Catholic Clergy Sexual Abuse Is a Solvable Problem

Quality research and best practices rather than emotion will solve clergy abuse.

Posted Sep 05, 2018

The recent release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse during the past 70 years has unleashed another round of headline news and intense emotional reactions from those within and outside of the Catholic Church. Rage, anger, disgust, frustration, and deep sadness seems to be the common reactions from everyone including victims and their families, rank and file Catholics, the general public, and even Catholic priests themselves.  It is tempting to want to “go nuclear” with drastic responses for change. While these emotional reactions are understandable, it is reason, quality empirical data, best practices in child protection, and maintaining a public health perspective that will ultimately solve this problem and most importantly keep children and families safe not only in the Catholic Church but throughout society in general.

First, it is critical to keep in mind that the information presented in the grand jury report is not new and reflects known cases of abuse from many years ago. Only two cases in the report occurred during the past decade. We know from a variety of studies, including the famous John Jay College of Criminal Justice reports in 2004 and 2011, that about 4% of priests during the last half of the 20th century had credible accusations of child sexual abuse. These figures are consistent, if not lower, than reports conducted with other institutions that service children such as the public school system where a US Department of Education report in 2004 found that about 5-7% of school teachers sexually violated children in their care during a similar time period. Sadly and tragically, research tells us that child sexual abuse was and is too common, especially until public awareness, mandated reporting laws, and quality child abuse research all emerged in the early to mid-1980s when these numbers begin to drop significantly in the Church and throughout society.  

After the Boston clergy abuse crisis in 2002, a number of best practices were instituted in the Catholic Church, beginning with the USCCB Dallas Charter and associated reforms that reflect industry standard on child protection with some being even ground breaking.  For example, all dioceses and religious orders including the USCCB have lay review boards with judges, lawyers, psychologists, social workers, human resource professionals, law enforcement officers, and so forth reviewing every case of reported clerical misbehavior (On a personal note, I've served on several of these boards including the National Review Board for the USCCB from 2008-12). Everyone working in the church, including clerics, employees, and lay volunteers, must participate in industry standard safe environment training that highlights child protection procedures including maintaining appropriate boundaries, understanding grooming behavior by potential offenders, signs and symptoms of child abuse, and details regarding policies and procedures for keeping children safe and reporting clerical misbehavior. An independent auditing firm, unrelated to the Catholic Church, now conducts yearly audits to ensure that all dioceses follow these guidelines and then they make their findings known publically. A zero-tolerance policy is now in effect such that any credible accusation of abuse is reported to law enforcement, the offending party is immediately pulled from ministry and evaluated, and if accusations are found to be credible after an independent investigation by non-church officials 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 since these best practices have gone into effect is proof that these measures are working. 

Sadly, research suggests that whenever men have access to and power over children and teens, as Catholic clerics or not, a certain small percentage of them will violate that trust and sexually abuse these minors under their care and supervision. The best way to deal with this reality is to develop evidence-based industry standard best practices, quality research data, and a public health model to create environments where children are safe and where you carefully screen those who wish to work with young people. This approach 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 Certainly some people fall between the cracks when policies and procedures are not followed carefully and there are many examples to select from within all of these organizations. 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.

Let me be very clear: The Catholic Church has many issues that are of concern during this time of crisis, including clericalism, abuse of power, cover-ups, an exclusive all-male hierarchy, and so forth, which all need attention and thoughtful discussion. But let’s keep our eye on the ball and be sure that our child protection efforts within the church and in other institutions are based on quality research and best practices rather than emotion and hysteria. In this way, children and families will be best served. And at the end of the day, that is most important. 

Copyright 2018, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, 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.