NEW YORK – The price for failing to rein in predatory clergy members keeps rising for the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.
The church has paid more than $2.6 billion in settlements and related expenses since 1950, according to an annual report released Friday by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The costs to dioceses and religious orders dropped in 2008 by 29 percent, to about $436 million. But 2007 was an unusually high year, when the Archdiocese of Los Angeles began paying its $660 million settlement to about 500 people. It was the largest deal by a U.S. diocese.
"The overall costs are still very high," said Mary Gautier of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. She compiles the statistics on claims and expenses each year.
New allegations continue to pour in, seven years after the abuse scandal erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston. The crisis put an unrelenting national and international spotlight on the problem and inspired victims to come forward by the hundreds.
"It's proof that victims come forward only when they're able," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
The number of claims rose last year by 16 percent to 803. As in previous years, nearly all the new cases were brought by adults who said they were abused as children decades ago. Dioceses and religious orders said 98 of the new allegations could not be proven or were deemed false.
Most of the accused are dead, missing or already out of public ministry or the priesthood.
The statistics are part of an annual review of child safety in American dioceses and religious orders that is mandated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The evaluation is among the reforms that the bishops adopted in 2002, at the height of the abuse crisis. The plan includes background checks for employees and volunteers, training children to identify abusive behavior by adults and a discipline policy for offenders that removes them from any public church work.
This year's audit found nearly all participating dioceses compliant with the child protection policy. Still, auditors urged church officials to improve contact with law enforcement so that police can evaluate claims, and to publicize contact information for the lay panels that help bishops respond to new cases.
Dioceses spent $23 million on child safety last year, the bishops said.
"There are areas we need to improve on, but the structures are in place," said Teresa Kettelkamp, a former Illinois state police officer who leads the bishops' child protection office. "People have victim assistance coordinators. They have safe environment coordinators."
Regarding costs, attorneys for victims have repeatedly accused bishops of falsely crying poor when confronted with new abuse claims. The plaintiffs' lawyers say dioceses have more resources — property, insurance or other assets — than they reveal.
Dioceses told researchers that insurers have covered about one-quarter to one-third of abuse-related expenses each year since 2004. To pay the rest, bishops have sold land and buildings, including diocean headquarters, taken up special collections and cut staff.
Six U.S. dioceses have sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the face of abuse lawsuits. One of the bankruptcies — in Fairbanks, Alaska — is pending. Last month, the Jesuits of the Oregon Province became the latest to seek bankruptcy protection, blaming more than 200 expected claims. Many of the anticipated cases involve Alaska Natives who say they were molested as children while living in remote villages.
The financial pressures from unresolved claims comes at a time when the church, like all groups, has additional money woes from the recession.
"Every diocese in the country is already hurting financially because of the decline in their endowments and the interest earned off that," said Chuck Zech, a Villanova University economics professor who studies church finances. "As parishioners get laid off, their contributions tend to diminish."
There is no way to predict when the number of allegations might decrease. Advocates for victims have been lobbying lawmakers in New York and other states to extend — or even temporarily suspend — the statutes of limitation on civil lawsuits over childhood sex abuse.
Many victims need more encouragement to come forward, said Anne Barrett Doyle, a Boston-area spokeswoman for the advocacy group Bishopaccountability.org
Only a minority of U.S. dioceses have publicly released the names of accused priests — a move that is meant not only to potentially protect the public, but also to encourage other victims of the clergymen to seek help. Only 30 percent of new allegations last year were made through attorneys. Half of the claims were made to the dioceses directly by the accusers.
"Bishops have to try harder," Barrett Doyle said. "They have to publish lists of accused priests, they have to publish the assignments of these priests, so parents can start asking questions."