Clergy Sex Abuse in U.S.: 2004 through 2013

Clergy sex abuse costs in America, 2004 through 2013:  $3 billion and counting


The 2013 Annual Report of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Implementation of the Charter for Protection of Children and Young People, was released in mid-March.  It includes an appendix by Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research for the Apostolate (CARA) – a Survey of Allegations and Costs related to clergy sex abuse for the period 2004 through 2013.

The Georgetown CARA data are the most comprehensive presentation of clergy sex abuse costs incurred throughout Catholic America by dioceses, by Eastern Rite eparchies, and by major religious orders (‘Conference of Major Superiors of Men’).

Responses in the most recent survey were received from 194 out of 195 dioceses and eparchies (the Diocese of Lincoln NE did not respond); and from 155 out of 215 ‘clerical and mixed religious institutes’.

Yet to my knowledge this has had very little pick up in the mainstream media; strange because it is certainly not ancient history, as discussed below.

Makes one wonder what dozens of religion correspondents on the Catholic beat are up to these days, besides cheer-leading.

From CARA’s detailed tabulations covering the past ten years, some fascinating data come into focus.  Major findings are presented and discussed below.


 Major Findings

 Aggregate costs relating to clergy sex abuse for the period 2004 through 2013, incurred by dioceses, eparchies and major religious orders for men, totaled more than $3 billion.

If there is any bias in this reported total, it would be to understate the amounts because the methodology was self-reporting by the dioceses (etc.: i.e. the eparchies and the religious orders)

Also, the exclusion of costs incurred prior to 2004 leaves out of the total of $3 billion the significant outlays made by dioceses (etc.) during the 1980s, the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium.  For almost twenty years, beginning with reports of clergy sex abuse in Louisiana in 1984, the issue remained mostly under the media radar.

In 1992 Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law blasted The Boston Globe for reporting on allegations involving the notorious Fr. James Porter, serving at the time in the Diocese of Fall River:

By all means we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.”

 God’s intervention turned out to be complex:  in mid-1992 a new bishop was installed in Fall River, Sean Patrick O’Malley, who in due course has become the Church’s go-to prelate on the issue, world-wide.

The turning point for the mainstream media occurred on January 6, 2002, the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Globe’s Spotlight Team began its series on clergy sex abuse in the archdiocese, and the issue went national.

It took the Globe about a decade to respond, bringing to mind Tony Soprano’s mangled version of an old Sicilian proverb,

Revenge is like servin’ a dish of cold cuts.

(cfr. with the original:  Revenge is a dish best served cold.)

Incidentally, the weight of the $3 billion fell entirely upon the Americans dioceses (etc.), and through them upon the faithful.  When a ranking prelate went to Rome in 2003 to seek financial support, he was practically laughed out of the Eternal City.  A friend of mine in the Curia told me that Catholic money flows are like the transatlantic jet stream, moving from North America to Europe, not the other way around.

Most of the $3 billion in costs consisted of settlements with (alleged) victims; these settlements amounted to slightly more than $2 billion.

Settlements are just that, payments made to the plaintiffs without any court findings or admissions of guilt. 

So it would be technically inaccurate to describe the plaintiffs as victims without the mealy-mouthed qualifier, ‘alleged’.

Which leaves one with the baffling notion that – to mention a couple of prominent cases – settlements of $660 million by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2007, or $85 million by the Archdiocese of Boston in 2003, were not admissions of fault by the hierarchy, but simply efforts to spare all concerned the heartbreak of prolonged litigation (or psoriasis).

There is a common misperception that when settlements are announced, these account for all diocesan (etc.) costs related to clergy sex abuse.  Not so, continue reading.

Almost $1 billion of payments related to clergy sex abuse in the period 2004-2013 ($960 million) were NOT settlements with alleged victims; instead, think of this one billion dollars as ‘software costs’; the major categories within this total included:


$433 million:Attorney fees, i.e. outside counsel for the hierarchy;

  $259 million:Child protection programs;

  $141 million:“Support for Offenders” (sic).

Attorney fees

The $433 million for attorneys representing the dioceses, etc:

a) Do NOT involve attorneys for the alleged victims;

b) Do NOT include provision for inside chancery lawyers much of whose time was taken up with clergy abuse litigation; and

c) Do NOT include the sizable legal expenses related to the nine Catholic dioceses who have filed for bankruptcy since 2002, including Cardinal Tim Dolan’s former See of Milwaukee.


Child protection programs

The cumulative total over ten years has been more than a quarter of a billion dollars, $259 million; but over the past three years this category has soared from $22.5 million in 2010 to almost twice that amount in 2013, $41.7 million.  And now this is probably an embedded cost, averaging out to $200 thousand per year per diocese and eparchy.


Support for Offenders

This $141 million category is something of an eye-catcher; the words are drawn verbatim from the CARA report where the category is defined as “including therapy, living expenses, legal expenses, etc.” for offenders, i.e. those against whom allegations have been presented.

