Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Natl. Review Board’s clerical sexual abuse reports: behind the press releases

The U.S. Catholic bishops' publication of the 2008 Annual Report on the Implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People presents the opportunity to compare the U.S. bishops’ press releases on the two most recent reports and to consider how they summarize the original reports.

Examination reveals an increase in the number of allegations concerning abuse of those under 10, while the disproportionate percentage of male victims is cloaked by the summaries’ word choices.

Additionally, the reportage of financial costs of sexual abuse settlements leaves out legal fees and other expenses, which can total more than 10 percent of the reported several-hundred million dollar settlement figures.

The press release on the 2007 report was published in March 2008, while the release on the 2008 report was released in March 2009. For clarity’s sake, I will distinguish the press releases according to the year of the report each covers rather than the year each press release was published.

The reports themselves use data from the Georgetown University-based Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

From the press release on the year 2007 report:

The CARA survey, to which 194 of the 195 dioceses responded, found five credible accusations of abuse that occurred in 2007 to persons who were minors in that year. Overall, CARA reported that in 2007 more old cases came to light as 689 victims made 691 allegations against 491 offenders. Most incidents took place decades ago, most frequently in the 1970-79 period. Most victims were male and more than half between the ages of 10 and 14 when the abuse began.

According to the press release on the year 2008 report:

Last year, dioceses received ten new credible allegations of abuse to a person still under 18 years of age. CARA reported that in 2008, more old cases came to light as 620 victims made 625 allegations against 423 offenders. Most incidents took place decades ago, most frequently in the 1970-74 period. Most victims were male and a little more than half were between the ages of 10 and 14 when the abuse began. About 23 percent were younger than age 10.

Note how the “1970-79” becomes “1970-74” in the more recent report.

In 2007, 105 allegations were made against diocesan clergy concerning the 1970-74 period, while 93 were made concerning the period of 1975-79. In 2008, these numbers were 108 and 85 respectively.

The press releases correctly describe these periods as the peak years in diocesan and eparchial abuse allegations, but they exclude religious institutes from consideration. In 2007, allegations peaked at 19 in 1970-74 and then 16 in 1975-79. In 2008, allegations concerning religious institutes spiked to 47 in 1965-69 before dropping to 21 in 1970-74 and 11 in 1975-79.

It’s curious that the press release for the 2008 report states the percentage of alleged diocesan and eparchial clerical abuse victims under ten (23 percent) while the version for the 2007 report does not. According to the 2007 report, the percentage of under-10 victims was 14 percent, meaning that the number of reported under-10 victims has increased.

Many editorial decisions are made on the fly and can’t bear much demand for consistency. More concerning are the data obscured by language choice.

Take the press releases’ “most victims were male” comments. In the 2007 report, “most” means 82 percent of diocesan and eparchial allegations. In the 2008 report, “most” means 84 percent of such allegations.

In these instances, male victims compose a supermajority. Yet in common speech, “most” means an unspecific “more than half.”

Alleged victims of religious institutes are slightly less disproportionately male, composing 78 percent of all new allegations in 2007 but falling to 67 percent of all new allegations in 2008.

The accounts of the financial costs also bear closer scrutiny. The reports themselves distinguish between the expenses of diocese and eparchies, on the one hand, and religious institutes on the other. Expenses are categorized according to settlements, attorneys’ fees, therapy for victims, “support for offenders” and “other costs.”

A total combining the expenses of dioceses, eparches and religious institutes is presented in the reports, but not always in the press releases. These various figures can easily confuse. (The Catholic News Agency story on the report authored by me in 2008 at one point mixed up total figures and settlement totals.)

Concerning financial expenses, the statement on the 2007 report says:

“The total allegation-related expenditures by dioceses, eparchies, and clerical and mixed religious institutes increased by 54 percent between 2006 and 2007,” CARA reported. There was “a near-doubling (90 percent increase) in the amount paid for settlements in 2007,” CARA reported. Dioceses paid $420,385,135 in settlements and religious orders paid another $105,841,148. Not all money that courts awarded in 2007 was slated for distribution that year and some money was paid out by insurance companies.

The 2007 report itself reveals that the figure of $420 million in settlements from dioceses and eparchies does not include about $53.4 million in attorney’s fees, $7.2 million for therapy for victims, $13.3 million for support for offenders, and $4.3 million in “other costs.” In total, clerical sexual abuse cost the Catholic dioceses and eparchies in the U.S. $498 million in 2007, half a billion dollars.

Figures for the religious institutes are significant here, costing $105.8 million in settlements, $7 million in attorneys’ fees, $2.1 million in support for offenders, and less than $1 million each in therapy for victims and “other costs.”

The combined 2007 cost to dioceses, eparchies and religious institutes was $615 million.

Here is the U.S. bishops’ press release on the 2008 report:

"The total allegation-related expenditures by dioceses, eparchies, and clerical and mixed religious institutes decreased by 29 percent between 2007and 2008" after increasing in each of the previous three years)," CARA reported. Dioceses, eparchies and religious institutes paid a total of $374,408,554 in settlements.

Not considering religious institutes, the Catholic dioceses and eparchies paid $324.2 million in settlements in 2008. But again, this figure excludes attorney’s fees ($29.6 million), therapy for victims ($7.1 million), support for offenders ($11.6 million) and other costs ($3.8 million). This totals $376.2 million.

Religious institutes paid a total of $59.9 million: $50.2 million in settlements, $5.9 million in legal fees, $2.6 million in support for offenders, and less than a million each for therapy for victims and other costs.

The combined total 2008 cost for clerical sexual abuse thus comes to $436.1 million.

Both the 2007 and 2008 combined totals exclude child protection efforts, which cost $22.2 million in 2007 and $24.6 million in 2008. The most recent U.S. bishops’ press release highlights this “increased spending.”

It’s important not to be too conspiratorial in seeing deliberate design in the press release discrepancies. The U.S. bishops’ press releases use boilerplate and, though that may seem odd to the layman, this is a common and reasonable timesaving practice among busy spokesmen and public relations writers.

There is also the question of the U.S. bishops’ responsibility for religious institutes. The statistics for such organizations may be underreported precisely because the writers of the press releases are working for the U.S. bishops, whose oversight of religious institutes is indirect at most.

However, awareness of these habits should drive journalists of the Catholic and secular media to examine the source documents and to rely on these, not the press releases, for their stories. When patterns in sexual abuse and the millions of dollars in legal fees are not noted, the extent of the damage continues to be unrealized.

1 comment:

william luse said...

Fascinating stuff, Kevin. I'm just not sure what to say about it, except that, prior to your warning, I was thinking not so much about conspiracy as the usual human tendency to veil the truth for image's sake. Which could very well be the result of a conspiracy. :~)