April 7, 2006

World News

Price Tag on Catholic Sex Abuse
Scandal Tops $1 Billion

BY KEVIN ECKSTROM                                                                                                       © 2006 Religion News Service

U.S. Catholic leaders received 783 allegations of clergy sexual abuse last year, which pushed the price tag of the scandal past $1 billion since 1950, church officials said Thursday (March 30).

In addition, researchers analyzed data from previous years to try to craft a profile of abusive priests. They found no clear warning signs about which priests might be prone to abuse.

"There are no identifiable pathologies," said Karen Terry, a researcher at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which conducted the study. "Those red flags just aren't there."

The new figures show credible charges were lodged against 532 priests by some 777 victims in 2005. Most of the cases are decades old, and only nine cases involved abuse against a minor committed last year.

Combined with totals released in the past two years, there have been an estimated 4,983 accused priests and 12,537 victims since 1950. Researchers said disclosures of past abuse have remained high, but new cases of abuse remain low.

Church spending on abuse-related lawsuits and therapy jumped by 173 percent last year to $466 million. The new figures put the total cost to the church since 1950 at $1.19 billion.

At the same time, watchdog groups and even some church officials are now openly wondering if the bishops' 2002 reforms are adequate to protect children from predators like the Rev. Daniel McCormack in Chicago, who is charged with abusing three boys last year after church officials failed to keep tabs on him.

The Chicago case is prompting new concern that U.S. bishops are tallying their own progress while not asking more important questions of whether those programs actually work in protecting children.

Church officials insist they are making progress, and point to the 89 percent of dioceses that have implemented the bishops' abuse reforms. Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, conceded the reforms are "a work in progress."

"It is disheartening to us bishops, as it must be to all Catholics, to find that there are still some allegations of abuse by clerics against today's children and young people," said Skylstad, who has been the subject himself of a recent abuse allegation, which he denies.

The abuse figures were self-reported by 94 percent of dioceses and 67 percent of religious orders. The data on whether a diocese has complied with the 2002 reforms was also self-reported by dioceses using 13-page audit sheets.

Victims' groups have long complained that the compliance audits and the abuse numbers are meaningless because they are self-reported by bishops who may provide incomplete or inaccurate figures.

Bill Gavin, head of the Boston-based Gavin Group that oversaw the audit process, said his research is only as good as the "correctness, completeness, accuracy and integrity" of the information provided.

Gavin said his team will return to on-site visits of all U.S. dioceses for the next round of compliance audits. "I don't think the church is ready for self-audits," Gavin said.

Broadest-Ever U.S. Church Unity Group Launched

BY KEVIN ECKSTROM                                                                                                       © 2006 Religion News Service

Leaders of 34 U.S. church bodies have officially launched the broadest-ever Christian unity organization in American history, and said fighting poverty will be its first priority.

Christian Churches Together in the USA was formally inaugurated on March 31 after a three-day meeting outside Atlanta. A public kickoff is scheduled at the group's scheduled meeting next February.

The looseknit group brings together five Christian "families" who have long been divided by historical and theological differences, including Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelicals and Pentecostals, historically black churches and Orthodox churches.

Together, the five "families" represent more than 100 million American Christians. The nation's largest Protestant body, the Southern Baptist Convention, has said it will not participate.

The effort to form a more "credible Christian witness" was started almost five years ago, and organizers have met annually to try to dismantle decades of political, doctrinal and historical animosity among U.S. churches.

"We finally found the courage to confront our obvious and longstanding divisions and to build a new expression of unity ... that will strengthen our mission in the world," said the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, the general secretary of the Reformed Church of America and an early architect of the new group.

Organizers had hoped to launch last year but put off any official action until the group could attract more interest and participation from historically black churches.

Two of the nation's largest black denominations--the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. and the National Baptist Convention of America--officially joined as members during the Atlanta meeting.

Granberg-Michaelson said "the sense of excitement in the room was really real" and organizers felt ready to "flip the switch" and incorporate as an official organization.

"The group felt that we've made enough progress that the vision of all five families could now be closer to being realized and was strong enough in each of the five that we were ready to organize," he said in an interview.

A search committee will begin looking for an executive director.

Granberg-Michaelson said the group will have only minimal staff and will function with a "virtual" headquarters.

The group will be led by a five-member committee of leaders from each family, including The Rev. William Shaw of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.; the Very Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky of the Orthodox Church in America; the Rev. Larry Pickens of the United Methodist Church; and Bishop James Leggett of the Pentecostal World Fellowship. Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore is expected to represent Catholics on the leadership panel.

U.S. Bookstores Refuse to Sell Magazine
With Cartoons of Prophet Muhammad

BY PIET LEVY                                                                                                                    © 2006 Religion News Service

Borders bookstores and Waldenbooks, both part of the Borders Group Inc., have pulled the April-May issue of Free Inquiry from magazine racks because it includes cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The satiric cartoons, first published in Denmark, have set off worldwide protests, some of them violent, by Muslims because Islam forbids any images of its prophet.

"Borders absolutely supports the customers' right to choose what to read and what to buy, and Free Inquiry has the right to publish the cartoons," Borders Group spokeswoman Anne Roman wrote in a Thursday (March 30) e-mail. "We made the decision not to carry this particular issue of Free Inquiry because of the fact that we place a priority on customer and employee safety and security."

Free Inquiry is a publication of the Council for Secular Humanism, which published four of the cartoons. One shows Muhammad wearing a bomb-like turban with a lit fuse.

"Why should the general public in open democratic society follow the prohibitions of one of the sects?" Dr. Paul Kurtz, editor of the

30,000-circulation bi-monthly magazine, said Thursday from his Amherst, Mass., home. "There are hundreds of denominations in the United States. They have the right to express their beliefs. We have the right to express our dissent."

The magazine has published cartoons critical of organized religion in the past, said Kurtz. He said that when the Danish controversy broke, and many news organizations refused to show the illustrations in question, the Free Inquiry staff decided to do so as a critical comment on censorship and extreme Islam. The magazine edition includes three essays with commentary on the cartoons.

"I feel bad to be put in this position because I love their books and I love what they do," Kurtz said of the Borders Group. "(But) if you can't put (the issues) on display in bookstores, it cuts off free expression.

"What is the greatest offense, to publish critical cartoons or allow obscene suicide bombers to go on without any criticism, essentially since the motive is religious?"

Survey: More Americans Reading Bible at Least Once a Week

BY NATE HERPICH                                                                                                               © 2006 Religion News Service

A survey shows the percentage of Americans who say they regularly read the Bible continues to increase. The survey, conducted by the Barna Group, found that 47 percent of respondents said they open the Bible on a weekly basis, up from just 31 percent in 1995 and 40 percent six years ago.

The survey also polled respondents on six other "religious behaviors" including church attendance and attending small groups like Bible studies. Forty-seven percent said they attend church on a weekly basis, up from 37 percent a decade ago, while 23 percent said they attend small group functions affiliated with church.

Twenty-seven percent of those asked said that they volunteer through church, while 24 percent said that they attend Sunday school, up from 17 percent in 1996.

Survey director George Barna said it was unusual for there to be an increase in participation in all of these religious behaviors at the same time.

"The intriguing possibility," he said in a statement, "is that with most of our key behavioral measures showing increases at the same time, there is the possibility that this may herald a holistic, lasting commitment to engagement with God and the Christian faith."

The Barna report was based on data taken from 1,003 adults nationwide, interviewed by telephone in January. The Barna Group is a private, for-profit corporation in Ventura, Calif., that conducts research on spiritual development.