To put in perspective this total of $141 million, a separate CARA category of Payments for Victims of $78 million was slightly more than half of the $141 million shelled out for Offenders.

The number of victims coming forward each year has decreased from the peak of 1,083 in 2004 to a level of 457 in 2013.

The national media clamor began in the Archdiocese of Boston in 2002-2003, with the flight of Cardinal Law to Rome a brief exile in Maryland, and then a prestigious Vatican post; the installation of then-Archbishop O’Malley in July, 2003; and Boston’s settlement of $85 million with 552 alleged victims announced in the fall of 2003.

Going beyond 2003 it might have been reasonable to expect that in subsequent years new claims would come forward quickly, peak, and then – in a few years – drop, or deteriorate into more dubious allegations.

However, two factors have worked against the notion that after a ‘decent interval’, say by 2010, the worst of the storm would have passed for the dioceses, eparchies and religious orders:

a)  By CARA’s tabulations, the credibility of the allegations brought forward in the past five years (2009 to 2013) has remained high, at or above 83% for dioceses and eparchies; at or above 89% and above for religious orders; and

b)  For dioceses and eparchies, the percentage of alleged perpetrators with ‘prior allegations’ has held steady over the ten-year period 2004-2013, at or above 55% (at 56% in 2013), while for religious orders the percentage of those with ‘priors’ has surged over the past five years, from 35% in 2009 to 63% in 2013.

For the most recent five-year period reported by CARA, 2009 through 2013, the yearly average number of allegations has been slightly over 500:

Thus by the metrics of credibility (as judged by CARA) and the incidence of prior abusers, these 2,500+ allegations brought forward (as reported by CARA during the period 2009-2013) represent an active inventory of ‘credible’ claims hanging over dozens of dioceses, etc.

Moreover, the cost of clergy sex abuse has gone up.

Boston’s $85 million settlement in 2003 was greeted with gasps of disbelief at the amount of money involved; by simple arithmetic this settlement averaged out to $154 thousand per alleged victim.

Yet LA trumped this by more than a factor of eight less than four years later, with the announcement of a $660 million settlement by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles covering 508 alleged victims, averaging about $1.3 million each.

Who says that Franciscans are not good with money?


The chanceries of the dioceses (etc.) juggling these 2,500+ active claims now pending must be doing their own arithmetic of the future liability, the probable costs of settling to keep things out of the limelight, and how to raise the many millions needed to settle.

As a baseline, assuming that these 2,500+ claims break evenly among large, medium and small dioceses; and assuming that settlement costs range from $1 million per victim for large dioceses, to $500 thousand for mid-sized ones, and $300 thousand for small ones,

    the resultant total is $1.5 billion for future settlements covering 2009-2013     claims. 

Add to that settlement total another $750 million in ‘software costs’, i.e. diocesan attorneys, child protection programs and offender payments, and there is a future aggregate liability well in excess of $2 billion in the years ahead.

Moreover, this total makes no allowance for claims coming forward in 2014 and beyond.

End Comment

From my own peculiar vantage point, assisting parishioners who are ready to challenge the bishops’ decisions to merge (extinguish canonically) parishes, deconsecrate (lock up and eventually sell) churches, what is puzzling is the fact that in many dioceses throughout Legacy Catholic America (Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West where about 63% of U.S. Catholics live), the pace of parish and church closings is actually increasing:

Boston, Camden, Chicago, Fall River, Greensburg, Indianapolis,Metuchen, New York, Norwich, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Saginaw, Scranton, Youngstown.  

And the recurring question I hear is:

Why?  Why us? Our parish is vibrant, what’s the point?  It makes no sense…

 Well, frequently when something makes no sense it means that you are missing a vital piece of the puzzle.  Here’s a view:

In Legacy Catholic America, the bishops are in full retreat, under the cover of evangelization.  But how do you evangelize when you destroy the infrastructure needed for grassroots outreach, and – in the process – alienate your base?

And why are parishes and schools going into the dustbin of history, closed and for-sale?

There is no one-size-fits-all explanation, given the multitude of complex factors at work. However, one of the major causes of the ongoing Catholic implosion is the acute financial pressure in several dioceses (etc.) from the $3 billion already paid out, and the current inventory of 2,500+ clergy sex abuse claims.

Circling back to the Archdiocese of Boston, to date the poster child for dysfunction in Catholic America, but soon to be overtaken by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia:

At the expiration of the last Millennium, Boston’s archdiocese had a network of 400 parishes;

When Archbishop O’Malley was installed in 2003, this was down to 360;

Today there are about 290 parishes; and

And in two years at the conclusion of the current round of pastoral planning, the Catholic presence in this historic diocese will shrink to 125 ‘collaboratives’.

And remember this:

In Catholic America what happens in Boston does not stay in Boston.