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The Catholic Church and Sexual Abuse

Kresta Commentary

April 20, 2010

By Al Kresta

Part One: Why 64% of Americans Believe Catholic Priests are Perverts.

A new round of reporting on Catholic clergy sexual abuse in Europe has generated a new climate of revulsion toward the Catholic Church. In spite of, I suppose some would say, because of, all the media attention, however, the public has a grossly distorted picture of clergy sexual misconduct. No one denies that great evil has been done by the likes of John Geoghan, Paul Shanley, John Birmingham, and Marciel Maciel Dellgado and a thousand others. Not to mention the shocking neglect of authorities like now Bishop John B. McCormack and Cardinal Law. The Dallas Morning News claimed that two thirds of sitting U.S. bishops were alleged in 2002 to have kept accused priests in ministry or moved accused priests to new assignments. [The article is presently under critical review by]. However, of the 109 bishops identified in the Dallas Morning News survey, only 39 are still managing the same diocese. Of the others, eleven have resigned. That means nearly two-thirds have been moved. Seven U.S. dioceses have declared bankruptcy and others are in financial crisis. Nevertheless, the evil is not as widespread, as current, or as threatening as imagined in a 2002 Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll which found that 64 percent of those queried thought Catholic priests “frequently” abused children.

First of all, hardly anyone seems to have noticed that clerical sexual abuse is not growing in the Catholic Church. The sheer volume of press reports mislead us into thinking that the scandal is widening while the reality is that it has been shrinking for a quarter of a century.

I just went to my homepage. There I read a headline: “Catholic priest arrested in molestation case”. I’m ready to run to the parish, protect my child, and reduce the bodily integrity of the perpetrator. But I’d win no thanks for vigilante justice because I’m thirty years too late. Yes, the crime and the headline are all too terrible and typical. Here’s the lead: “A retired Roman Catholic priest has been charged with first-degree sex offense and crime against nature after allegations were made that he sexually assaulted a boy from his Kingsport parish more than 30 years ago.”

Old cases still make sensational headlines. E.g., “Norway’s Catholic Church Reveals New Abuse Cases” But Norway doesn’t have new cases. The church disclosed 4 old cases that had previously been overlooked. Two from the 1950s; one from the 1980s and another which remains based on rumors. What was new was that the press finally learned of these cases at all.

Delayed reporting by the victims has compounded this lag time between the criminal acts and the public awareness.. Indeed, some bishops ignored accusations and failed to report them in a timely manner, no doubt fearing lawsuits and scandal. They neglected the pastoral care of victims and the public’s right to know the danger represented by certain priests.

But delayed media reporting wasn’t generally due to episcopal foot-dragging. The victims, themselves, postponed reporting their abuse! Less than thirteen percent of victims abused between 1960 and 1980, for example, lodged a complaint in the same year as the assault. Two thirds filed their complaints after 1992, and half of those were made between 2002 and 2003 alone! This means that the media has been covering old news and, understandably but unfortunately, creating a climate of suspicion years after the abuse had been perpetrated. Thanks to reforms instituted by the USCCB, the Catholic Church in America today is the safest private or public institution for children.

This is beyond dispute. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice has shown repeatedly that the vast majority of the abuse cases took place from the mid-60s to the mid-80s. And the reports over the last five years show a rapid decline. The latest report, covering 2008-2009, shows exactly six credible allegations.

How many Catholic clergy serve in the United States? Forty thousand priests, twenty one thousand permanent deacons and religious brothers and tens of thousands of other Catholic Church workers. Amidst all these eighty or ninety thousand American clergy and lay workers only six credible allegations were lodged in 2008-2009. Once again, note the historical flow. The known number of cases increased in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s, declined in the 1980s and by the 1990s had returned to the levels of the 1950s. One case of abuse is one too many and worth a millstone or worse but it is time to say that the American clerical sex abuse crisis is over.

So why don’t people know this? Last month the USCCB posted the new figures on its website but the press had caught the scent of sin and crime in Europe. Old wounds got re-opened and, it is a general rule of journalism that bad news always displaces good news. Further, how many people bother to plod through the tedium of a sociologist’s analysis?

