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Six Myths About Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

There's more fiction than facts in Catholic clergy sexual abuse discussions.

Key points

  • Four percent of Catholic priests in the U.S. sexually victimized minors during the past 50 years, which is fewer than that of teachers and men.
  • No evidence exists that suggest sexual orientation makes someone at risk to commit sex crimes against children.
  • Incidents of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church during the past 20-25 years are rare compared to incidents during the '60s and '70s.

There are a lot more myths than facts bantered around about clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Here are six 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, coming from a comprehensive report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004, as well as several other studies), 4 percent of Catholic priests in the U.S. sexually victimized minors during the past half century. No evidence has been published at this time which states this number is higher than clergy from other religious traditions. The 4 percent 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 percent of American women and about 15 percent of American men were sexually violated by an adult when they were children. Sexual victimization is tragically fairly common in the general population, but luckily these numbers have been dropping in recent years.

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 itself. 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 or 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 percent, 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 (22-45 percent, according to a variety of studies and reports), homosexuality doesn't make men sex offenders. No evidence exists that suggest 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 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 1960s and 70s).

Although these stories are horrific to hear, they are almost never about incidents that have occurred since the late 1980s. Incidents of abuse in the past 20 to 25 years are quite rare compared to incidents during the '60s and '70s. This is also true for other groups, such as school teachers. Incidents since the 2002 crisis in the U.S. 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, and 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 1980s) 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 percent 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 profiles, as well as the evaluation and treatment prognoses, are very 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 pedestals, it is shocking to hear that some of these men have sexually violated anyone, let alone children. The Catholic 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 percent of Americans who are Catholic had 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 inexcusable. There is much to be angry about. Many get even more upset when accountability and responsibility in the church don'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 Episcopalians 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 one has 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 rational, 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 six 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 Catholic 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 U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops website.

A quick 2018 update

Since this post was written and published in 2010, several additional resources have become available, including the John Jay College of Criminal Justice's Causes and Context Study published in 2011 as well as another book about the problem, Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012, published by my team in 2012. Interested readers may wish to review them.


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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