BOSTON - The number of sexual abuse victims in the Boston archdiocese over the past six decades "likely exceeds 1,000" molested by more than 250 clergy and other church workers, the attorney general of Massachusetts concluded in a scathing report yesterday.
Unveiling a 76-page document based on church records, state Attorney General Tom Reilly described a "massive, inexcusable failure of leadership in the archdiocese of Boston," where the worldwide clerical abuse scandal began in January 2002.
Reilly called the number of victims "staggering" and said: "This is the greatest tragedy for all children, ever, in this commonwealth in terms of sexual abuse."
But despite a 16-month investigation and an exhaustive grand jury inquiry, Reilly said, he was unable to bring criminal charges against anyone in the archdiocese because state laws did not require priests to report child abuse until 2002.
"Certainly no one was more disappointed than I and my staff that we cannot prosecute. It was not even a close call," said Reilly, who took special aim at Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston.
Reilly's report showed no evidence of recent child sexual abuse by Boston priests. But "given the magnitude of mistreatment" and the archdiocese's "inadequate" response, the report warned that "it is far too soon to conclude that the abuse has, in fact, stopped or could not reoccur in the future."
The Rev. Christopher Coyne, spokesman for the archdiocese, said in a written statement, "A report of this depth and length requires a serious and thorough reading before any substantive response can be made."
The report follows similar efforts in recent months by prosecutors in New Hampshire and New York to use church records to document long-standing cover-ups of child sexual abuse by priests. But the number of victims estimated in the Boston report is by far the highest, said David Clohessy, chairman of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
"The figures are just shocking - although not shocking to us, obviously," Clohessy said. "I would stress that without doubt it is a partial figure."
Archdiocese records reveal complaints of sexual abuse since 1940 by at least 789 victims, and "when information from other sources is considered, the number of alleged victims who have disclosed their abuse likely exceeds 1,000," the report said.
Reilly said his investigative team explored numerous legal avenues in an attempt to hold Boston church leaders legally accountable. But he said he could not find evidence by church leaders of intent to assist in criminal acts.
He said accessory and conspiracy charges were considered - but none fit in a state that exempted clergy from mandatory child sexual-abuse reporting until last year. Most of the cases also were barred from prosecution by the statute of limitations, he said.
"If the conduct that happened in the past had happened in the past year," Reilly said, "it would be a far different story."
Church records show that for decades, the archdiocese offered financial settlements to hundreds of abuse victims who reported their complaints to church officials. But a "culture of secrecy and an institutional acceptance" of clerical sexual abuse prevailed, Reilly said, and church authorities failed to report the abuse to police or child protection authorities.
Reilly said church leaders knew "every step of the way" that they were exempt from the law. He said they made "deliberate, intentional choices" to protect the church and its reputation at the expense of children:
"In effect, they sacrificed the children for many, many years."
In cases where victims or family members went directly to law enforcement officials, a handful of priests in Massachusetts faced criminal prosecution. But the church aggressively lobbied against attempts to broaden statutes that would have required self-reporting by clergy.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.