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Clergy Sex Abuse Raises Questions About Financial And Reputational Costs To Churches


We learn more this week about priests sexually abusing young people in their care, more about the number of victims and more about how Catholic leaders have covered up these crimes. As the scale of the scandal has grown, so has the cost to the Catholic Church. Lawsuits brought by victims have forced dioceses to pay settlements totaling more than $3 billion. Plus, there's the cost to the church's reputation. More on all this now from NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: After grand jurors in Pennsylvania this week reported what they had learned about the abuse of as many as a thousand children by Catholic priests, they offered some recommendations. Among them, that victims should have more time to sue for damages beyond what statutes of limitation currently allow. That would open the door to even more lawsuits, bigger settlements and probably more dioceses going bankrupt. Attorney James Stang, who represents groups of abuse victims, has so far led bankruptcy litigation in about a dozen dioceses.

JAMES STANG: The diocese of Helena, Mont., the diocese of Spokane, Wash., the archdiocese of Milwaukee, the diocese of Wilmington, Del.

GJELTEN: Stang says church payments to abuse victims won't make up for their suffering. But it's important, he says, to hold church leaders accountable for their negligence in allowing abuse to happen.

STANG: I don't like the word healing because it's too much of an individual process. But I think at the end of the day, that accountability is demonstrated by the payment of money.

GJELTEN: In all, 19 Catholic diocese and religious orders in the United States have filed for bankruptcy protection because of lawsuits brought against them by abuse victims - that from the group Bishop Accountability. The image of the Catholic Church has also taken a hit. The Pew Research firm found earlier this year that the abuse crisis has tainted the reputation of Pope Francis among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. At the Catholic University of America, Stephen Schneck specializes in the role of the Catholic Church in American public life. He says his conversations with Catholics have led him to think the abuse crisis will have far-reaching effects.

STEPHEN SCHNECK: One set of Catholic parents said that they were thinking about taking their children out of Catholic schools as a result of this. I mean, that's just a hint. So it will impact everything.

GJELTEN: Indeed, the potential cost of this crisis to the Catholic Church alarms even some who are church critics. Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who has had harsh words for many in the church hierarchy, worries, for example, that church bankruptcies and huge out-of-court settlements won't necessarily have much of an impact on the church leaders who bear personal responsibility for crimes.

THOMAS REESE: You don't punish the bishop. He's not going to be hurt if the diocese goes bankrupt. What you're punishing is the parishioners, the school children and the donors.

GJELTEN: The people in the pews who have given money for particular church projects. Actually, even though this abuse crisis has been years in the making, it may be too soon to know what final effect it will have on the Catholic Church. Researchers have not yet seen a lot of evidence that Catholics leaving the church are doing so in response to the sex abusers in the leadership. Mary Gautier at Georgetown University has been polling Catholics for years.

MARY GAUTIER: The reasons why they say they belong or what they find meaningful in the church don't have to do much at all with who the leader is or who the bishop is. It's much more personal than that. It's, this is where I feel a connection to my God. And this is the faith community that nourishes me.

GJELTEN: Gautier says she's not trying to minimize the crisis. People are upset, she says. But whether their faith is weakened is another question. That may be separate from their loyalty to institutions and those who lead them. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.