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Six important points you don't hear about regarding clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church

More myths than facts in Catholic clergy sexual abuse discussions

There are a lot more myths than facts bantered around about clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Here are 6 important points that you should know if you are interested in this topic.

1. Catholic clergy aren't more likely to abuse children than other clergy or men in general.

According to the best available data (which is pretty good mostly coming from a comprehensive report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004 as well as several other studies), 4% of Catholic priests in the USA sexually victimized minors during the past half century. No evidence has been published at this time that states that this number is higher than clergy from other religious traditions. The 4% figure appears lower than school teachers during the same time frame and certainly less than offenders in the general population of men. Research states that over 20% of American women and about 15% of American men were sexually violated when they were children by an adult. Sexual victimization is tragically fairly common in the general population but luckily these numbers have been dropping in recent years.  

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2. Clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church can't be blamed on celibacy. Not having sex doesn't make children the object of one's desire.

First, if Catholic clergy aren't more likely to be sex offenders than other clergy or men in general, then celibacy can't be blamed by iteself. Most sex offenders are not celibate clergy. Most are married or partnered. Furthermore, many men who don't have sex for a variety of reasons (e.g., no suitable partners, marital or relationship distress) don't turn to children for sexual gratification. They turn to other consenting adults. Think about it: If you don't have sex who becomes the object of your desire? Children or other adults? 

3. Clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church can't be blamed on homosexuality.

Although the vast majority of victims are boys (80% according to the 2004 John Jay study and other studies) and the Catholic Church has a large number of priests who are homosexual in orientation (22% to 45% according to a variety of studies and reports), homosexuality doesn't make men sex offenders. No evidence exists that suggest that sexual orientation, in and of itself, makes someone at risk to commit sex crimes against children or others. Sexual orientation is not a risk factor for crime.

4. Clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church can't be blamed on an all male clergy.

If Catholic clergy aren't more likely to be sex offenders than other clergy from other traditions, then an all male clergy can't be blamed. Having women clergy doesn't stop sex offenders from offending.

5. Almost all of clergy sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church that we hear about in the news are from decades ago (usually the 1960's and 70's).

Although these stories are horrific to hear, they are almost never about incidents that occurred since the late 1980's. Incidents of abuse in the past 20 to 25 years are quite rare compared to incidents during the 60's and 70's. This is also true for other groups such as school teachers. Incidents since the 2002 crisis in the USA unfolded are especially rare. Most of the more recent cases are from international priests who were both born and formed (i.e., trained and ordained) overseas who generally didn't go through the screening and training process that local men go through. Some argue that more recent victims (i.e., since the mid 1980's) just haven't come forward yet. Perhaps that is true but thus far no published data supports this theory.

6. Most clergy sex offenders aren't pedophiles.

Research tells us that about 80% of clergy sex offenders abuse post pubescent teens, not pre pubescent children. So, the phrase "pedophile priest" is a misnomer. You might say that it doesn't matter. Both categories involve victimizing minors. True, but the risk factor profile as well as the evaluation and treatment prognosis is much different between the two groups. Besides, while people may be worried about young children being victimized they may neglect the more likely victim, the teen.

Perhaps the real issue here is that many are outraged with Church leaders (especially bishops) whom they believe have been defensive and arrogant. People demand responsibility and accountability and they don't see it happening. Clearly, some Church leaders treated victims and their families very poorly. For many rank-and-file Catholics who often put priests on a pedestal, it is shocking to hear that some of these men have sexually violated anyone, let alone children. The Church's unpopular positions on sexual ethics (e.g., masturbation, contraception, homosexuality, divorce) make sex crimes committed by priests even more scandalous. The secrecy and otherworldliness of the Catholic Church also make the story of child sexual abuse committed by priests of great interest to the media and to the general population.

It all sounds like a Dan Brown novel!

Finally, many of the 25% of Americans who are Catholic have ambivalent feelings about their Church to begin with even before the clergy abuse crisis unfolded. Many who were raised in the Church during previous generations have deeply emotional stories of priests and nuns who had impossibly high standards for thought and behavior which makes stories of clergy sexually violating children so hypocritical. Perhaps the gospel verse "he who is without sin may cast the first stone" from John 8:7 sums up this sentiment.

Let me be very clear...The sexual victimization of children by priests (or by anyone for that matter) is inexcusable. Church officials protecting offenders rather than victims is also inexcuseable. There is much to be angry about. Many get even more upset when accountability and responsibility in the Church doesn't seem to occur.

Many reasonable and thoughtful people argue that the Catholic Church should allow married men, women, and those who are homosexual to be ordained as priests and deacons (as the Episcopals do) to prevent clergy abuse from occurring. But the current data on clergy abuse just doesn't seem to support these arguments. Perhaps future data will change current findings but you have to go with the best available data to inform one's thinking now.

The recent clergy abuse stories coming out of Europe and South America are not surprising but we have to be reasoned letting good data and logic inform us rather than relying on myths, anger, and hysteria. If someone (or some group) has empirical data that can contradict the 6 points mentioned above, please present it and let it be subjected to academic peer review. We all may have particular beliefs and perspectives about the causes, contexts, nature, and scope of clergy sexual abuse in the Church but we should be informed by empirical quality data and reason.  

For more information, you might review my 2004 book, Sin against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church  and my 1999 book, Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned: Perspectives on Sexual Abuse Committed by Roman Catholic Priests. Additionally, you might take a look at the John Jay Study referred to earlier which can be accessed from the US Council of Catholic Bishops web site: (http://www.usccb.org/nrb/johnjaystudy/).

 

 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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