BOSTON - Clergy members and others in the Boston Archdiocese probably sexually abused more than 1,000 people over a period of six decades, Massachusetts' attorney general said Wednesday, calling the scandal so massive it ``borders on the unbelievable.''
The report, the result of a grand jury investigation that explored whether church hierarchy should be charged criminally for turning a blind eye to allegations of abuse, said the archdiocese received complaints from 789 alleged victims, involving more than 250 clergy and other workers.
However, when other sources are considered, the attorney general said, the abuse likely affected more than 1,000 victims from 1940 until today.
Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned as archbishop last December, ``bears the ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure,'' Attorney General Tom Reilly said in the 91-page report.
``But by no means does he bear sole responsibility. With rare exception, none of his senior managers advised him to take any of the steps that might have ended the systemic abuse of children.''
Despite the attorney general's scathing remarks about what he called an ``institutional acceptance of abuse,'' no charges are to be filed because child-protection laws in place while abuses were taking place would not allow it.
A spokesman for the archdiocese did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The sheer number of abuse allegations documented by investigators in Boston appears unprecedented, even amid a scandal that has touched dioceses in virtually every state and has prompted about 1,000 people to come forward with new allegations nationwide in the last year.
``The mistreatment of children was so massive and so prolonged that it borders on the unbelievable,'' Reilly said in his cover letter to the report.
Word had leaked out earlier in the week that church officials were unlikely to be charged, prompting a protest by alleged victims at Reilly's Boston office on Tuesday.
``How dare there be no indictments,'' said Kathleen Dwyer, 58, who said she was sexually abused by a priest at her church in Braintree in the early 1950s, when she was 7 years old. She was among two dozen protesters who demonstrated outside the attorney general's office.
One protester carried a sign that read, ``They let children be raped. Their punishment: NOTHING.''
The investigation did not uncover any evidence of recent or ongoing sexual abuse of children. But Reilly said the investigation didn't find any information that would explain the drop-off in recent complaints.
``Given the magnitude of mistreatment and the fact that the archdiocese's response over the past 18 months remains inadequate, it is far too soon to conclude that the abuse has, in fact, stopped or could not reoccur in the future.''
The report is the culmination of a 16-month investigation into how church leaders handled the scandal.
``They chose to protect the image and reputation of their institution rather than the safety and well-being of the children entrusted to their care. They acted with a misguided devotion to secrecy,'' the report says in its conclusion. ``And they failed to break their code of silence even when the magnitude of what had occurred would have alerted any reasonable, responsible manager that help was needed.''
Law resigned in December after nearly a year of criticism over his role in allowing abusive priests to remain in parish work.
In addition to Law, at least eight other top officials in the Boston Archdiocese were subpoenaed to answer questions about their handling of complaints against priests, including the Rev. Thomas V. Daily, now a bishop in New York City; the Rev. Robert J. Banks, now bishop in Green Bay, Wis.; and the Rev. John B. McCormack, now bishop in Manchester, N.H.
Public outrage over the scandal prompted the state to enact a law making reckless endangerment of children a crime. Under the law, someone who fails to take steps to alleviate a substantial risk of injury or sexual abuse of a child can face criminal charges.
But during the time period when much of the abuse took place - from the 1950s through the 1990s - no such laws were on the books, and Reilly has said that prevented him from prosecuting church supervisors.
Attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., who represents more than 200 alleged abuse victims in lawsuits against the archdiocese, said he understands why Reilly concluded his hands were tied.
``The attorney general has to act within the law, and as disappointed as I am, I truly believe he has tried to do his best. The worst thing for victims would be for him to prosecute someone and have that prosecution fail,'' he said.
The archdiocese is facing about 500 civil suits from alleged victims of clergy sex abuse. Church officials have repeatedly said they remain committed to working toward an out-of-court settlement.
A state law passed last year adds members of the clergy to a list of professionals required to inform state officials of suspected child abuse.