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Sexual and other abuse by clergy

Independent survey of sexually
abusive Roman Catholic priests

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Overview:

Sexual abuse of youths and children in the U.S. by Roman Catholic priests had been quietly discussed for decades. A series of books on the topic was published -- starting during the 1990s, and continuing today. But it was only in early 2002 that a moral panic surfaced, alleging widespread child and youth sexual abuse by priests. The little data that is available seems to indicate that the abusers represent a very small percentage of the total priesthood. Further, very few of those priests who do abuse are actually pedophiles, as the media often reports. Rather they are hebephiles -- generally adult priests with a homosexual or bisexual orientation, and who are also sexually attracted to post-pubertal males. Their victims are teenage males who are generally aged 16 and 17.

It is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of priests, with a heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual orientation, do not molest or sexually abuse young people.

Survey:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned a survey of Roman Catholic church records of abusive clergy, to be completed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The survey is one component of the Dallas Charter, a plan developed by the bishops in 2002 to respond to allegations of widespread child abuse by priests, and of extensive cover-ups by the church. CNN.com obtained a draft copy of the report and posted a summary on their web site on 2004-FEB-17. 1 The final version was released on 2004-FEB-27.

Some of the raw data contained in the report:

bulletYears covered: 1950 to 2002.
 
bulletPercentage of bishops who provided information: 97% 3
 
bulletTotal number of allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests: 11,000.
bulletNumber substantiated: 6,700 (61%).
bulletNumber unsubstantiated: 1,000 (9.1%).
bulletNumber which were not investigated because the allegations were made after the priest's death: 3,300.
 
bulletNumber of priests who served during the interval: 110,000.
bulletNumber of priests alleged to have abused children: 4,450.
bulletPercentage of abusive priests: 4.0%
 
bulletNumber of priests who are currently serving: 44,000
 
bulletNumber of cases of abuse per priest:
bulletMost priests were accused of a single event
bullet1,112 priests (25.0%) had two or three allegations
bullet578 priests (13%) had four to nine allegations.
bullet133 priests (2.9%) had ten or more allegations.
 
bulletAge of the victims:
bulletAlmost 6% were 7 years of age or younger.
bullet16% were 8,9 or 10 years old.
bullet78% were 11 to 17 years old.
 
bulletFactors contributing to the abuse problem, as stated by the report:
bulletFailure by the hierarchy to grasp the seriousness of the problem.
bulletOveremphasis on the need to avoid a scandal.
bulletUse of unqualified treatment centers.
bulletMisguided willingness to forgive.
bulletInsufficient accountability.

According to Paul McHugh, a member of the National Review Board, the epidemic of child abuse cases sprang up "...early in the 1960s and reached tidal-wave proportions in the 1970s and early 1980s."

The report suffers from what public-health workers call "reporting bias." Some details of the  11,000 cases of alleged abuse are known. But there exists another "pool of victims of unknown size...outside of their accounting..." They might never come to light.

By reaching back to the year 1950, the John Jay study showed that the 1950s were comparatively free of predators. It went relatively unrecognized during the 1970s and 1980s. The level of abuse appears to be abating now. 3

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Responses to the draft survey:

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a written statement saying, in part:

"I have not seen the reports, and so I cannot comment on their substance. But I want to reaffirm that the bishops requested these studies so that we could understand as fully as possible what caused this terrible occurrence in the life of our community to make sure that it never happens again."

"My heart goes out to all who have suffered, and I assure them especially that the bishops are committed to fully implementing the Dallas Charter and will continue to work with the Office of Child and Youth Protection and the National Review Board to reach out to victims and prevent such abuse from occurring in the future."

David Clohessy director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) stated on 2004-FEB-16 that the numbers are low. He is reported as saying:

"Bishops have tried to hide this for years, so there is no reason to believe all of a sudden they would change their ways. The only prudent thing to do is to assume this is not the entire truth. This is a survey, not a report or investigation."

Steve Krueger, who heads the Voice of the Faithful --a Catholic group formed in response to the priest sex abuse scandal -- suggests that the report is incomplete. He said:

"Although it counts the number of children who have been abused, the number of priests who have abused children, the total financial cost to the church, it does not chronicle the number of bishops who knowingly re-assigned priests who had abused children...Without that kind of investigation, there can be no accountability."

Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter stated:

"This has long ceased to be just a scandal about sex abuse. It's a scandal about abuse of power and trust, and a breech of faith with people."

General observations:

bulletIt is important to keep one's eye on the forest and not on the trees. Even if, as this report estimates, four percent of priests have sexually abused youths or children, that still leaves about 96% of priests (24 priests out of every 25) who are non-abusive.
 
bulletA very large percentage of the victims of sexual abuse by priests are 16 or 17 years of age. In some jurisdictions, young persons of this age range can consent to sexual activity. Sexual activity with youth in that age range would be a gross violation of the Church's expectation of priestly chastity. It would be considered by many to be an abuse of trust by a person in authority. However, it might not be considered a criminal act in some jurisdictions.
 
bulletIf the report's estimate that 22% of the abuse involves victims under the age of ten, then a case can be made that abuse of young, pre-pubertal, children by priests may be lower than among the general population of males in the U.S.

References:

  1. "Draft survey: 4,450 priests accused of sex abuse. Bishop: 'Very sobering and important milestone'," CNN.com, 2004-FEB-17, at: http://edition.cnn.com/
  2. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice has a web site at: http://www.jjay.cuny.edu/.
  3. Paul McHugh, "Dismantling the Culture," Baltimore Sun, 2004-MAR-3.

Copyright © 2004 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2004-FEB-17
Latest update: 2009-AUG-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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