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Now we have real evidence – sexual abuse is not a ‘Catholic problem’

But we still have a fight ahead: the media are out to get us

By on Monday, 9 August 2010

Last week, I suggested that having comprehensively and repeatedly apologised for the small number of priests who have in some way sexually abused children and young people, it was time we moved on to the offensive against those who (often with an undeclared anti-Catholic agenda) continually assert that the Church is in some way particularly prone to this disgusting crime. I referred to a Newsweek article which said that “priests seem to abuse children at the same rate as everyone else”.

The fact is, however, that not only is the Catholic Church NOT an endemically paedophile organisation, the evidence is now emerging that, in fact, even Newsweek is exaggerating: it’s not that “priests… abuse children at the same rate as everyone else”: actually, according to Dr Thomas Plante of Stanford University and Santa Clara University, “available research suggests that approximately two to five per cent of priests have had a sexual experience with a minor” which “is lower than the general adult male population” – in which the percentage of those who have interfered with minors “is best estimated to be closer to eight per cent”. In other words, children who have anything to do with priests are between 1.6 and four times LESS likely to be abused by them than by anyone else.

“When,” asks the blog La Salette Journey, giving these and other details, “will the media acknowledge that the sexual abuse of children is not a ‘Catholic problem’?” The fact is, suggests the writer, Paul Anthony Melanson, that “the media are not so much concerned with the welfare of children as they are with unfairly portraying the abuse of children as a ‘crisis in the Church’ ”.  For example, the state school system in the US has a considerably higher rate of sexual abuse than the Catholic Church: according to a report prepared for the US Department of Education entitled Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature, “9.6 per cent of all students in grades 8 to 11 report… educator sexual misconduct that was unwanted.”  This report has been virtually ignored by the media.

But the penny is just beginning to drop. An article by Jim Dwyer in the New York Times reported (April 27) that the New York State legislature is now addressing the fact that child abuse is not only a problem for the Church, but for the whole of society. “Should it be possible,” asks Dwyer  “… to sue the city of New York for sexual abuse by public school teachers that happened decades ago? How about doctors or hospital attendants? Police officers? Welfare workers? Playground attendants? … To date, New York City has been publicly silent…. but sees the possibility of enormous expenses.”

Well, join the club, New York City. As Dwyer’s article points out: “Since 2004, Catholic dioceses nationwide have paid $1.4bn to settle claims of abuse, many from acts from the 1970s or earlier… Yet [he continues] there is little evidence to show there is more sexual abuse among Catholic priests than among clergy from other denominations, or, for that matter, among people from other walks of life.”

That’s the bottom line. This is a problem we share with everyone, though actually we are less guilty of it than society as a whole and are doing a lot better in acknowledging such child abuse as does exist. We need to get that, and the evidence for it, firmly into our heads. We have a battle ahead: we all need to be prepared for it.

  • christine


    How would you explain all the female victims of clergy abuse? (30%)

    How would you bishops protecting the perpetrators? Is that due to homosexuality?

    When an adult sexually abuses a child, it's pedophelia. The gender of the adult and/or the child is not the issue. Abuse is abuse. Abuse is not related to sexual orientation.

    And as I'm sure you know, the VAST majority of sexual abuse is perpetrated by heterosexual men.
    Would you call that a heterosexual problem?

  • R_nebel

    Your last sentence is really the crux of the issue. No, I don't trust my clergy. Why? Because they have demonstrated that they can't be trusted.
    Our arch-diocese was hit early (mid 90s) and hard by this scandal, largely because the Brothers of the Paraclete were located here and they were “rehabilitating” troubled priests from all over the U.S., many of whom got recycled into our local parishes. When the scandal hit, everything was handled in a hush-hush manner. The archbishop never told us how many cases they had, what kind of abuse occured, how much money was paid out to abused parishioners, or where that money came from. The rumor is that they raided everybody's building funds to cover their liabilities.
    How can you trust people when they won't operate in the sunshine? Would you trust them? In my business the attitude has always been “trust but verify”. Since the clergy won't submit to outside regulation, there isn't any way to verify that they have truly cleaned up the mess. As long as the clergy insist on being a self-regulated brotherhood, there will always be a temptation to sweep these things under the rug. They may tamp it down for a while, but it will be back. Until they face this issue, they can stay away from my family.

  • W Oddie

    My final contribution: to those who still refuse to get accept that this is not a uniquely Catholic problem, but one we all share (I suspect I am wasting my time, there are some anti-Catholic fanatics, both inside and outside the who just won't listen) just read this:

  • Paul Zerzan

    According to the Bishops' Study by the John Jay Institute of Law 5% of the Priests in the US are child-sex abusers. That is 1-in-20. In no other group does the figure go so high. The Fern Report in Ireland shows an even higher rate. Worst of all is that the Catholic Hierarchy thwarted justice by transferring
    pedophile priests to unsuspecting parishes (sometimes in other countries) where they committed more
    serial child rapes. By any measure doesn't this make the Catholic Church an international pedophile ring?

  • christine

    Other reliable studies put the figure at 10% (priests who abused kids).

