Some 1,700 "credibly accused" priests are living freely under little to no supervision

A new report conducted by the Associated Press has found that some 1,700 former Catholic priests who are “credibly accused” of sexual assault are living free and “under the radar.”

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The research conducted by the AP “unearthed hundreds of these priests who, largely unwatched by church and civil authorities, chose careers that put them in new positions of trust and authority, including jobs in which they dealt with children and survivors of sexual abuse.”

The AP team's analysis, which the researchers say it is the “largest-scale review to date of what happened to priests named as possible sexual abusers,” uses data from 165 dioceses and religious orders across the US that have published names of accused priests.

The diocesean data was collected in the wake of the Dallas Charter, which came after the "first big wave of the clergy abuse scandal" in the early 2000s, and is described as "a baseline for sexual abuse reporting, training, and other procedures to prevent child abuse."

The AP notes, however, most dioceses decided against naming priests, and those who did - "some by choice, others due to lawsuit settlements or bankruptcy proceedings"— were accused by abuse survivors of underreporting of priests, along with the omission of religious brothers they believed should be on those lists.

In their report, the AP notes that each diocese sets their own standards for how to define a sexual abuser: some draw the line at “unwanted hugging,” while for others it’s “sodomy and rape.”

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Writing for USNews, Meghan Hoyer, one of the researchers on the team, said 30 dioceses, including Idaho, Hawaii, Colorado, most of Florida and New York’s Long Island, have either not yet published or do not plan to publish the lists.

“As of Oct. 1," says Hoyer, "the AP’s national list included 5,173 priests, laypersons, and other clergy members. People named on multiple lists - some employees were named by as many as five different groups - are counted only once.”

“Of the 5,173 names listed, roughly 2,000 were found to be still alive, roughly two dozen of which have died in recent years. 76 of those named could not be located.”

Hoyer says the number of "those living without close oversight from the church or law enforcement" comes to "nearly 1,700."

Of the report, The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said in a statement: “We applaud this sorely-needed investigation and believe that this is critical information that can lead to more informed – and safer – communities.”

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The report's unsettling findings

The report says: “The majority of people listed as credibly accused were never criminally prosecuted for the abuse alleged when they were part of the church. That lack of criminal history has revealed a sizable gray area that state licensing boards and background check services are not designed to handle as former priests seek new employment, apply to be foster parents and live in communities unaware of their presence and their pasts.”

While many of the "credibly accused" are “living free” according to the AP, 80 were found to be in prison, facing charges or on probation, 75 are on the sex registry, and 64 are in treatment or under strict restrictions or monitoring.

Regarding the seemingly small number of credibly accused people on the sex offender registry: "That's because church officials often successfully lobbied civil authorities to downgrade charges in exchange for guilty pleas ahead of trials. Convictions were sometimes expunged if offenders completed probationary programs or the charges were reduced below the level required by states for registration."

The AP adds: "More than 500 of the credibly accused former priests live within 2,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, childcare centers or other facilities that serve children, with many living much closer. In the states that restrict how close registered sex offenders can live to those facilities, limits range from 500 to 2,000 feet."

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65 of the credibly accused have been charged with later crimes: 15 for sexual assault or abuse, 13 for possessing, creating, or distributing child pornography, 5 for failure to properly follow rules for the sex offender registry, and 3 for indecent exposure.

193 have had licenses in education, medicine, counseling, or social work. 76 people have current and valid licenses in at least one of those fields: 28 are licensed in education, 24 are in counseling, 13 are in medicine, and 14 are in social work. A few have valid licenses in more than one field. 

168 continue to work or volunteer in a church. Of that 168, 43 went on to minister at new Catholic churches or in other denominations, 33 went to serve as priests in a Catholic diocese overseas, 14 served in lay positions such as music director, lector or eucharist ministers, 11 have served to fill in as priests at Catholic churches, and 11 have served in administrative roles in the catholic church.

The report stated: “In more than 30 cases, priests accused of sexual abuse in the U.S. simply moved overseas, where they worked as Roman Catholic priests in good standing in countries including Peru, Mexico, the Philippines, Ireland, and Colombia. The AP found that in all, roughly 110 clergy members moved or were suspected of moving out of the U.S. after allegations were made.”

Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who had tried to warn the bishops that abuse was widespread and that they should clean house, said: "If these guys simply left and disappeared somewhere, it wouldn't be a problem."

"But they don't. They get jobs and create spaces where they can get access to and abuse children again."

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H/T Associated Press writers Sharon Cohen, Gillian Flaccus, Adam Geller, Justin Pritchard, John Seewer and Anita Snow contributed to this report, along with AP news researchers Jennifer Farrar, Randy Herschaft, Monika Mathur, and Rhonda Shafner.

Are you surprised by the AP's findings? Do you think "credibly accused" priests should be able to live freely? Let us know in the comments