An increase in reported incidents of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in recent decades mirrors a jump in such incidents in society as a whole, according to preliminary findings by researchers hired by the Catholic Church to find answers to the abuse crisis.
The findings, released yesterday at the Fall Assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore, worried advocates for abuse victims, who said they hoped that sexual abuse by priests would not be played down just because other members of society did the same.
"We believe that bishops and priests should be above reproach," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a Chicago-based organization that is in Baltimore for the assembly.
Blaine said her group opposes the expected election today of Chicago Cardinal Francis George as president of the assembly. The Chicago Sun-Times reported Sunday that George knew that a priest he oversaw was abusing at least one youth and actively pursuing a second but that he ordered only a minimal inquiry and did not tell civil authorities or immediately strip the man of his ability to perform priestly duties.
"Not only do people expect the bishops to do better, but they have pledged to do so," said Blaine. "But in case after case, they don't follow their own policies. What is so ironic about it is, the person they plan to elect their new president has a terrible record of reporting abuse."
But for church leaders, who have been criticized for widespread incidents of abuse reported by the news media and have watched congregations wither, the preliminary findings by Karen J. Terry, an expert on sexual deviancy and an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminology in New York, offered some relief.
Terry told the gathering of church leaders that her research showed that despite popular opinion, there was "not something distinct about the church that led to the abuse."
She said she hopes to better understand the connection between societal changes - including attitudes about sex and homosexuality - and the jump in reports of sexual abuse by priests. She said that 90 percent of priests accused of abuse were seminarians before 1980 and that 70 percent finished their religious training before 1970.
"Does the behavior of seminarians ... predict future incidents of abuse?" she asked in her presentation to the assembly.
Bishops expressed some relief at the preliminary findings as well as lingering pain at the suffering caused by abusive clergy.
"I'm sure many of us feel elated that our situation is no worse than anyone else's," said the Rev. R. Daniel Conlon, bishop of Steubenville, Ohio. "But we should not," he said, comparing the church's situation to a cancer patient who is relieved that his cancer isn't as bad as the patient in the next hospital bed.
Researchers cautioned the group that they still have much more work to do. They implored bishops to provide information, including their recollections of recent changes in church organization and religious education. The "causes and context" survey is set for completion by summer 2008. It will be the final piece of a larger study of abuse by priests.
Blaine said she and other advocates are doubtful that the final report will give an accurate account of abuse by priests because the church is paying for it. "Anytime an organization is evaluating itself, it begs the question of whether it is truly objective," she said.
Also at the assembly yesterday, which is being held at the Marriott-Baltimore Waterfront in Harbor East, the Catholic reformist group Call to Action complained that it was blocked from distributing 1,000 petitions at the gathering. The group has criticized Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz for not participating in a sex abuse survey. A spokesman for the Lincoln Diocese called the action by the group a publicity stunt.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.