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Sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy

What percentage of priests abuse
and whom do they victimize? Part 2

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This essay is a continuation of this topic from Part 1

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Just how many young people are molested by the average abusive priest?

Again, nobody knows for certain.

Priests have freer access to many children than does the average male. His position of authority and trust can facilitate abuse. Thus the number of abused young people per abusive priest may well be larger than for the average molester.

William Reid has written that "careful studies have indicated...that child molesters commit an average of sixty offenses for every incident that comes to public attention." 1 But Thomas Fox estimates that the "average pedophile priest abuses 285 victims." 2

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Who are the victims of abusive priests?

The general consensus is that the vast majority of priests do not abuse young people. Among those who do abuse, most fall within the following definitions:

  • A small minority of abusive pedophiles who have a heterosexual orientation and are sexually attracted to pre-pubertal girls, less commonly to boys, and sometimes to both boys and girls. They often have sexual feelings to children of a particular age group -- e.g. 7 and 8 year olds.

  • A much larger percentage of abusive ephebophiles who are priests with a homosexual orientation. They are sexually attracted to post-pubertal young men, aged 14 to 17 years. 3 Most are also probably also attracted to adult males.

Nobody knows, with any degree of accuracy, what percentage of priests fall into each category. One can only guess from the cases that are seen in court.

  • Columnist Ann Coulter claimed, without citing references, that "It is a fact that the vast majority of the abuser priests – more than 90 percent – are accused of molesting teen-age boys." She criticizes The New York Times for intentionally suppressing the gender of the alleged victims by using gender-neutral terms such as the "teen-ager," the "former student," the "victim" and the "accuser." 4

  • Donald Cozzens, former vicar of priests at the Diocese of Cleveland, OH, wrote in the year 2000 about his experience in the Midwest:

    "As a group, [child sexual] abusers tend to be married men who prey on girls, although many pedophiles abuse both girls and boys. Our respective diocesan experience revealed that roughly 90 percent of priest abusers targeted teenage boys as their victims. ... Relatively little attention has been paid to this phenomenon by church authorities. Perhaps it is feared that it will call attention to the disproportionate number of gay priests. While homosexually oriented people are no more likely to be drawn to misconduct with minors than straight people, our own experience was clear and, I believe, significant. Most priest offenders, we vicars agreed, acted out against teenage boys." 5,6 More recently, in 2002, he quoted other estimates that "90 percent to 95 percent, and some estimates say as high as 98 percent of the victims of clergy acting out [are] teenage boys." 5

  • Bill Blakemore of ABC NEWS.com stated in an online interview on an ABC message board: "The vast majority of cases that have come to light in this crisis, somewhere between 90-98 percent apparently, are not technically pedophilia because they are cases of homosexual abuse of teenage boys aged 13-17." 7 He probably picked up the data from Donald Cozzens' writing.

It is worth noting that if the age of consent for homosexual activity were lowered to the age of 16, as it is in many jurisdictions, then many -- if not most -- of the criminal acts by abusive priests would disappear. Most charges by the police against abusive priests would never materialize. Cases of ephebophilia would still represent an ethical quagmire, however. They would be a gross violation of the priest's ordination vows and would be an extremely harmful experience to most of the teens. For example, in Kingston, ON, Canada where our office is located, an Anglican church official was convicted of sexually abusing many dozens of young children and youths. Many people believe that two suicides resulted from these criminal acts.

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How do levels of abuse by Catholic and Protestant compare?

You guessed it! Nobody knows with any accuracy.

  • Alan Cooperman wrote in the Washington Post:
    "Gary Schoener, a psychologist whose Walk-In Counseling Center in Minneapolis has consulted with more than 1,000 victims of clerical sexual abuse, believes that the percentage of abusers is no higher among Catholic priests than among Protestant ministers. But in his experience, he said, priests have more victims because they operate longer before they are caught." 8
  • Some people view celibacy as an unnatural lifestyle. They speculate that a higher percentage of priests are abusers than are Protestant ministers and pastors, because of the Catholic church's celibacy requirement. The implication is that if celibacy were made optional, then priests could marry and wouldn't abuse youths and children.