By the way, how many priests have engaged in sexual misconduct with minors? The John Jay College of Criminal Justice estimated that about 4% of priests were involved– about the same as in other institutions although no other institution has been so rigorously studied or has such kept such thorough records over generations. An article in the Journal of Pastoral Psychology by Thomas Plante and Courtney Daniels doesn’t see any greater problem among Catholic clergy. Newsweek quotes Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: “We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else,” Archbishop Silvano Maria Tomasi in September 2009 stated on behalf of the Holy See: “We know now that in the last 50 years somewhere between 1.5% and 5% of the Catholic clergy has been involved in sexual abuse cases.” There are other surveys and studies with similar conclusions: . According to a recent Newsweek article, “Since the mid-1980s, insurance companies have offered sexual misconduct coverage as a rider on liability insurance, and their own studies indicate that Catholic churches are not higher risk than other congregations.”

Catholic activist scholar Leon Podles, author of Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church places the figure at 7-10% on the grounds that most abuse goes unreported and thus many priest-perpetrators go undiscovered. Perhaps, but this reporting flaw would apply to all institutions. Abuse would be under-reported everywhere. We also know that some priests were more profligate than others.. Overall, the John Jay study found that 149 priests were responsible for more than 2,900 cases of abuse over the 52-year period studied. Roughly, three percent of the accused were responsible for about 36% of the accusations.

Another misconception: Strictly speaking there are almost no pedophile priests. Only 1% of the cases involve pre-pubescent children. The majority of cases involve adults engaging in criminal sexual contact with adolescent boys. This is more accurately described as either hebephilia (younger adolescents) or ephebophilia (older adolescents). ( Criminal and immoral behavior yes but pederasty doesn’t carry quite the disgust associated with pedophilia.
If priests are no more likely to be abusers than other authority-figures then why is the Catholic Church so much in the news. First of all, because people have higher expectations of the Catholic priesthood. They assume stricter screening, longer formation and education, deeper commitment and vows, more rigorous moral and spiritual standards than with other clergy. So the image of a vowed celibate priest whose words and hands turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ abusing his authority over minors is simply grotesque. The incongruity is greater than with other care-providers and thus imprints the imagination more deeply.

Second, priest sex abuse is treated not as an individual but as an institutional problem. For instance, CBS reported: “The FBI says it expects to arrest at least fifty more people by week’s end as it busts up an Internet child-pornography ring that allegedly included two Catholic priests, six other members of the clergy, a school bus driver, and at least one police officer.” I am not interested in bringing discredit on Presbyterians or Baptists or Lutherans but why among the eight clergy only Catholic priests are identified by their ecclesiastical affiliation?

The same day that the Associated Press reported that the archbishop of Santiago, Chile had launched an investigation of a few cases of priestly sexual abuse, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights tipped the AP off about other cases of sexual abuse. For instance,

• A Milford, Connecticut teacher’s aide pleaded no contest to sexually assaulting a high school student

• A Brookville High School teacher in Pennsylvania was charged with aggravated indecent assault, indecent exposure, corruption of minor, possession of obscene material, sexual abuse of children, and unlawful conduct with minors.

• A middle school gym teacher in Athens , New Your was arrested on charges of sex abuse and forcible touching

• A Morrisville-Easton Central School District teacher outside Utica, New York Was arrested for forcibly touching a girl over a three year period, beginning at the age of 11, and for endangering her welfare…..

• A former Teacher of the Year in Bullitt County, Kentucky was indicted by a grand jury on sexual abuse charges.

• A teacher at Olin High School in Iowa was charged with sexually exploiting a freshman. This same teacher faced similar charges two years ago when he taught in another school, and was simply moved from one school district to another.

The AP choose only to cover the archdiocese of Santiago because it fit the hot storyline of a corrupt institution getting its comeuppance while all the teacher examples are simply individual teachers bound together by their jobs and perversions but not embedded in a large, universal, mysterious institution that by refusing to ordain women, relax celibacy and applaud homosexuality defies the flow of modern life. The Catholic church is “other” to most Americans; public school teachers, on the other hand, are familiar and friendly to all of us.

Still, we can’t take much pride that the church’s personnel appear no worse than boy scout leaders or public school teachers. Shouldn’t we expect more? Shouldn’t the Catholic Church be held to a higher standard? Yes, certainly, by the faithful who believe but not by the press which doesn’t. I don’t expect the New York Times and the Associated Press to do apologetics for the Catholic Church. I do expect them to compare institutions and to evenhandedly handle the data. A reporter may not like the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception but that doesn’t give him a license to spawn misconceptions and distort the truth. Heaping inaccuracy upon the flames of moral indignation only sears the conscience of all involved.

Al Kresta is President and CEO of Ave Maria Communications.

His afternoon radio program is heard on over 200 stations as well as Sirius satellite radio.

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