Costs related to abuse cases also decreased — by about 15 percent over the last year — mainly due to a decline in what dioceses paid to settle molestation cases.
Dioceses and religious orders paid nearly $399 million in 2006 for settlements with victims, attorney fees and support for accusers and offenders. For 2005, that figure was $467 million — considered the highest ever for a single year.
The findings, set for release Wednesday, are part of an annual review that the bishops first commissioned in 2002 as they implemented reforms to better safeguard children at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal.
The declining number of claims — there were 1,092 in 2004 and 783 the next year — could be taken as evidence that the church is gradually gaining control over the crisis.
But more work is needed to address the problem, a key church official said.
"The bishops have done a lot and have spent a lot of money in a lot of different areas, but it's not all done, as you can tell by the number of victims still coming forward," said Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection.
Catholic leaders say abuse-related costs have exceeded $1.5 billion since 1950. More than 13,000 molestation claims have been filed against clergy since then.
Bishop Gregory Aymond, head of the bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, called the findings "sobering."
"The decline in reported cases is good," said Aymond of Austin, Texas, "but the fact that there are any recent cases at all is very disconcerting."
As in previous years, most people who made allegations in 2006 said they had been molested decades ago. The majority of the claims concerned cases from 1960 to 1984.
Forty-three percent of the claims involved priests who had not been accused of abuse before, and most of those accused are either dead, missing, or have already been removed from church work or the priesthood, making the new allegations difficult to prove. In dioceses alone, bishops said 11 percent of the 2006 claims could not be proven or were considered to be false.
Only 17 of the people who came forward with complaints last year were under age 18.
John Moynihan, a spokesman for Voice of the Faithful, a lay reform group that has been pushing for more transparency in church leadership, said he considered the number of claims filed last year "huge" in light of how long the crisis has dragged on.
"One would think that after all these years it would have tapered off greatly," Moynihan said. "I'm sure we have not seen the end of it."
The survey of nearly all 195 U.S. dioceses and non-geographic regions called eparchies was conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
An accompanying audit, by The Gavin Group, Inc., a consulting firm led by a former FBI official, checks whether the nation's dioceses are implementing the reforms spelled out in the bishops' Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
However, this year's audit was much more limited in scope, so that Kettelkamp's office could shift the dates of its review to match more closely with the survey of new abuse claims.
Only 11 dioceses had full, onsite audits at their request and were found in compliance with the charter by the end of the audit period. Eighteen additional dioceses had limited audits that focused only on remedying past failures, mainly related to training children, volunteers and staff to identify and report abuse. Of that group, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and the Diocese of Burlington, Vt., still had not completed the trainings by the end of the audit period.
The Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests considers the audits and the survey ineffective because dioceses control what information researchers see. William Gavin, president of The Gavin Group, noted in the 2006 report that no personnel files were reviewed and "the auditors had to rely on the truthfulness and integrity of those furnishing the information."
But defenders say the annual reviews play an important role in child protection.
"Vigilance is needed to overcome the natural regressive tendency to become complacent," the auditors wrote in their report.
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network, said the findings are more evidence of the urgent need for state lawmakers to extend statutes of limitation on prosecuting child sex abuse. "Victims report decades later because it takes that long to understand you've been severely hurt and you have options," Clohessy said.