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Separating Facts About Clergy Abuse From Fiction

Quality research data and industry best practices will solve clerical abuse.

The recent release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church during the past 70 years has unleashed another round of headline news and sadly, much misinformation about this critically important problem.

Few topics elicit more emotion and rage from the public than sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests. Certainly, those most impacted by this terrible story, victims and their families, often express great emotion such as anger, disgust, and deep sadness. However, even those who have never had anything to do with the Catholic Church, priests, or any victims often do so in equal measure as well. With such emotion, inevitably, misinformation abounds.

As someone who conducts research in this area, evaluates and treats both victims and perpetrators, conducts psychological evaluations and screenings of applicants to Catholic seminaries, and has served on child protection committees for the Church at national, regional, and local levels for 30+ years, it is important, in my view, to separate fact from fiction concerning this explosive and highly emotional topic. This is critically needed if we truly want to keep children safe from possible sex offenders inside and outside of the Catholic Church.

While whole books could be written about this topic (and I’ve published three of them) here, I’ll address just a few of the major areas of misinformation that get the most attention in the press about clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Here are four important facts to keep in mind.

1. No empirical data exists that suggests that Catholic clerics sexually abuse minors at a level higher than clerics from other religious traditions or from other groups of men who have ready access and power over children (e.g., school teachers, coaches).

The best available data reports that 4 percent of Catholic priests sexually violated a minor child during the last half of the 20th century with the peak level of abuse being in the 1970s and dropping off dramatically by the early 1980s. And in the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report only two cases were reported in the past dozen years that were already known and dealt with by authorities (thus the grand jury report is about historical issues and not about current problems of active clerical abuse now).

Putting clergy abuse in context, research from the US Department of Education found that about 5-7 percent of public school teachers engaged in similar sexually abusive behavior with their students during a similar time frame. While no comprehensive studies have been conducted with most other religious traditions, a small scale study that I was involved with found that 4 percent of Anglican priests had violated minors in western Canada and many reports have mentioned that clerical abuse of minors is common with other religious leaders and clerics as well.

Let me be clear:

All child abuse is horrific. Abuse perpetrated by clerics, both within and outside of the Catholic Church, is especially awful since we hold these individuals to a much higher standard of behavior and trust. And in the eyes of a child and others, clerics are representatives of the divine, the most holy, and of God. The spiritual damage adds to the psychological and physical damage suffered by the victims. But to assume that clerical abuse is more frequent with Catholic clergy compared to other clerics or other men who work with youth is simply not based on sound science or quality research data to date.

2. Clerical celibacy doesn’t cause pedophilia and sexual crimes against minors.

Think about it. If you can’t or don’t have sex with a consenting partner, would children become the object of your desire? Of course not. If anything, other consenting adults would. Additionally, if public school teachers have levels of sexual victimization of their students at levels higher than Catholic clerics during the same time frame, then one can’t simply blame celibacy for the sexual abuse problem in the Catholic Church. Additionally, the vast majority of sex offenders are regular men, often married or partnered, with 80 percent or more victimizing their own family members with the most likely candidate being a stepfather or older brother abusing a child or teen in the home.

Again, let me be clear:

Celibacy doesn't turn people into sex offenders of children. And the vast majority of sex offenders in our community are not celibate men.

3. Homosexual clerics aren’t the cause of pedophilia in the Church.

Since about 80 percent of the victims of clergy sexual abuse are male, many wish to blame the clergy abuse problem in the Church on homosexual priests. While research does suggest that the percentage of Catholic priests who are homosexual is much higher than found in the general population, we know that sexual orientation is not a risk factor for pedophilia. Homosexual men may be sexually attracted to other men but not to children. Research has found that most of the sexual abuse perpetrators didn’t consider themselves homosexual at all but were “situational generalists” (i.e., they abused whoever they had access to and control over, boys or girls).

Again, let me be clear:

Sexual orientation isn't a risk factor for pedophilia. Pedophilia and sex offending behavior is not predicted by sexual orientation but by other known risk factors such as a history of child abuse, impulse control problems, alcohol problems, head injuries, and an inability to manage and maintain satisfying adult and peer relationships.

4. The Church has used best practices to deal with this issue since 2002.

The incidents of clerical abuse in recent years (i.e., since 2002) are down to a trickle. Many of the newer abuse cases since 2002 have been perpetrated by visiting international priests here on vacation or sabbatical who have not gone through the extensive training and screening that American clerics now go through.

The Dallas Charter and subsequent Church reforms have resulted in a number of industry-standard and even groundbreaking policies and procedures to keep children safe in Church-related activities and keep abusing priests out of ministry.

All dioceses and religious orders, as well as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, have lay review boards with judges, lawyers, psychologists, social workers, human resource professionals, law enforcement officers, and so forth reviewing every and all cases of reported clerical problem behavior.

All church workers, including clerics and lay volunteers, must participate in safe environment training that highlights signs and symptoms of abuse and details policies and procedures for keeping children safe and reporting clerical misbehavior.

An independent auditing firm conducts yearly audits to ensure that all dioceses follow these guidelines and then make their findings publicly known. A zero-tolerance policy is now in effect such that any credible accusation of abuse is reported to law enforcement, the offending party is pulled from ministry and evaluated, and if accusations are found to be credible then the offending party never returns to ministry ever again.

Things are very different in the Church post-2002 than before 2002 and the outcome in terms of new cases is proof that these measures are working.

Again, let me be clear:

The Catholic Church in 2002 put in place best practices in child protection that are clearly working. All accusations of abuse are reported to law enforcement, a team of qualified lay people review all reports of problem behavior, all church personnel including volunteers receive safe environment training, a zero-tolerance policy is in place so that no one with credible accusations are allowed in ministry, and an independent auditing firm conducts yearly audits to keep everyone focused, honest, and on target with these best practices.

Certainly, any large organization, such as the Catholic Church, has holes that need to get plugged when things fall between the cracks, and so we all need to continue being vigilant in our efforts to keep children safe.

The Bottom Line

Keeping children safe from abuse should be everyone’s top priority. Tragically, data suggests that whenever men have access to and power over children and teens, clerics or not, a certain small percentage of them will violate that trust and sexually abuse these minors under their supervision. This is true for Catholic and non-Catholic clerics as well as lay teachers, coaches, tutors, choir directors, scout leaders, and so forth.

The best way to deal with this reality is to develop evidence-based best practices that create environments where children are safe and where you carefully screen for those who wish to work with young people. Doing this has been very successful with many organizations during the past decade or so, including with the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, Boys and Girls Club of America, US Olympic Committee, public and private schools, and so forth (and all of these organizations have consulted with each other to ensure that best practices are known and followed).

Certainly, some people fall between the cracks when policies and procedures are not followed carefully. The Dr. Nasser example with US Gymnastics is an excellent example of this problem. And so, more work is always needed to plug these holes to be sure that best practices and industry standards are followed at all times and by everyone.

The good news is that progress is being made to ensure that children are safe. Vigilance is always needed and good data and reason need to take precedence over emotion and hysteria if we truly want to keep children and families safe from abuse in the Church as well as in all institutions where adults and children interact.

Please check out my TEDx talk about this topic.

Copyright 2018, Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP


Plante, T. G., & McChesney, K. (Eds.). (2011). Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO. ISBN: 978-0-313-39387-7.

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