  • Stephen Retout

    I don't agree it makes the Catholic Church an 'international paedophile ring' but these reports you mention do show the danger of attempting to use one single research/statistical report to minimise the specifically Catholic dimension of this awful phenomenon. The 'moving on' which William Oddie describes will not counter anti-catholic bias by hiding behind one report and saying its not worse here than in other sectors of life…….
    The decisive response at least in this country with proper child protection procedures now in place, together with the recognition that such priests need to be reported to the police has been one strand of the response needed. Thank you wholeheartedly Archbishop Nicholls!!

    But our church (which is provisional) does point to the inauguration of the Kingdom, and should demand much higher standards in relationships both with humanity and the whole creation. The criticism which matters is not that of anti-Catholics but the demands of Jesus in the Gospels……..

    An honest appraisal of the effect of male clericalism, abuse of authority and control which allowed this epidemic to spread is the way to 'move on'. These are not going to be features of the Kingdom but unfortunately they are still very much features of our church.

    One case in point …….

    More lay people and women especially in institutional structures would have ensured a more careful listening to the mothers of some victims in the earlier days of this crisis.

    Fr Radcliffe's writings on the Irish crisis, in the Tablet, seem to me to be the way to move on.

  • Paul Zerzan

    The Catholic hierarchy thwarted justice for pedophiles. They transferred them (again and again) onto unsuspecting parishes where these priests continued to commit serial rapes of children. This constitutes aiding and abetting the sexual molestation of children. In some cases the child-raping priests were transferred to other countries. Please explain how this does not constitute an international pedophile ring (that persisted for decades)?

  • nrndnc

    The Catholic Church did transfer pedophiles, that is not in question. I am thankful that this information has been written and discussed. My problem is that the other religious organizations constantly throw dirt at our house and are not cleaning up their own. All individuals are subject to civil law and have to be punished. Unfortunately children have been the victims because religious groups are more interested in their reputations and pocketbook. The Vatican, Jewish and Protestant leaders are a disgrace.

  • Paul Zerzan

    What “other religious organizations constantly throw dirt at our house”? I have followed this story closely and the only “dirt throwers” are individual (Catholic) victims of sex abuse. It was external, not internal, forces that brought these crimes to light. The Catholic church would still be hiding, aiding and abetting child rapists if it weren't for the victims being able to find outside help.

    “The Catholic Church did transfer pedophiles, that is not in question.” Considering the scale and history of this, would that make the Catholic Church the largest international pedophile ring in history?

  • njme

    Sexual abuse among Catholic Priests was not the scandal. The Vatican, Bishops etc. transferring the priest from school to school and even out of the country is the scandal. In order to protect the name of the church, the abuse was kept quiet, always denied or ignored and when the law did try and investigate they were lied to by the very people that were supposed to protect the most helpless of Gods creation. The battle we have to prepare for is for you and others to acknowledge the problem and not pretend it is something else. The only reason the extent of this scandal came to light was because of newspapers like the Boston Globe. We need to clean our own house before we admonish others.

  • Billy Sole

    All you need to know about what liars inhabit the Vatican is to note their initial response to the American pedophile priest, i.e., that it was a distinctly American problem enabled by our permissive society. This, when the evidence now shows they knew this all along it was international. Now comes the laughable defense that Catholic Clergy were not the only ones. And this from an organization continually lecturing us on moral relativism.

  • Nrndnc

    Paul, I am not the enemy. I have heard other religious groups chastise the Catholic Church. My family has a lot of Protestant and Jewish members. My point was that their children also need help and the hiding and denying of the sexual abuse is destroying children. A molested child no longer has a childhood and very often we will never know what the person could have been. We ARE probably the largest international pedophile ring . I do not know what the future of the Catholic Church is, all I do know is that I will continue to speak out for abused children and against clergy who protect their own.

  • Bwaj

    Male priests: In Heb:13.7,17,24 1 St. Tim:5.17,20 Celibacy: St. Mtt:19.12 Rev:14.13 1 Cor:7.8,34-35 which is higher than marriage. The Papacy: St. Mtt:16.18-19, however, there is no such thing as 'sola scriptura' or 'Scripture alone'. Look throughout the Scriptures and they will condemn your heresy – 'sola scriptura' was an invention who added 'sola' to the Bible. The Bible refers to written and oral tradition (2 Thess:2.15 St. Jn:20.30-31 St. Jn:21.25). Where in the Scriptures does Our Redeemer command His teachings to be written down? He didn't. If you are Catholic and reject the Papacy you are heretic.

  • W Oddie

    Sorry, but the rate among american teachers according to a report published by the US department of education is 10%: and they get moved on to other jobs in just the way that Catholic bishops are rightly criticised for: the cover-up operates in just the same way. The fact is that EVERYONE covers up paedophilia, especially the family, where over 75% if it takes place.

  • Jesatan

    This article is ignoring the FACT that the Catholic church is paying this money out because they are criminally responsible for once caught sending these priests to another church or to a 'retreat' for a few months then right back to another unsuspecting church- the common way they used and in some cases still do deal with this problem. I don't think the it was ever a matter of how many % here or there that are molested. It was the cover up and continuation of criminal activity.

