The number of people reporting sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy in the United States rose sharply last year, according to an audit released by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The report, released on Friday (20 May) alongside a yearly progress review of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, showed that 838 people came forward from 1 July 2014 to 30 June 2015 to say they had been sexually abused by priests, deacons or members of religious orders.
Only 1 per cent of the new allegations involved children under the age of 18 in 2015. The majority of cases relate back to the 1960s, 70s and 80s, made by adults alleging abuse when they were minors.
Although the number of allegations of sex abuse was up 35 per cent from 620 new reports of abuse a year earlier, US bishops claimed that the increase in allegations was because of dioceses filing for bankruptcy.
Under US bankruptcy laws any person or institution can wipe their financial slate clean by effectively bankrupting themselves. This automatically puts a time limit on potential creditors filing claims on their estate. Unlike UK laws, a bankrupt can re-establish a normal financial state of affairs almost immediately.
There was also a spike in claims in states that had announced they would allow new victims to sue over old cases of sexual assault, the bishops said.
In remarks prefacing the progress report, Francesco C. Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board, the all-lay group that tracks for the bishops how dioceses address clergy sexual abuse, said this year's audit results "continue to demonstrate the progress that has been made in ensuring safe environments for children in the church."
But, he added, progress can "foster a false sense of security" that can "lead to complacency". The firm contracted to conduct audits of dioceses and parishes said there was "plenty of room for improvement" in implementing two of the charter's articles.
One of the areas of concern was the reliance of some parishes on international priests, of whom a “significant number of allegations” related. “Dioceses should take note of this and ensure they are utilising the appropriate methods for evaluating their backgrounds,” the report said.
Last year the Catholic Church in America paid out $154 million (roughly £106 million) in costs associated with abuse allegations, up 29 per cent a year earlier. The largest proportion of costs was attributed to legal fees; other costs were incurred in supporting offenders and providing therapy for victims.
Of the total number of allegations made against clergy during the reporting period, 39 were unsubstantiated or proven to be false. The report states that every religious institute follows a process to “determine the credibility of any allegation of clergy sexual abuse, as set forth in canon law and as advised in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People”.
The findings came in the 13th edition of the report, a practice the Church began after sex abuse by priests and systematic cover-ups by the Catholic hierarchy exploded in the US media in 2002.
Pope Francis in 2014 established a Vatican commission to establish best practices to root out abuse in parishes, but progress has been slow.