, and removing offenders from ministry."

The reports say the vast number of sexual abuse cases involved homosexual priests. Asked if a ban on homosexuals in the priesthood was in the works, Bishop Gregory said the issue is under discussion, but added there are homosexual priests who keep to their vow of celibacy.

"We do not wish to disparage or in any way denigrate the very generous and faithful service of any of our priests who may be homosexually oriented, but who have been absolutely faithful to the promise that they have made, and absolutely dedicated to the ministry that they have been given," he said.

One of the two reports says authorities at the Vatican failed to grasp the gravity of the crisis gripping the U.S. Catholic Church. It says that the scandal has already cost the church $572 million in legal fees, settlements, and therapy for victims, but that the figure is prematurely low as more money is going to be funneled to deal with the ramifications of the sex abuse scandal.