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Myth of a Catholic Crisis

The truth about “pedophile priests”

Is the Roman Catholic Church a cover for the world’s largest criminal sex ring? Over the past few months, a steady stream of news stories seems to have confirmed the bleakest possible vision of global conspiracy, the most extreme claims of anticlerical propaganda through the ages. Even moderate commentators are writing as if priests around the world have taken secret vows of conspiracy, perversion, and omerta. Worse, this deviance is allegedly built into the church’s structures of command and control. According to the darkest visions, clergy are almost encouraged to pursue careers of abuse and pedophilia, secure in the knowledge that their crimes will be sheltered by fellow molesters in the hierarchy, all the way to the Vatican itself, with Pope Benedict as the boss of all bosses. Suddenly, even the rants of Maureen Dowd and Katha Pollitt appear almost plausible.

If all this seems far-fetched, it is. Sexual abuse by clergy is a reality, and a real problem demands a response. But the problem is vastly different from that described so enthusiastically by the media, and most of the critical measures have already been taken.

Although the alleged crisis is now being portrayed in global terms, I will focus on the U.S. experience because this is by far the most intensely studied aspect. The American abuse scandal, now a quarter-century old, has produced rock-solid quantitative evidence that allows us to make general statements about abuse by clergy and to dispel myths.

Most tellingly, we can say one thing quite confidently, however strongly it goes against prevailing wisdom: there is no credible evidence that Roman Catholic clergy abuse young people at a rate different from that of clergy of any other denomination or from members of secular professions who deal with children. If anyone believes that such evidence exists, the burden is upon him to present it.

By far the best quantitative evidence derives from the survey carried out by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York in 2004, entitled “The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States.” Specifically, it examined all plausible complaints of sexual abuse by U.S. clergy between 1950 and 2002, a cohort of around 110,000 men. Although this study was sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the researchers were independent, and the final report was widely praised.

By social science standards, this was an impressively thorough study, and the sample size was immense. Obviously, the John Jay researchers failed to detect many cases, including those that had not come to light by 2004, and other acts that would never be reported. But they worked hard to compensate for such omissions by using a strikingly low standard of proof for the allegations that were known. Investigators counted all charges “not withdrawn or known to be false,” and total exoneration is a very high standard. The list thus includes allegations that would not have surfaced except in the furor of 2002-03, following the dreadful scandals in the Boston Archdiocese.

A couple of points leap out about the allegations, particularly about the image of the “pedophile priest” pursuing his decades-long career of crime under the de facto protection of the Church. The John Jay study concluded that in this period, perhaps 4 percent of all U.S. priests had been plausibly accused of at least one act of sexual misconduct with a minor. But of the 4,392 accused priests, almost 56 percent faced only one misconduct allegation, and at least some of these would certainly vanish under detailed scrutiny.

Very few of the accused priests were pedophiles, in the sense of having abused a minor under the age of puberty, say 12 or 13 for a boy. In the U.S. at least, the great majority of cases of sexual misconduct by priests involve older boys, often aged between 15 and 17, or even older. This behavior is illegal, harmful, and sinful, but it is not pedophilia. The technical name for this kind of act is ephebophilia, but many would call it pederasty or even homosexuality. Drawing this distinction certainly does not excuse or minimize the behavior, but it is critically important for understanding the statistics. Pedophiles are compulsive offenders who are highly likely to repeat their acts, often claiming hundreds of victims. The fact that true pedophile priests formed such a minority of offenders meant that the overall number of victims was mercifully far smaller than it might have been.

Pedophile priests certainly did exist, but in tiny numbers. At the heart of the clergy abuse crisis was a core of highly persistent serial pedophiles, who massively “over-produced” criminal behavior, and some were the targets of hundreds of plausible complaints. Out of 100,000 priests active in the U.S. in this half-century, a cadre of just 149 individuals—one priest out of every 750—accounted for over a quarter of all the allegations of clergy abuse. These 149 super-predators also explain the surprisingly large number of very young victims that the study reported. The average age of offenders for the whole era has been gravely distorted by counting the sizable number of child victims assaulted by these reprehensible serial pedophiles.

Nor was clerical misconduct a persistent or steady-state phenomenon, as we would expect if abusive behavior resulted inevitably from the agonies of the celibate lifestyle. In the U.S. at least, recorded malfeasance was quite rare until an explosion of criminal activity in one short period, namely between 1975 and 1980. These six years accounted for an astonishing 40 percent of all the alleged acts of clerical abuse for the 52-year period under examination. Just why these years were so horrific is open to debate, but there seems to have been a sharp decline in the moral and disciplinary controls that higher authorities exercised over priests. Also, clergy in the 1970s were vulnerable to powerful social pressures encouraging sexual experimentation, the sense that old injunctions against adultery or pederasty were destined to perish in the new age of ethical relativism, and some priests succumbed to temptation. Of the priests ordained in the year 1970, a startling 10 percent would ultimately be the focus of abuse allegations. But the crisis was a byproduct of a specific historical era, not of some essential quality of the clerical status or of the Church’s structures.

