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A wider circle of clergy abuse

As US bishops meet, attention is drawn to female victims of priests.

The spotlight in the Catholic clergy-abuse crisis has fallen on high-profile allegations involving the abuse of boys, but the scandal is spreading to another, less publicized, side of the story: priests' sexual involvement with girls and women.

As US bishops meet here this week to develop a national policy to protect children, new developments highlight the scandal's broader scope.

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• Auxiliary Bishop James F. McCarthy, a former adviser to New York Cardinal John O'Connor, resigned Tuesday after admitting to several affairs with women.

• A panel of victim advocates meeting here today alongside the US Conference of Catholic Bishops will discuss sexual exploitation of girls and women by clergy. They say publicity over the unfolding scandal is emboldening hundreds more female victims to come forward.

• A Roman Catholic priest in Santa Rosa, Calif., Don Kimball, was sentenced last Friday to seven years in prison for molesting a 13-year-old girl in a church rectory two decades ago.

Studies by scholars and anecdotal evidence from therapists show that sexual involvement of priests with women – which includes the exploitation of vulnerable females who go to priests for counseling, as well as consensual relationships – is far more prevalent than sexual activity with minors.

This, say experts, demonstrates that the challenge confronting the church is a broader failure to practice celibacy, not only a problem of homosexuality and pedophilia.

"Priests should not be having sex with anybody under the rule of celibacy – it's a sin against church teaching and [if in the course of counseling] a violation of professional ethics," says Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic weekly. Laws against sexual exploitation in counseling include clergy in 17 states.

"Priests who victimize women are far more common than those who victimize boys," says Gary Schoener, a Minnesota psychotherapist who has worked with 2,500 sex-abuse cases involving clergy of many denominations.

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As to whether the church faces a wider problem in the practice of celibacy, William Ryan, USCCB spokesman, says, "I don't know if we know enough to say it's a problem – I'm confident the overwhelming majority of priests are faithful to their vows."

For girls and women, the challenge of coming forward is heightened by the inclination of the church and society to blame females for abuse. "Church officials historically have been much quicker to blame girls than boys. When women come forward the response has been, 'Well, what did you do to seduce them?' " says Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota attorney specializing in clergy abuse cases who in just the past two months of scandal revelations has been contacted by 50 females alleging abuse by priests. "Somehow there is greater cultural acceptance of that notion, and that cultural bias gets magnified by the sexism and paternalism of the clerical culture."

Indeed, whether abused as children or as adults, women find the road to well-being – and to seeing the perpetrator removed from a position of trust – long and difficult. Susan Archibald will speak about her own pursuit of justice on today's panel in Dallas. When she was an 18-year-old cadet at the US Air Force Academy in 1984, she sought counseling from a Catholic chaplain for her freshman-year challenges. She alleges that Lt. Col. Pat Nicholson, who was her counselor and superior officer, pressed her into a sexual relationship. In 1999 she filed a complaint, but was disappointed to find that he wouldn't be prosecuted, although sex between an officer and subordinate is a violation of military law. Mr. Nicholson, who could not be reached for comment, was discharged in July 2000.

"We did hold an investigation in which enough was determined to relieve [Nicholson] of his duties," says Neal Talbott, an academy spokesman. "There was no court martial because it was past the statute of limitations."

Maj. Archibald tried to pursue her case through the archbishop for the military service in Washington. She says church officials suggested she was partly to blame, but did seem concerned about her allegations that the priest had molested her during confession, a serious offense under canon law.

Mary Grant's case also involved complicated attempts over years to get authorities to deal appropriately with a priest she alleges abused her for four years, beginning when she was 13.

While participating in church youth activities, Ms. Grant says she became the object of Father John Lenihan's sexual attentions, which, she says, he told her was God's will. She says the L.A. archdiocese was informed in writing in 1978, but nothing was done until the priest's affairs with other women were revealed in the press last fall. Mr. Lenihan is now under criminal investigation by the Orange County authorities for alleged abuse of another teenager, Lori Haigh. Now an adult, she alleged the priest forced her to have an abortion, and received a $1.2 million civil settlement from the church in April.

Grant is concerned girls abused today feel they can't come forward. Describing a church culture that "keeps a kid trapped in silence," she cites the April Vatican summit discussion in which a cardinal said there is a difference between a priest who preyed on a child and one "involved with a woman of 16 who shares his affections."

A. W. Richard Sipe – a psychotherapist and former priest who writes books on celibacy and the priesthood – says that at any one time, an estimated 20 percent of priests is involved in relationships with women. This compares with his estimate of 4 percent to 6 percent who abuse minors.

Another troubling aspect of the problem is the abuse of nuns by some priests. The National Catholic Reporter reported last year incidents of such abuse, including rape, in 23 nations (the US included). It said the problem is most serious the developing world.