More than 400 priests have resigned, retired or been defrocked in the past year because of accusations they sexually abused minors, among more than 1,200 suspected priests scattered through nearly every diocese in the nation, a New York Times survey suggested Sunday.
Nearly 2 percent of all priests ordained since 1950 were accused of molesting children, mostly boys, and more than 4,200 people have come forward to say they were victimized, the report said.
The Times totals were somewhat larger than in previous such surveys but experts said many more victims may have yet to go public with their charges and, in fact, those who have gone on the record so far may be a small proportion of those abused.
The first victim to go public was in 1984 in Louisiana.
The Times’ survey went beyond court records to count news reports, church documents and interviews. There were accusations of abuse found in all but 16 of 177 U.S. dioceses.
Some bishops refused to release the number of accusations or the names of accused priests, the Times said.
Dioceses that have been forced by court order to compile complete lists of known accused priests or volunteered them have shown higher percentages than the 1.8% in the Times survey, such as 6.2% of priests in Baltimore and 5.3% in Boston. That suggests, the Times said, the actual extent of abuse by priests may be much higher than can be detected in a national survey of public cases.
Experts cited in the report suggested that the true total would be higher still since a large number of cases typically go unreported.
Widener University professor William Stayton was quoted as saying the survey shows “only the tip of the iceberg.” His work with clergy sexual abuse cases, he said, show “very, very few of them were reported.”
In 12 months since the Boston Archdiocese was forced to disclose its records of accused priests the Times said 432 of them across the country have resigned, retired or been removed from their ministry.
The survey found 1,205 priests have been accused. At least nine priests were reinstated after an investigation. Many are waiting for investigations to be completed, their status still undetermined.
The majority of the accused priests were accused of molesting teenagers but 43 percent of them were accused of molesting children 12 years old and younger.
Some priests, the Times said, relied on a distinction taught to them in the seminary to rationalize their choice of victims, that all other sexual activity than that involving women was unchaste and sinful but not a violation of the vow of celibancy.
Relatively low numbers of accusations before the 1960s could indicate the muzzling effect of social stigma on victims, the Times report said.
The Times study found that four of five victims of priests were male, nearly the exact opposite of the proportion in the general population who were victimized by nonpriests.
Half of the priests accused were accused by more than one person, the survey showed. A third of the accused priests were accused by three or more people. Sixteen percent of the accused priests were accused by five or more people.
The Times research suggested that because most of the abuse cases were at least several years old that there may have been some improvement since the nation’s bishops began to address the problem in the mid 1980s.
By the late 1980s many Catholic seminaries began psychological testing of candidates. The decline in priest cases in the 1990s also parallels a 40 percent decline in sexual abuse of children generally, as children became more closely supervised.
However, the falloff in cases from the ’90s may only reflect that such cases take several years to be reported. Cases from the 1990s may not yet have begun to surface in large numbers since abuse survivors often do not begin to confront their past abuse experiences until their mid 20s, the Times story said.
The Times story also said that since some bishops refused to answer the Times’ request for the number of accusations or the names of accused priests that the church may be still covering up cases.