Child sex abuse is ‘a serious and pervasive’ issue in U.S.

By Julie Asher | Catholic News Service

Child sexual abuse in the United States is at epidemic levels.

More than 60,000 children are reported to have been abused every year, outnumbering those killed by guns or cars. Those who survive are often left not only with physical wounds, but also with psychological wounds that may never heal. These wounds exact both a profound personal and social cost.

Much attention has been focused on the issue of child sexual abuse and the Catholic Church, and rightly so. Allegations of abuse by clergy and church workers as well as cover-ups and bureaucratic mishandling by bishops, dioceses and religious orders have caused terrible pain for survivors of such abuse and their families. It also has resulted in disillusionment on the part of ordinary Catholics. The cost of this abuse and its aftermath totals more than $4 billion so far, according to the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection.

While the Catholic Church continues to struggle with this legacy, it has instituted a wide variety of steps to improve oversight, identify abusers and protect children.

One under-reported fact from the recent, highly publicized Pennsylvania grand jury report is that for all of the many horrors it identified, the good news was that it appeared to document the decline in current cases.

As Jesuit Father Tom Reese told America magazine in its Dec. 24 issue, every one of the accused priests in the report was either deceased or had been removed from ministry, “and only two had been accused of abusing a child in the last 20 years.”

During these same 20 years, however, an estimated 1.2 million children in this country were abused nationwide in schools, organizations, churches and families.

Understanding the plague of sexual abuse in this country means going beyond the immediate headlines and understanding what experts are saying about this scourge. It also means looking not only at the Catholic Church but at all institutions and societal structures where abuse can take place.

So far, no grand jury, congressional committee or law enforcement organization has undertaken a broad societal investigation of what is happening to children in public schools as well as private, in sports and other youth-oriented programs and organizations, in pediatric facilities and perhaps most common, in families. (In Australia, a Royal Commission investigation of child abuse in nongovernmental organizations took five years.)

“Sexual victimization of children is a serious and pervasive issue in society. It is present in families, and it is not uncommon in institutions where adults form mentoring and nurturing relationships with adolescents, including schools and religious, sports and social organizations,” said the John Jay report issued in May 2011 on “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.”

“If you want to talk about sexual abuse of minors, you’re talking about families, foster care programs, public schools,” New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan said in a recent Sirius XM interview. “You’re talking about organizations, every religion, you’re talking about public schools, it is a societal, cultural problem. There is no occupation that is freed from it.”

The U.S. Catholic Church “is no greater (an) offender than anybody else. In fact, some of the statistics would say that priestly abuse among minors is less than other professions,” the cardinal said.

He made the remarks in late January after the New York Legislature passed a measure to ease the statute of limitations on civil abuse cases. The state’s Catholic bishops agreed to support the bill after it was broadened to include not just the Catholic Church but public institutions.

Over the years, highly touted organizations such as the Boy Scouts, U.S.A. Gymnastics and Penn State have had abuse scandals.

Often such organizations are accused of behavior similar to what the Catholic Church has been accused of: denials, cover-ups, relocation of predators and unwillingness to tell authorities.

In July 2018, shortly before the Pennsylvania grand jury report was released, a team of Chicago Tribune reporters turned out a special series on abuse in Chicago’s public-school system: “Betrayed: Chicago schools fail to protect students from sexual abuse and assault, leaving lasting damage.”

“Whether the sexual attacks were brutal rapes, frightening verbal come-ons or ‘creepy,’ groping touches, the students often felt betrayed by school officials and wounded for years,” the paper reported.

“When students summoned the courage to disclose abuse, teachers and principals failed to alert child welfare investigators or police despite the state’s mandated reporter law,” it said.

The Tribune is hardly the first media outlet to examine abuse in the nation’s public schools. In December 2016, USA Today published its own series.

“Despite decades of repeated sex abuse scandals — from the Roman Catholic Church to the Boy Scouts to scores of news media reports identifying problem teachers — America’s public schools continue to conceal the actions of dangerous educators in ways that allow them to stay in the classroom,” it said.

USA Today’s network of media outlets conducted a yearlong investigation and “found that education officials put children in harm’s way by covering up evidence of abuse, keeping allegations secret and making it easy for abusive teachers to find jobs elsewhere.”

“As a result, schoolchildren across the nation continue to be beaten, raped and harassed by their teachers while government officials at every level stand by and do nothing,” the paper reported.

How bad may it be in our schools? According to an Associated Press 2017 investigative report, abuse cases are underreported, but what is tallied is staggering.

The yearlong investigation “uncovered roughly 17,000 official reports of sex assaults by students over a four-year period, from fall 2011 to spring 2015.”

“Though that figure represents the most complete tally yet of sexual assaults among the nation’s 50 million K-12 students,” AP said, “it does not fully capture the problem because such attacks are greatly underreported, some states don’t track them and those that do vary widely in how they classify and catalog sexual violence. A number of academic estimates range sharply higher.”

What happens when abuse is reported varies widely from school district to school district, but what The Associated Press found was not encouraging.

“Elementary and secondary schools have no national requirement to track or disclose sexual violence, and they feel tremendous pressure to hide it,” AP reported. “Even under varying state laws, acknowledging an incident can trigger liabilities and requirements to act. And when schools don’t act — or when their efforts to root out abuse are ineffectual — justice is not served.”

2018 began with sentencing of Larry Nassar, the former U.S.A. Gymnastics and Michigan State University sports doctor who was world famous because he treated the top U.S. Olympic women gymnasts. He was convicted and sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison after pleading guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct. More than 150 women and girls testified during the court proceedings that he sexually abused them over the past two decades.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has launched an investigation on the inaction of then-USOC CEO Scott Blackmun and chief of sport performance Alan Ashley in the roughly yearlong period after they were informed of the allegations against Nassar.