    • Most Protestant clergy are free to marry, and most heterosexual ministers and pastors do marry. Unfortunately, we have been unable to find reliable information about the level of abuse among Protestant clergy.

    • There also does not seem to be any reliable information about the level of child molestation among those Roman Catholic priests who are married. Thus any abusive pedophile and hebephile data would be of such low accuracy as to be useless. (The existence of married priests within the Roman Catholic Church is a surprise to many. When the Episcopal Church decided to ordain females, about 95 Episcopal ministers in the U.S. were so distressed by the idea of sharing the priesthood with women that some converted to Roman Catholicism in order to remain in a purely male priesthood. The church allowed them to remain married.)

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Comparison of abuse in the Catholic Church with that in U.S. public schools:

A U.S. Department of Education report issued in 2004 examined a number of American studies into the prevalence of sexual misconduct by school staff. They found that between 3.5% and 50.3% of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career. They found that teachers, coaches, substitute teachers were the most common offenders.

If this report is accurate, then sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic church, and by other clergy, appears to pale in comparison with the abuse being experienced by children and youths in the public schools. 9

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What does the future hold?

Bishop Thomas Gumbelton of Detroit has said that, in the past, Catholic seminaries had not adequately prepared students for a lifetime of celibacy. They had not taught students how to integrate their sexuality. 10

Barbara Walters of ABC's 20/20 has stated that

"...the [Catholic] church has made dramatic changes in the last decade in the way it addresses sexual issues in seminary. Instead of denying or repressing sexual desire, seminaries now use progressive psychology to help men deal openly with the once taboo topics of sexual attraction as well as homosexuality. Seminarians, for example, learn how to channel their sexual energy, and that it is alright to embrace their homosexual orientation. They are taught that intimate, nonsexual friendships may help keep them from breaking their vow of celibacy. " 10

It will take decades to determine the effectiveness of these sex-ed programs in preventing sexual abuse.

In the meantime, the anger by the laity at the abuse by priests and the coverups by church officials may well advance the case for female ordination. It is generally acknowledged that the level of abuse of minors by women is much lower than by men.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. William H. Reid, The Psychiatric Times, 1988-APR-24. Quoted in: A. W. Richard Sipe, "Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis," Brunner/Mazel, (1995).
  2. Thomas C. Fox, "Sex and power issues expand clergy-lay rift," National Catholic Reporter, 1992-NOV-13, Pages 17 to 19.
  3. Joe Fitzgerald, "Priest fears gays in ranks pose threat to Church," Boston Herald, 2002-MAR-6, at: http://www2.bostonherald.com/
  4. A. W. Richard Sipe, "Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis," Brunner/Mazel, (1995). Read reviews or order this book
  5. Father Donald Cozzens, "The Changing Face of the Priesthood," quoted in "Meet the Press transcript," ' ABC News' Meet the Press, 2002-MAR-31, at: http://www.msnbc.com/news/731454.asp
  6. Father Donald Cozzens, "The Changing Face of the Priesthood: A reflection on the priest's crisis of soul," Liturgical Press, (2000). Chapter 8 "Betraying Our Young" deals with sexual abuse. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  7. Bill Blakemore, "Crisis in the Church: Is celibacy to blame?," ABC Newsat: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/
  8. Alan Cooperman, "Sex abuse in clergy stymies scientists Lack of data thwarts efforts to gauge depth of the problem," Washington Post, 2002-MAR-24, at: http://detnews.com/2002/religion/
  9. Charol Shakeshaft, "Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature," U.S. Department of Education, 2004-JUN, at: http://www.ed.gov/
  10. Barbara Walters, "Priests with AIDS: Crisis within [sic] Catholic church," 20/20, at: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/2020

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Copyright © 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAY-17
Latest update: 2011-SEP-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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