While the Roman Catholic church in Europe reels from a widening sex abuse crisis, the scandal that has plagued the U.S. church for nearly a decade is tapering off, a report released Tuesday says.
The number of abuse victims, allegations and offending clergy in the U.S. dropped in 2009 to their lowest numbers since data started being collected in 2004, the report said.
The price paid by the church has fallen, too. Dioceses and their insurers paid $104 million in settlements, attorneys' fees and other abuse-related costs in 2009, down from $376 million in 2008.
All told, the scandal's price tag for settlements and other costs has risen to more than $2.7 billion, according to estimates.
The numbers of cases were expected to decline, but the financial impact remains severe, said Charles Zech, a Villanova University economics professor.
"The U.S. Catholic Church cannot afford that right now, not the way the economy has been going, the hit taken on diocesan investments, and to some extent parishioner contributions," Zech said. "The church ... can't afford to be going on like this very much longer."
The latest annual report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops identifies 398 allegations of abuse involving clergy from Catholic dioceses in 2009 - a 36 percent decline from 2008. Most cases involved preteen or teen males and incidents that were decades old, in keeping with past patterns.
The number of offenders dropped 32 percent, to 286. Most are dead, no longer in the priesthood, removed from ministry or missing, the report said.
Of the allegations reported in 2009, six involved children under the age of 18 in 2009.
The report said that about one-eighth of the allegations made in 2009 were unsubstantiated or determined to be false by the end of the year.
A companion survey that tracks how dioceses are complying with post-scandal reforms identified 21 cases of allegations against current minors in the year between July 2008 and June 2009. Nine allegations were against international priests visiting or serving in the United States. U.S.-born priests are scarce, and dioceses increasingly are looking overseas to staff their parishes.
The report also showed a striking decline in the amount of money paid out to settlements, reflecting a quieter period after several years of huge payments to victims in states such as California.
Settlements totaled $55 million in 2009, down from $324 million in 2008. Other 2009 abuse-related costs were attorney's fees (almost $29 million), support for clergy offenders including therapy, living and legal costs (almost $11 million), and therapy for victims not covered by settlements ($6.5 million).
Insurance covered about a third of the costs to dioceses, which is consistent with previous years.
Similar trends exist in religious orders, which account for a smaller proportion of priests in the U.S.
The report identified 115 credible allegations against order priests and deacons in 2009, a 35 percent decrease. Again, most involve decades-old cases. Abuse-related settlements and costs totaled nearly $16 million for orders, down from almost $60 million in 2008.
The picture of the scandal in religious orders, however, is incomplete because just 159 of 219 men's religious communities took part in the survey.
David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, reiterated victims' skepticism about self-reported abuse figures. He said it's naive to think an institution that has concealed abuse and protected its own for so long would suddenly be honest and forthcoming.
Clohessy also predicted a ripple effect from the rash of new allegations of abuse and cover-up in Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy and Pope Benedict's native Germany.
"Many victims, like Catholics, desperately want to believe the abuses and cover-ups are less pervasive and reform is actually happening," he said. "When confronted with evidence that's not so, I predict more victims will come forward next year."
Dioceses in 2009 also invested more than $21 million for child protection efforts including training programs, background checks and training for staff, according to the report for the bishops prepared by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
Almost 6 million children, or 96 percent of children in Catholic schools or religious education programs, received "safe environment" training. The training is required under the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, reforms adopted by bishops in 2002 at the height of the scandal.
Two dioceses - the dioceses of Baker, Ore., and Fresno, Calif. - were not compliant by year's end with the provision requiring the training and documentation of it, the report said.
"The number of children now equipped with the skills to protect themselves more effectively continues to grow," Chicago Cardinal Francis George, president of the bishops conference, wrote in a memo accompanying the report. "The Charter is causing a cultural change in the U.S. Catholic Church, one I hope will permeate all areas of society."
George added that bishops need to continue to reach out to victims of child sexual abuse.