WASHINGTON - Responding to data showing that more than 80 percent of clerical sex abuse occurred between males, a lay Catholic board recommended yesterday that the church increase scrutiny of homosexuals seeking to join the priesthood.
While emphasizing that the ultimate issue is the celibacy of priests - not their sexual orientation - the board said the same-sex character of the church's abuse scandal suggested that homosexuals be screened more carefully.
The recommendation came yesterday as the church released two documents detailing the nature and scope of its sex-abuse problem for the first time.
A statistical study, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, indicated that more than 4,000 priests - 4 percent of the priesthood - had been accused of sexually abusing children in 1950 through 2002. The number was greater than some had predicted.
The study, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York, also said there were more than 10,000 victims, most of them boys with an average age of 12.
The Catholic Church spent at least $657 million for legal damages, lawyers' fees and treatment during that period - but researchers say the actual figure is certainly higher.
To prevent further abuse, the church's National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People made various recommendations, including closer screening of homosexual candidates for the priesthood.
Currently, the church does not bar homosexuals from the priesthood but insists they remain celibate, as it does with heterosexuals.
"Given the nature of the problem of clergy sexual abuse of minors, the realities of the culture today, the male-oriented atmosphere of the seminary, a more searching inquiry is necessary for a homosexually-oriented man," the board said.
"For those bishops who choose to ordain homosexuals, there appears to be a need for additional scrutiny and perhaps additional or specialized formation to help them with the challenge of chaste celibacy."
After a briefing yesterday on the reports, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee said he does not equate homosexuality with pedophilia but emphasized the church must be realistic in the face of the statistics.
In the future, he said, seminary leaders must have more forthright conversations with homosexual applicants about the challenges of celibacy and their own sexuality.
"I think we've got to be practical," said Dolan, a former rector of the North American College in Rome, a training ground for future church leaders.
In their survey of abuse cases, investigators did not provide a breakdown by diocese, and they were not given the identities of alleged perpetrators.
"Those names are known only to the individual bishops," said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., who serves as president of the U.S. bishops. "It's a decision that local bishops are grapping with."
Some dioceses are making details public.
The Archdiocese of Baltimore said yesterday that 83 priests and deacons had been "credibly accused" of abusing 226 children since 1950. None of the men is now in the ministry, according to the archdiocese. Twenty-six of the priests died before their accusers came forward.
Cardinal William H. Keeler called the disclosures an important step in healing the church: "Detailing the national scope of the abuse - no matter how abhorrent - is necessary to rebuild the trust of our brothers and sisters. The children of our church cannot and will not be put at risk again."
The archdiocese drew national attention and some praise when it posted the names of abusive priests on its Web site for two months in 2002.
Since then, 63 more victims have made allegations and the archdiocese has identified two additional priests - the Rev. Robert Lentz, a diocesan priest, and the Rev. Charles Coyle, a Jesuit who had left Baltimore and was serving in New Orleans when he was accused. Neither is currently in ministry, according to Sean Caine, director of communications for the archdiocese.
Keeler, who was criticized by fellow priests for posting the names on the Internet, said his approach might not work elsewhere. "You can't say that it should be handled the same way in every area," he said.
In its report, the lay board blamed the crisis on a variety of factors, from poor screening and training of seminary candidates to a failure of leadership and accountability among bishops.
The report did not, however, address the pressing question of whether pedophilia was more prevalent in the priesthood than in general society.
"The honest answer is we simply do not know," said Robert S. Bennett, a former federal prosecutor and prominent Washington lawyer who chaired the board's research committee.
"Our study focused on the priesthood. This is an area that has to be explored further."
David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said comparisons are difficult because no other religious group or vocation has commissioned a sex abuse study like this one.
However, Finkelhor said the 4 percent abuse rate struck him as high, based on more than a quarter-century of studying the subject.
"My speculation is that during a certain historical period, the Catholic priesthood was a magnet for people who were experiencing certain kinds of conflicts over sexuality and saw the priesthood as a way to deal with it and help cope with those conflicts," he said in a phone interview yesterday.
"They saw the celibate lifestyle and the strong prohibitions and moral denunciations of the church as helping them control these feelings."
The statistical study shows that the peak years for sexual abuse in the church were the 1970s - not the 1990s, when the problem began to draw public attention. Sexual abuse has declined sharply since 1980, when more than 300 incidents were reported.
The lay board blamed some of the abuse on the failure of seminaries in the 1960s and 1970s to weed out immature candidates with psychological problems. As thousands left the priesthood to marry, the board said, admission standards might have dropped.
In the wake of Vatican II reforms, seminaries also became far more permissive at a time when priests were struggling with the sexual revolution, said Dr. Paul R. McHugh, a review board member and professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
"Many seminaries began to think that perhaps they should turn over more freedom to the students and in that process may well have lost the sense of what the students still had to learn to be celibate people in the future," said McHugh. But he added: "That's just an educated guess."
The report said seminaries have done a far better job screening candidates in the past decade or so with the help of psychological tests and background checks. The board said celibacy was not a cause of the crisis and declined to address its merits, saying the issue was not a part of its mission.
The board had strong criticism for the church leadership during the scandal, which erupted in 2002 amid reports that pedophile priests had been shuttled from parish to parish and allowed to continue their abuse.
"Many bishops, certainly not all, breached their responsibilities as pastors, breached their responsibilities as shepherds of the flock and put their heads in the sand," said Bennett. "Because each bishop was king of his own territory, they didn't share information."
The solution, the board said, is less secrecy, more transparency and accountability and a greater role for the laity.
"It is vital that there be meaningful participation of the Christian faithful in the church," Bennett said. During the panel's work, he added, "One bishop threatened to sue the board. That is not quite appropriate."
Gregory, leader of the bishops conference, pledged that his fellow bishops would consider the board's recommendations.
Voice of the Faithful, a Catholic lay group, was pleased with yesterday's reports and the push for accountability and openness.
"The bishops can't ignore this now, and the laity won't let them," said Steve Krueger, the group's executive director.
Some victims' advocates were more skeptical. Said David Clohessy, national director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests: "I think the board has a lot more influence than they realize, and I hope they exercise it."