RNA - Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt stated on Friday he has concluded after a year-long investigation that the Roman Catholic Church was involved in "long, sustained and far-reaching cover-up", US News reported.
"Sexual abuse of minors by members of Missouri's four Roman Catholic dioceses has been a far-reaching and sustained scandal," Schmitt told a news conference.
"For decades, faced with credible reports of abuse, the church refused to acknowledge the victims and instead focused their efforts on protecting priests," he added.
Missouri is among several states that launched investigations last year after a report in the state of Pennsylvania showed abuse of over 1,000 children by hundreds of priests there since the 1940s, and efforts by church leaders to conceal it.
Schmitt said the probe into diocese records across the state revealed that 163 priests or other members of the clergy had been accused of sexual abuse or misconduct against minors.
Schmitt noted that 83 of the accused are already dead and of the 80 still alive, the statute of limitations has expired on 46 of the crimes.
Missouri’s chief law enforcement officer said the standard response to reports of abuse by church leadership was to reassign an offending priest in a new parish and provide short-term treatment, but members of an offending priest's old and new parishes were not notified of the reason for a transfer in these cases.
"The betrayal of trust and of innocence is devastating and in many instances incomprehensible," Schmitt, himself a Catholic, stated.
A spokesman for Schmitt's office told The New York Times that investigators had heard from more than 100 victims of abuse and had spoken directly to 45 victims or their families.
"We did have one priest who had 21 victims come forward, so we can assume the number is in the hundreds," Spokesman Chris Nuelle underlined.
The Roman Catholic Church, which is based in Vatican, is struggling to deal with a global epidemic of sexual assault by priests, which has gone on for decades.
The credibility of the Catholic Church hierarchy sank last year after new reports of old sexual abuse and cover-up were uncovered in the US, Chile and elsewhere and implicated Pope Francis himself.
Polls show that an increasing percentage of Catholics in the United States are re-examining their commitment to the religion as more allegations of sexual abuse by priests are being revealed.