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Counting the Costs of the Scandal

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 12, 2011

Look at the latest official figures on the cost of the sex-abuse scandal, and what do you see?

For every dollar spent last year on therapy for the victims of priestly abuse, American dioceses have spent $5.29 on lawyers’ fees. For every dollar spent on therapy for the victims, another $1.54 was devoted to support for their priests (or, in many cases, ex-priests) who molested them.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Church spent more money on the victimizers than the victims, because there is also that massive $70.4 million figure representing the settlements won by victims. Yet to keep things in perspective, even that huge expense was only a bit more than twice what dioceses paid the lawyers. And when you consider that the plaintiffs’ lawyers took their fees out of the settlement awards, it seems likely that in the final analysis, the total sum that went into lawyers’ accounts probably rivaled the amount that actually found its way to the abuse victims.

So, to recap, the lawyers pocketed roughly as much as the victims, and the cost of therapy for victims was less than the cost of care for predators. Something is seriously wrong here.

Lawsuits against the Church have become commonplace. We no longer blink at a cost of $124 million in one year to pay the costs of perversion in the clergy and malfeasance in the hierarchy. We expect it, God help us. The Church is still staggering through an ongoing crisis; the “long Lent” is not yet over.

Delve a little deeper into today’s report. In 2010, American dioceses recorded only 30 complaints of alleged abuse that had occurred that same year. Of these, 8 were judged credible and 7 were found to be false. Notice: the number of false accusations rivals the number of genuine complaints. But have we read headlines about the trials of good priests who are falsely accused? Have we seen countersuits filed by priests seeking to clear their names? No. On the contrary, diocesan leaders have preferred to soft-pedal the problem of false accusations, and even encourage priests to drop complaints against their accusers, in a misguided effort to keep things quiet.

But the 8 genuine complaints and the 7 false accusations accounted for only half of the abuse allegations reported from 2010. What of the others? Twelve, we learn, were found to be “boundary violations,” such as “kissing girls on top of the head, inappropriate hugging, and an adult patting a minor on the knee.” Trivial offenses—if they can be called offenses at all. But wait: “In all cases civil authorities were called, and an investigation was conducted…” That’s right: diocesan offices called the police because a priest patted a child on the knee. Something is seriously wrong here, too.

The attempt to resolve the sex-abuse scandal by relying on lawyers—the lawyers for plaintiffs, who seek damages; and the lawyers for the dioceses, who devise policies and procedures to minimize legal exposure—has failed. A decade of norms and audits and programs and reports has not restored the credibility of the Church leadership. The audits are no more reliable than the statistics furnished to the auditors, so if the public is suspicious of Church leaders (with good reason), the public will naturally be suspicious of the audits. After pushing for a decade to expel all abusive priests from the clergy, victims’ advocates are gradually realizing that once laicized, these ex-priests are still a threat to the welfare of young people. The problems are not being solved. Meanwhile the proposed solutions are generating their own problems: the enormous expenses, the bureaucratic red tape, the epidemic of false allegations, the reign of terror among the clergy.

Forgive me if I sound like a broken record; I realize that I have been saying the same thing for more than a decade now. But as the evidence piles up, I nurture the hope that eventually people will listen. So I try again:

The sex-abuse crisis erupted in the US because American bishops shirked their responsibility to discipline priests. With the Dallas Charter, the bishops sought to set up policies that would allow them to continue avoiding that responsibility. That approach won’t work. There is, fortunately, another way to approach the problem. There is another model for handling the mess. Rather than playing the role of an administrator, handling a complex organization, the bishop can play the role of a father, guiding his large spiritual family.

  • A good father would never refuse to listen when his children told him that something was terribly wrong.
  • A good father would never look the other way, to avoid seeing obvious signs of trouble within the family.
  • A good father would never let an older child abuse a younger one. If it happened, he would make very sure that it didn’t happen again.
  • A good father would never assume that if a child had been seriously hurt, he could solve the problem by giving him money.
  • A good father would never make his sons feel that they were under suspicion, even when they had done no wrong, or that they could be subject to harsh discipline on the basis of an unsupported accusation.
  • A good father would never let his sons by subjected to false accusations. He would never object to a son’s efforts to clear his reputation. He would join energetically in the defense.
  • A good father would never, when informed of a child’s minor indiscretion (like a priest’s pat on a child’s knee), call the police.

When our bishops begin acting like fathers, rather than bureaucrats, the Church will be on the road to recovery from this terrible scandal. Not until then.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Tex132 - Apr. 16, 2011 11:08 AM ET USA

    I agree, once again, with your assesment. If the Bishops had acted like fathers rather than turn to the lawyers there would be so much less pain and financial loss. It's true that some lawyers exploited the victims to make a profit but if the bishops had acted pastorally in the first place most victims would not have turned to an attorney. Often, victims wanted an apology and assurance Fr. wasn't still abusing. In most cases they got neither and worse. Money doesn't bring peace or justice.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 14, 2011 9:33 PM ET USA

    I agree that injustices are occurring as part of this kneejerk reaction- no pun intended. The costs and suffering all around are tremendous and tragic. Nonetheless, in 3 years as a teacher, I do not remember touching a student ever. I deliberately avoided doing so in order to prevent any appearance of impropriety. The classroom door was ALWAYS open as well. The prudence priests once exercised in avoiding problem situations needs to be restored. Too few exercise due diligence in this regard.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Apr. 14, 2011 10:41 AM ET USA

    I agree, Phil. Your book was an eye-opener. I would add a good father, when confronted with the fact that he has by neglecting to report aided criminal acts, would set a good example and confess his crimes. The Church retains the full right to minister to Her own without interference from the state but the proper legal standing of some Her own Bishops is that of criminals by negligence. The cost of that admission is personally higher (but no higher than the cross) but financially less.

  • Posted by: Miss Cathy - Apr. 13, 2011 11:39 AM ET USA

    Phil, this is such a sad situation. Instead of restoring trust, it seems we have created two classes of untouchables, priests and children. I often wonder, as well, if the increase of fees overall, whether it be the cost of marriages and funerals, or the new sacramental fees, as opposed to stipends, are part of the cost. My dad died this year, 1/3 of the cost was to give him a Catholic burial, this was included in the funeral package at the mortuary. I don't understand.

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