More than 4,000 priests have been accused of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002, with 10,145 reports of alleged abuse, of which 6,465 were made directly to diocesan authorities. And 4,570 reported abuses have been investigated by dioceses and religious communities across the nation.
It was numbers like these — attributed to one heinous crime, one heinous sin: sexual abuse on children — that made lay people of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States form an organization to counter a religious hierarchy that preferred to keep it covered.
The Voice of the Faithful is that group, and its Southwest Florida affiliate brought a chief spokesperson on the subject of sexual abuse to Naples to discuss the issue in an open forum.
More than 300 people, including Catholics and members of other denominations, attended the forum April 4 at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church Life Center to hear the woman who oversees investigations into the Catholic Church's sex-abuse cases.
Patricia O'Donnell Ewers, chairwoman of the National Review Board of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told what the board has done to combat the problem of priests who abuse children and the damage they've caused.
Ewers' talk focused specifically on why Catholic leaders, mainly the bishops, didn't report the abuse cases to law enforcement and officials in the legal system, even though sexual abuse on children is considered a major felony.
"They considered it a sin," Ewers said. "And sin is something that is handled within the church."
The Catholic hierarchy went within the court system only after the abuse issue became the prominent news of the day among the media, she said.
"Is there a difference between sin and crime?" Ewers said. "We as Americans know, but the Romans (at the Vatican) don't."
Ewers holds a master's degree and Ph.D. in English from Mundelein University and Loyola University in Chicago, Illinois, her home state.
She is an educational consultant to DePaul University, the largest Catholic university in the U.S., and the former and first female president of Pace University, which is comprised of five campuses in New York City and Westchester County.
She has served as a trustee for the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and is a mother of two and grandmother of two.
The National Review Board, Ewers said, was established by the bishops' conference to provide it with advice and guidance, and to approve reports of individual dioceses' compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted by the conference.
"The function of the National Review Board is the protection of children ... to ensure that protection is in place where the bishops have failed," Ewers said. "It's our responsibility to see that the bishops have lived up to the charter."
Ewers said review board members take their role very seriously.
"We have two functions: to do an annual audit, and child and youth protection," she said. "To show you how seriously we consider our work, our first two officers came out of the FBI. That tells you what our focus is."
As part of its audit, the National Review Board commissioned the John Jay School of Criminal Justice in New York City to conduct a study on sexual abuse committed on children by members of the Catholic clergy. Among the results of that study are the numbers of cases and the reports made on them.
Although the John Jay research revealed data and statistics of the abuse cases, it didn't answer one question that continued to pop up concerning the abuse: Why?
Another study is under way to find the answer to that underlying reason, why priests committed the abuse all those years.
Ewers opened the floor to questions from the audience, answering about 20 people who lined up to present her questions on various aspects of the issue.
A man from Chicago asked the first question.
"My question is why doesn't the church remove the bishops that hide this and allow it to go on? People are asking for the answer to this," he said.
"We have to understand there's a different set of attitudes in Rome than in the United States," Ewers said. "Rome treats this as sin and not as a crime ... Every bishop is responsible only to the pope and to his own diocese. They are not listening to (the people in) the diocese."
One woman suggested a theory that the priest-abuse scandal began during the social revolution between the 1960s and 1980s.
Ewers said there was nothing to support that hypothesis, although the scandal ran parallel to the revolution.
"All those hypotheses have to be tested," she said. "Now, we really don't know — and that may be the most frustrating thing."
Ewers fielded other questions on individual names involved in the scandal, church history, global changes, sexual immaturity of priests, excommunication, celibacy, the psyche of abusers and the Vatican.
Alice Durocher, attending the forum from San Marco Catholic Church in Marco Island, said she was impressed by Ewers and her knowledge.
"I thought Dr. Ewers was wonderful," said Durocher, whose primary home is in Chicago, not far from Ewers. "She knows so much about this. Our priest in Chicago, Father Gavin Quinn, implemented the charter to protect children immediately."
Peg Clark, president of Voice of the Faithful of Southwest Florida, said Ewers' speech and the open forum were a spontaneous addition to the group's calendar because of members' requests.
"We could not be more thrilled to have Dr. Patricia O'Donnell Ewers here as our guest," Clark said.
She asked for a show of hands to see how far people traveled to the event. Members of the audience were from places such as Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs, Fort Lauderdale and the Sun City Center in addition to Naples and Marco Island. One man said he was from Ireland.
The Voice of the Faithful was established in response to the sex-abuse scandal. Clark, of Naples, founded its Southwest Florida affiliate.
Ewers said it was groups like Voice of the People that can draw attention from the Vatican and the Catholic hierarchy.
"You have to remember that the Vatican is not a democracy," she said. "It is time for people to speak up and be heard. See what's happening in your diocese. Activity in your parish is one of the strongest weapons you have."
This story has been altered to correct an error since it was originally published in the print edition of the Marco Island Eagle.