In late 2018, another medical doctor was in the abuse spotlight over sexual misconduct that allegedly occurred from the 1950s through the 1970s: Dr. Reginald Archibald, who ran a prestigious clinic for about 30 years at Rockefeller University Hospital in New York, where he treated children who were small for their age.

The New York Times reported Oct. 18, 2018, that “parents sought him out” to get help for their children with this condition. The hospital, according to the story, sent a letter to as many as 1,000 of his former patients in September 2018 asking if Archibald had had inappropriate contact with them. the story said the hospital knew about the possible abuse in 2004; Archibald died in 2007,

As 2019 began, yet more news broke about sexual abuse. This time the alleged abuser is one of the biggest names in music and has been for over 20 years: R. Kelly.

In January a documentary series titled “Surviving R. Kelly” detailed decades of sexual abuse allegations against him. The multiplatinum R&B idol has repeatedly denied the claims, but many interviewed in the series alleged Kelly had been sexually inappropriate with them when they were underage.

Interviewees included Kelly’s ex-wife and the singer’s two brothers “as well as parents of women who say their daughters are currently being mistreated by Kelly,” USA Today reported.

While doctors, teachers, clergy and other authority figures can be abusers, they also “can be neighbors, friends and family members,” according to Darkness to Light (, a South Carolina-based nonprofit organization dedicated to child abuse prevention. “Significantly, abusers can be and often are other children.”

About 90 percent of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser, and only 10 percent are abused by a stranger, Darkness to Light says: About 60 percent of those victims are sexually abused by people the family trusts; approximately 30 percent of them are sexually abused by family members.

The younger the victim, the more likely it is that the abuser is a family member. Of those molesting a child under 6, 50 percent were family members. Family members also accounted for 23 percent of those abusing children ages 12 to 17.

About one in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, according to Darkness to Light. “About one in seven girls and one in 25 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18.”

Because of underreporting and a lack of systematic, nationwide data collection, estimates of sexual abuse can vary.

“Child sexual abuse is far more prevalent than most people realize,” according to Darkness to Light. “Child sexual abuse is likely the most prevalent health problem children face with the most serious array of consequences.”

Understanding the scope and scale of child sexual abuse in this country is only the start. In future articles, Catholic News Service will look at treatment for victims, the pursuit of predators, the threat of human trafficking and the impact of the internet on child abuse.

COMING UP: Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

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Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

Initiatives include independent investigation and independent reparations program

With a desire to “shine the bright light of transparency” on the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors within the Church, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has announced that the three Colorado dioceses have voluntarily partnered with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children.

In a joint news conference on February 19 at the attorney general’s office, it was also announced that the three dioceses will voluntarily fund an independent reparations program for survivors of such abuse.

“The damage inflicted upon young people and their families by sexual abuse, especially when it’s committed by a trusted person like a priest, is profound,” said Archbishop Aquila. “While this process will certainly include painful moments and cannot ever fully restore what was lost, we pray that it will at least begin the healing process.”

It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Discussions for these two initiatives began last year with former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, and then finalized recently with Weiser. Both Coffman and Weiser praised the dioceses’ willingness to address this issue.

“It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Coffman added: “Childhood sexual abuse is not specific to one institution or to the Catholic Church. The spotlight is on the Catholic Church, but this abuse is indicative of what has happened in other institutions. We want to shine a light on what has happened.

“[The dioceses] demonstrated their commitment to acknowledging past abuse by priests and moving forward with honesty and accountability.”

The independent file review will be handled by Robert Toyer, a former U.S. Attorney for Colorado. His final report is expected to be released in the fall of 2019 and will include a list of diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors, along with a review of the dioceses’ handling of the allegations. The report will also include an evaluation of the dioceses’ current policies and procedures, something that was not included in other states’ reviews, such as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.

“We in Colorado have found our own way in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report,” said Weiser. “We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, alongside Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, speaks during a press conference announcing a comprehensive joint agreement with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on February 19, 2019, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Archdiocese of Denver)

“This is not a criminal investigation. This is an independent inquiry with the full cooperation of the Catholic Church,” said Weiser.

Since 1991, the Archdiocese of Denver has had a policy of mandatory reporting of all allegations to local authorities. The procedures were further strengthened by the 2002 Dallas Charter to include comprehensive background checks, zero-tolerance policies, safe environment training, and training for children as well.

“This independent file review presents an opportunity for an honest and fair evaluation of the Church in Colorado’s historical handling of the sexual abuse of minors by priests,” said Archbishop Aquila.  “We are confident in the steps we have taken to address this issue and that there are no priests in active ministry currently under investigation.”

We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.”

The independent reparations program will be run by two nationally recognized claims administration experts, Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille S. Biros, who will review individual cases and make financial awards to victims who elect to participate. The victims are free to accept or reject the award, but the Colorado dioceses are bound by what the administrators decide.

The program will have oversight provided by an independent committee chaired by former U.S. Senator Hank Brown. More details will be announced in the coming months, and the program will officially open closer to the release of the final report.

This is similar to a program instituted by former Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput in 2006. Archbishop Aquila said it is important for local Catholics to know the program will be funded by archdiocesan reserves, with no money being taken from ministries or charities at parishes, annual diocesan appeals, or Catholic Charities.

“With humility and repentance, we hope the programs announced today offer a path to healing for survivors and their families,” Archbishop Aquila said.

And acknowledging how painful this has been for everyone in the Church, Archbishop Aquila said he hopes this is step towards restoring confidence among the faithful.

“Helping people to restore their trust, to live their faith, that is essential,” said Archbishop Aquila. “And to help them have a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ, so that is my goal in all of this. I know that healing is possible in Jesus Christ.”

For a copy of the full agreement and a detailed FAQ, visit