Let’s put all this in context. In any given year between 1950 and 2002, the Catholic Church in the United States averaged around 50,000 priests, serving 45 to 55 million members. Assuming all the charges reported by the Jay study were true, then each year, an average of around 200 children were abused or molested by priests nationwide. Obviously, given what we know about the under-reporting of molestation, that figure must be a gross underestimate, and even if it was not, the problem would still be appalling: 200 instances of priestly victimization is 200 too many. But the documented evidence for clerical crime is far less extensive than is widely believed. Even in the overheated and litigious atmosphere following the Boston scandals, the Jay study reported no allegations against 24 priests out of every 25.

To say that X percent of Catholic priests might have engaged in abuse or molestation might be troubling, but the figure is meaningless unless we can compare it with some other group. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we could say confidently that priests abuse at a rate 10 or 100 times larger than Presbyterian ministers or Jewish rabbis or than the male population as a whole. Then we could begin to seek the roots of the Catholic problem, whether we located them in the fact of celibacy or in the secretive clerical subculture. Unfortunately, we have not the slightest point of comparison with any other group. As a result of the furious investigations of the past decades, and particularly the Jay study, the U.S. Catholic clergy are now the only major group on the planet that has ever been subjected to such a detailed examination of abuse complaints, using internal evidence that could not have come to light in any other way. Nothing vaguely comparable exists for other groups, for Presbyterian pastors or Lutheran clergy or, indeed, journalists.

Actually, that is not entirely true. Before commenting on the priestly situation, any observer should read the writings of Professor Charol Shakeshaft of Virginia Commonwealth University, who for years has been studying sexual and physical abuse by America’s public-school teachers. The volume of misconduct she reports is staggering and far exceeds the rate of documented abuse by Catholic clergy. Hard to imagine, public schools sometimes deal with their problem faculty by quietly transferring them to other institutions without warning the new employers of the dangers they face. It sounds a lot like the worst charges against Catholic dioceses, doesn’t it? Thank heaven we don’t worry too much about the sexual dangers facing our children in the schools, or else we might have to think seriously about this issue.

So if Catholic priests are no worse than other professions in this regard—and maybe a lot better—why do we hear so much about them being abusers? Several reasons explain this focus, none of which necessarily reflect any anti-Catholic bias in courts or media. By far the most important factor involves the way in which cases come to light, which is through civil litigation. An individual accuses a particular priest of abuse, and quite possibly, the charge is perfectly true. Lawyers then use that case as a means of forcing a diocese to disclose ever more information about past charges against other priests, which might date back into the 1940s or ’50s and which can also lead into other jurisdictions. One case thus becomes the basis for a whole network of interlocking investigations, which proceed ad infinitum. The Catholic Church suffers acutely from its pack-rat character, of being a highly bureaucratic institution that prides itself on preserving records of institutional continuity.

In contrast, imagine a charge against a Baptist or Pentecostal minister, who has no such institutional framework and little institutional memory, whose church has no deep pockets, so that the case begins and ends with him. Not to pick on any particular denomination, but stories of abuse by clergy of all sorts surfaced regularly through the 1990s, until most groups became massively more proactive in preventing and detecting abuse threats. Partly the new vigilance reflected intensified consciousness of threats to children, but at least as significant were the demands of insurance companies: either you adopt stringent new policies to safeguard minors, or kiss your liability protection goodbye. That was an offer no church could reasonably refuse.

For Catholics, though, with their distinctive structural set-up, the new environment offered no protection from old allegations that continued to surface, often involving alleged acts from 40 or 50 years ago. Even today, Catholic churches are still trying desperately to defend their actions in the distant past, when social attitudes to child sexual abuse were radically different from what we today regard as normal. In those bygone years, molestation was trivialized in both expert and public opinion, and offenders were commonly treated with kid gloves. Only the Catholic Church, however, is held to account for the decisions it took in this very different world of so long ago. Only the Catholic Church is subjected to the unforgiving standards of 20/20 hindsight.

Catholics, like other denominations, have made massive progress in preventing abuse by clergy. In the U.S. at least, very few of the cases that have come to public attention in the past few years refer to acts alleged to have occurred since 1990. Yet litigation resulting from earlier eras means that “pedophile priests” remain in the news almost daily, and that fact shapes (and mis-shapes) popular stereotypes.

Europe is not the U.S., and it is difficult to generalize across countries within Europe. Legal systems differ, as do social assumptions and sexual attitudes. Theoretically, it is possible to imagine that in some particular nation, the Catholic clergy became so vicious and corrupted that they preyed systematically on the young and conspired to hide their misdeeds. But any awareness of the American situation, and the florid mythology it has produced, must make us very careful about giving credence to any such nightmare interpretation.

Philip Jenkins is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis and, most recently, Jesus Wars.

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