By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer
One out of every 17 priests who worked in southern Ohio during the last half century was accused of sexually abusing children.
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati released the numbers for the first time Wednesday as part of a national study on clergy abuse in America. The study is due out Friday, but the archdiocese disclosed its statistics early.
Church officials said 49 priests - or 5.9 percent of all priests who worked in the archdiocese between 1950 and 2003 - were accused of abuse.
The abuse allegations involve 188 victims and more than $3.4 million in out-of-court settlements, legal fees and counseling for priests and victims.
Victims and their advocates immediately challenged the accuracy of the numbers, saying the disclosure Wednesday was akin to taxpayers doing their own IRS audits.
"I'm skeptical," said Christy Miller, leader of the Cincinnati branch of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "These are the same people who have spent decades and millions of dollars to hide the problem."
But church officials said their statistics include every sexual abuse complaint in their files.
"Some victims feel that we have not done enough," Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk wrote Wednesday in an open letter to southern Ohio's 550,000 Catholics. "I agree - because I don't think we can ever do enough.
"There is no way to fully repair damage done to a child."
American bishops ordered the disclosure of abuse statistics in 2002 amid a public outcry over clergy sexual abuse scandals across the country. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice compiled the statistics and will release them in a report Friday.
The report is expected to show that about 4 percent of the 110,000 priests who served between 1950 and 2002 have been accused of sexual abuse.
The percentage was the same in Cincinnati during that period, but it jumps to 5.9 percent when abuse complaints from 2003 are included. That's because more than half of the 188 victims came forward last year and accused 16 additional priests.
Church officials say the number of complaints went up in 2003 because media attention to the national scandals made victims feel more comfortable about reporting abuse.
"It pains me to say this, but perhaps they didn't have confidence in making a report to the church in years past," said archdiocese spokesman Dan Andriacco. "We regard it as a good thing that people are coming forward."
All told, 49 of the 833 priests who served in the archdiocese during the past 53 years have been accused of abuse.
Three of the accused priests were not identified by their accusers and eight others were later exonerated, church officials said.
The remaining 38 priests have died, been defrocked or been suspended from the priesthood. None remains in ministry today.
Church officials say about two-thirds of all complaints involve incidents that occurred between 1975 and 1984. Many of those complaints involve just three priests: Lawrence Strittmatter, David Kelley and George Cooley.
Strittmatter and Kelley were accused in lawsuits last year of molesting 28 and 38 children respectively. Cooley, who now is defrocked, was accused by several others in the 1980s.
The attorney for many of those victims, Konrad Kircher, said he believes the number of victims is much higher. He said church officials did little or nothing from the 1950s through the 1990s to encourage victims to come forward or to find additional victims of priests known to be a threat.
"For 50 years they turned their backs on children," Kircher said. "They are a criminally convicted organization. I'm not necessarily going to accept their explanations as true."
The conviction he cited came in November when the archdiocese pleaded no contest to charges of failing to report child abuse. As part of a plea deal, church officials also agreed to set up a $3 million fund to compensate victims.
Kircher and other lawyers have complained that the fund is a ploy because it requires victims to drop their lawsuits in order to become eligible for compensation.
If the church were serious about being accountable, Kircher said, it would open its records to public inspection.
"The number (of victims) is probably exponentially higher," he said.
But some national experts on sexual abuse say the numbers in Cincinnati, as well as those expected in the national study, are in line with projections they made years ago.
"That seems to be consistent with what we thought would be the prevalence of priests who are involved in this," said Geral Blanchard, author of the book Sexual Abuse in America.
He said a 1995 study, entitled Sex, Priests and Power, estimated that 6 percent of priests had been at some time sexually involved with minors.
In his letter Wednesday, Archbishop Pilarczyk said the church is doing all it can to end abuse. He noted that the archdiocese has expanded sex abuse education programs and has adopted new rules that require the immediate suspension of accused priests.
But he also said there's no guarantee all abusers can be kept out of the priesthood.
"I am sure that many of you are wondering, 'When will all of this end?'" Pilarczyk wrote. "I don't know the answer to that. I can only promise that we will ... remove from ministry any priest, deacon, lay employee or volunteer against whom there is a credible allegation."
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