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Wednesday, May 16 2007 @ 09:52 AM CDT

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Case Highlights Sex Abuse at Church, Beyond Priests


Beginning in sixth grade and lasting several years, Claudia Vercellotti said she was sexually abused repeatedly by the chief of youth ministries for the 19-county Roman Catholic Diocese in Toledo, Ohio. She said she later found four others who said they were victimized by the same man, although he denied wrongdoing.

Joelle E. Casteix said that when she went to Mater Dei High School, a private Catholic school in Santa Ana, Calif., she started being abused by a lay teacher when she was 15. He infected her with a venereal disease and got her pregnant, she said, leading to an abortion. Court records indicate that several other staff members — including teachers, a counselor and a coach — also abused students there.

Christopher Reardon pleaded guilty to rape, molestation and pornography charges involving 24 boys he abused as the director of religious education at St. Agnes Roman Catholic Parish in Middleton, Mass., and as a swimming coach at a camp unrelated to the church. The police said they found computer records intimately describing the bodies of 250 boys.

Although hundreds of instances of sexual abuse by Catholic priests have come to light in the past several years, resulting in millions of dollars in lawsuit settlements and judgments, the problem is not limited to church clergy members.

“People don’t want to deal with the reality that it’s not just priests that abuse,” said Laura A. Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Megan’s Law, a national group that fights abuse. “Here on Long Island we’ve had a youth minister, a church choir director and even a church soup kitchen volunteer.”

Across the country, experts say, complaints of sexual abuse have been lodged against a variety of church employees and volunteers, including camp counselors, seminarians, parochial school teachers, day care and health care workers and catechism instructors.

There are also instances of nuns being accused of sexual abuse.

“We have 40 nuns in our database,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of Bishop Accountability, a national group that compiles reports about sexual abuse in the church.

The Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, who once worked at the Vatican Embassy in Washington and has since become a critic of the church on this issue, said that people are often surprised by complaints against nuns, finding that “more difficult to deal with.”

The latest trial to highlight the problem of sexual abuse at the hands of church laity is pending in State Supreme Court in Nassau County, on Long Island. Matthew Maiello, who was the youth minister and rock Mass director at St. Raphael’s Parish in East Meadow in the 1990s, pleaded guilty in 2003 to rape and sodomy charges involving four minors and was sentenced to two years in prison.

Two of those victims sued Mr. Maiello, the parish, its pastor and the Diocese of Rockville Centre for $150 million, and after a three-week civil trial that provided a rare look into sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church, the jury is now deliberating.

There are no reliable statistics on the extent of the problem. In 2003, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops hired the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to survey the number of sexual abuse complaints but limited the scope to complaints against priests and deacons. That study, which included every diocese in the United States, found 10,667 people had lodged complaints against 4,392 priests from 1950 to 2002, although critics said many victims never filed complaints, and many complaints were not recorded by the church.

“There’s a paucity of hard data on this,” said David G. Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as Snap. “It’s a huge, gaping hole, and it’s troublesome. We have minimized the horror.”

Since priests make up a minority of a church’s staff, Mr. Clohessy said, “it’s at least plausible that as many or more nonordained people are abusers as there are priest abusers.”

A spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, denied that the church had played down abuses by lay employees and volunteers.

Still, in the past several years, the church started prevention programs across the country. On Long Island, the Rockville Centre Diocese says that it has conducted background checks of 64,000 employees and volunteers.

The diocese says that more than 226,000 Catholics on Long Island, including parishioners, have undergone informational training sessions in association with the abuse scandal. It was one of these sessions that led to Mr. Maiello’s downfall. After the meeting, a parishioner at St. Raphael’s spoke to a teenager there who she suspected had been abused. The girl confirmed the suspicion, then went to the police in Nassau County, who arrested the head of the youth ministry. That girl is one of the two victims suing Mr. Maiello.

Defenders of the Catholic Church have accused the news media of highlighting sexual abuse in the church while minimizing its prevalence in other settings.

“Child sex abuse is a pervasive problem,” said Frank J. Russo Jr., the president of the New York chapter of the American Family Association, a group concerned with what it calls the breakdown of the family.

But Charol Shakeshaft, a Hofstra University professor who in 2004 issued a report analyzing numerous studies of abuse in public schools for the federal Department of Education, said there was no data showing whether sexual abuse was more prevalent in the Catholic Church than in other areas of society. “We just don’t know,” Professor Shakeshaft said.

A lawyer for victims of youth ministers, Jeffrey R. Anderson of St. Paul, called that area of the ministry “a real hotbed.”

Ms. Vercellotti, who says she was abused as a youth in Ohio, and Ms. Casteix, of California — both regional directors of Snap — said that they encountered the same denial, blame and cover-up by church authorities that victims of priests had experienced. Ms. Vercellotti did not sue the church, but Ms. Casteix was one of 87 victims who won part of a $100 million settlement from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County, in California.


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