  • Fmzjwill

    Why do most priests not do prison times for their crimes. If they are just like the other pedophiles in society, why are they generally not prosecuted and sent to prison?

  • Steveola251c

    I'm sure the alter boys are thrilled that the Priests taking care of their rear ends are less than the national average. What Sister Maureen seems to be missing is that it's not just the Padres with the little boys sitting on their laps, it's the upper management (clear to the Poop himself) that have covered it up and shuffled them around so they can continue sharing the love.

  • logos27

    So the survey you quote from a strongly anti-Catholic individual stated that 1.7% of the females and 3.3% of the males claimed to have been abused by a priest.

    Compare this to the much bigger survey showing that outside the Church
    around 10% claim to have been sexually abused.

    In fact the survey of Catholics is not sourced in the article in any way. The writer did not conduct it and she does not say who did or give any details by which it can be checked. In other words more dubious claims made by someone whose writing is full of anti-Catholic and anti-Benedict animus.

    Same old same old

    Estimates vary widely between surveys.

  • logos27

    The simple fact is that unlike in the Catholic Church, other religions and civil authorities have conducted NO General reports, no wide-ranging surveys, NO calls for victims to come forward and be heard.

    THEY are the ones covering up their abuse – not the Catholics.

  • Alva2bryant

    less guilty?… there's a huge fallacy in this statement, as an organization, i can't believe that you would try to distract from the responsibility of abusive clergymen as being less guilty because of statistics or because of the act being committed fewer times when compared to other populations. it's appalling that the church and followers, rather than confronting the issue head on, would try to soften the problem. The fact is, it exists in the church and has been supported or silenced for the sole interest of the “infallible church”

    take responsibility and fix yourself

  • momo

    less guilty?… there's a huge fallacy in this statement, as an organization, i can't believe that you would try to distract from the responsibility of abusive clergymen as being less guilty because of statistics or because of the act being committed fewer times when compared to other populations. it's appalling that the church and followers, rather than confronting the issue head on, would try to soften the problem. The fact is, it exists in the church and has been supported or silenced for the sole interest of the “infallible church”

    take responsibility and fix yourself

  • Carmie6

    Thank you for this article. The evidence against priests is being so skewed and blown out of proportion that it's important to shed some light on the whole story. I've been looking for stats like this to share with people when they start ranting about child abuse in churches.

  • degreezero

     It *is* a Catholic problem. Forget the rest of the world, forget the percentages, think only of the Church as Christ intended it to be. Then, yes — emphatically yes — the Church has a problem with paedophile priests.

  • Betty

    William Oddie,

    You say small number of Priest. Last time I checked, it was a LARGE number. The number was so large that people actually started to believe that the catholic church was a sanctuary for pedophiles.  You say only small percentage of Priests have molested children.  How do you know that for SURE?  Do you know everyone Priest that has ever molested a child?  I’m sure MANY of the victims still have not came out yet and probably never will.  So how can you even say that with confidence in good conscience? Even though I do agree with you that Priest molest at the same rate as every other group, doesn’t mean you all are out of the clear.  I’m sure the victims of this horrid abuse can’t just “move on”. Easy for you to say. It’s something they have to live with for the rest of their natural lives.

  • Lindum

    I am afraid you are misunderstanding the criticism of the pedophile problem in the Catholic Church. It is not the percentage of child-rapists in the church that is the issue of which you should be ashamed: it is the systematic cover-up, it is the lack of cooperation with the police, and the loving of offenders into other areas where they are protected. The issue that you will not face is that a significant number of priests are homosexuals, while not being a problem for society, it is an issue (and a sin) for Catholics. It is the gay priests, for fear of being outed that have helped the cover-up.

  • Dave

    What nonsense. What made the catholic clergy abuse so egregious was the number of assaults committed by these men and the length of time it went on for. You have been pretty selective with your statistics, by the way – there is in fact no great evidence as to actual abuse rates, and the informed estimates range from 3 – 8 %. Each abusive clergyman may have committed hundreds of assaults against dozens of victims. And they were protected institutionally. That is the difference, and why apologists such as yourself are part of the problem. For example, convictions of clergy in Boston over the past 18 years run roughly 1/2 and 1/2 between Catholic & Protestant denominations. That is roughly consistent on a population basis – 45% of the state are Catholics, with about the same proportion of clergy. The difference is the number of charges, the length of the offending and the fact that the Catholic hierarchy in many places actively conspired to cover up the attacks. This happened to a much lesser degree in the public schools and the Protestant denominations. You can squeal and wriggle as much as you like, but the basic fact is that the Church failed the children in its care. It has improved – but largely in response to external pressure. As late as 2005 Catholic priests under investigation for abuse in the US were suddenly transferred to the Vatican and then relocated to South American countries – and placed in charge of children. Where, of course, the abuse continued. (source: Records that were removed from the US, supposedly to facilitate church “investigations” that never took place have been denied to US police and prosecutors. The attitude is partially apologetic but with a strong undertone of outrage that the chosen of God are being called to account. Well, mate – tough. If you can’t sort yourselves out we will have to do it for you.

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