The bishops last year ordered the study as part of their response to the clerical sex abuse crisis. Its aim is to collect national statistics on the number of victims and offenders in the American church and tally the cost of lawsuits and therapy.
But now, with some church leaders balking, the bishops are expected to discuss the survey in a closed-door session next month at their national meeting in St. Louis.
"Like many other bishops throughout the country, Archbishop (John) Myers and the auxiliary bishops in Newark feel that the specific elements of this survey, and its purposes, should be discussed at the St. Louis meeting before any final participation," Myers' spokesman, James Goodness, said Thursday.
But the New Jersey archdiocese also is preparing information for whatever study finally emerges, he said.
William Burleigh of the National Review Board, a watchdog panel of lay people appointed by the bishops, said safeguards are in place so the statistics cannot be linked to specific dioceses. The board is overseeing the study.
"We're not going to report names. Certainly no victims' names, no priests' names. We're not going to identify dioceses," Burleigh said. "This is going to be a nationwide look at the numbers."
Of the 195 U.S. dioceses, about 120 have submitted at least a partial response to the survey, said Burleigh, board chairman of E.W. Scripps Co.
Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl is among the church leaders who have withheld data, at least temporarily, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. The Diocese of Toledo, Ohio, is doing the same, the Rev. Thomas Quinn, a diocesan spokesman, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
Wuerl, who has moved aggressively against guilty priests in his own diocese, said he was concerned that the study lacked nuance by lumping together all abuse, whether it involved inappropriate touching or rape.
He also told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he was worried that the survey left no space to explain whether a bishop was acting on a physician's recommendation when reassigning an offender to parish work.
The survey is being conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and is meant strictly to provide figures showing the extent of the problem over the last 50 years, the Review Board said.
It was remarkable that the bishops commissioned the survey. The church had previously resisted authorizing any comprehensive research on guilty priests partly out of fear the data could be used against dioceses in court.
"Until we get the statistics out there we will be forever subject to other people guessing and projecting without any hard statistical information," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, whose Belleville, Ill., Diocese, has responded to the survey.
But concerns about the material are heightened now, with about 1,000 new abuse claims filed in the last year.
Some bishops also worry the report will feed the perception that they did nothing to keep predators out of parishes, when many church leaders had indeed taken steps to protect children.
Kathleen McChesney, the former FBI investigator whom the bishops hired to lead their Office of Child and Youth Protection, insisted that the dioceses' responses will be confidential.
Gregory also said he believed John Jay College was exploring legal protections to keep the information private. James Levine, the college's dean of graduate studies and research, said he could not comment because the school agreed not to say anything until the survey was completed.
The hot line the college set up to field questions from dioceses has received hundreds of calls, Burleigh said. Researchers will be flexible about the deadline for completing the survey to accommodate bishops who have concerns about the questionnaire, have trouble finding records or do not have the resources to quickly respond.
By Rachel Zoll and Dan Nephin