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According to a 2004 research study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 4,392 Catholic priests and deacons in active ministry between 19 have been plausibly (neither withdrawn nor disproven) accused by 10,667 individuals of the sexual abuse of a youth under the age of 18.
Estimating the number of priests and deacons active in the same period at 110,000, the report concluded that approximately 4% have faced these allegations.
While sexual use of children by adults has occurred throughout history, only in recent times has it been examined as the object of significant public attention.
The first work dedicated to child sexual abuse was published in France in 1857: Medical-Legal Studies of Sexual Assault (Etude Médico-Légale sur les Attentats aux Mœurs), by Auguste Ambroise Tardieu, a noted French pathologist and pioneer of forensic medicine. Gerald Fitzgerald founded the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order that treats Roman Catholic priests who struggle with personal difficulties such as substance abuse and sexual misconduct.
In a series of letters and reports to high-ranking Catholic leaders starting in the 1950s, Fitzgerald warned of substantial problems with pedophile priests.
He wrote, for example, "[sexual abuse] offenders were unlikely to change and should not be returned to ministry." He discussed the problem with Pope Paul VI (1963 – 1978) and "in correspondence with several bishops".
For this reason there is insufficient data to be able to accurately ascertain current rates of child sex abuse, or to claim that abuse in the Catholic Church has fallen in recent decades.
The Commission revealed 7% of Australian priests between 1950–2009 were accused of abusing children, and that one Catholic order had 40.4% of their non-ordained members with allegations against them in this period.
However, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that the average time it took between a victim of Catholic sexual abuse being abused and reporting it, or seeking redress, is 33 years.
The accusations began to receive isolated, sporadic publicity in the late 1980s.
Many of these involved cases in which a figure was accused of abuse for decades; such allegations were frequently made by adults or older youths years after the abuse occurred.
Cases have also been brought against members of the Catholic hierarchy who covered up sex abuse allegations and moved abusive priests to other parishes where abuse continued.
By the 1990s, the cases began to receive significant media and public attention in some countries, especially in Ireland, Canada, Australia, and the United States and were widespread by the 2000s.