By Gary Fields, Juliet Linderman and Wong Maye-e
CHICAGO—The Samples were a Black Chicago family, with six children and few resources. The priest helped them with tuition, clothes, bills. He offered the promise of opportunities—a better life.
He also abused all the children.
They told no one. They were afraid of not being believed and of losing what little they had, said one son, Terrence Sample. And nobody asked, until a lawyer investigating alleged abuses by the same priest prompted him to break his then 33-year silence.
“Somebody had to make the effort,” Sample said. “Why wasn't it the church?”
Even as it has pledged to go after predators in its ranks and provide support to those harmed by clergy, the church has done little to identify and reach sexual abuse victims. For survivors of color, who often face additional social and cultural barriers to coming forward on their own, the lack of concerted outreach on behalf of the church means less public exposure—and potentially, more opportunities for abuse to go on, undetected.
Of 88 dioceses that responded to an Associated Press inquiry, seven knew the ethnicities of victims. While it was clear at least three had records of some sort, only one stated it purposely collected such data as part of the reporting process. Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Hawaiians make up nearly 46% of the faithful in the U.S., according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, an authoritative source of Catholic-related data. But the Catholic Church has made almost no effort to track the victims among them.
“The church has to come into the shadows, into the trenches to find the people who were victimized, especially the people of color,” Sample said. “There are other people like me and my family, who won't come forward unless someone comes to them.”
Brian Clites, a leading scholar on clergy sexual abuse and professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said the church has demonstrated a pattern of funneling predator priests to economically disadvantaged communities of color, where victims have much more to lose if they report their abuse.
“They are less likely to know where to get help, less likely to have money for a lawyer to pursue that help and they are more vulnerable to counterattacks” from the church, which will hire investigators against the survivors, said Clites.
Alaska leads the nation in rates of sexual violence, and Florence Kenney said the Catholic church has played a role in perpetuating the abuse of natives there.
Kenney, now 85, said she was abused at the Holy Cross Mission in Holy Cross, Alaska. Kenney is indigenous, and she described the relationship between the Catholic Church and Native Alaskan families as both predatory and symbiotic: The church provided food, money and resources to the village, Kenney said, in exchange for labor and silence.
“The church needed those people, and the people needed the church,” Kenney said. “A family might sacrifice one or two children, look the other way, to preserve their relationship with the church for the others.”
There is no accurate count of clergy abuse survivors. A special report commissioned by the Colorado attorney general's office examining abuse within state dioceses and released in October determined “victims of child sex abuse and particularly those abused by clergy are less likely to report their abuse than other crime victims.”
As for minority survivors, dioceses rarely collect demographic data.
The AP contacted 178 dioceses to ask if they collect such data. Few who responded knew the race or ethnicity of claimants. Some said demographics aren't relevant, while others cited privacy concerns.
One diocese—Alexandria, Louisiana—shared a spreadsheet of survivors, including demographics, and without names.
The diocese began keeping such data in 2015, when Lee Kneipp, the victim assistance coordinator, took the job. Kneipp said knowing the race and ethnicity of victims helps investigative efforts and enables a deeper examination of records and the potential ability to find others who have not been acknowledged.