BOSTON - An in-depth examination of sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese found that Roman Catholic priests and other workers probably molested more than 1,000 people over six decades. The Massachusetts attorney general called the figures "staggering" Wednesday as he issued a report with the findings.
"The mistreatment of children was so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable," said Attorney General Tom Reilly, who blamed church leaders for the scandal.
The report ends a 16-month investigation by Reilly's office and a grand jury session that was convened last summer to consider charging church leaders.
The extent of abuse outlined in the report dwarfs what has been found in other dioceses. Still, while the document provides a comprehensive look at what Catholic officials knew, when they knew it and how they covered it up, Reilly said he was hamstrung by state laws that were too weak to allow criminal charges to be filed against the hierarchy.
Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in December, "bears the ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure," Reilly said in the 76-page report.
The cardinal was aware of the abuse even before he arrived in Boston as archbishop in 1984, and he and his inner circle were actively informed about complaints against numerous priests. But with only rare exceptions did any of Law's senior assistants advise him to take steps that would put a halt to what became the systematic abuse of children, Reilly said.
"The choice was very clear, between protecting children and protecting the church. They made the wrong choice," he said. "In effect, they sacrificed children for many, many years."
Reilly also warned that the archdiocese's new abuse policy, announced in May, is insufficient to guarantee the safety of children. Among other problems, the attorney general said, the archbishop retains too much control over investigations, discipline and members of a lay review board.
The Rev. Christopher Coyne, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said the church has already taken "substantial steps" to prevent child abuse. Law's successor, Archbishop-elect Sean Patrick O'Malley, is to be installed next week and has pledged to heal the fractured archdiocese.
"The Archdiocese of Boston reiterates its commitment that the archdiocese will treat sexual abuse of a child as a criminal matter," Coyne said.
The archdiocese itself documented 789 allegations of sexual abuse made against 237 priests and 13 other church workers from 1940 to 2000. When evidence from other sources was included, the number of victims rose to at least 1,000, Reilly said.
About a dozen state grand juries nationwide, and many more prosecutors, have reviewed molestation claims against dioceses dating back decades. But none has come close to uncovering the scope of abuse that was found to have occurred in Boston, the nation's fourth-largest diocese.
As church documents released during the past year have shown, most abusers frequently went unpunished, sometimes being given new assignments in parishes where lay Catholics were unaware of the clergymen's past troubles.
"The magnitude of the archdiocese's history of clergy sexual abuse of children is staggering," Reilly said.
The investigation in Massachusetts did not uncover any evidence of recent or ongoing sexual abuse of children. But Reilly said it was too soon to say if abuses have stopped.
Toward the end of a news conference at which he noted that he considers himself a Catholic of strong faith, Reilly said he hopes that the report - and the arrival of a new archbishop - will lead to changes that will prevent future abuses.
"This is not about the Catholic faith, the Catholic religion. This is a massive, inexcusable failure of leadership in the Archdiocese of Boston," Reilly said. "It is my hope that this report will draw a clear line between the past and a hopeful future."