For those who have been following the sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church since the mid-1980’s, the reports by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People provided confirmation of hunches and the destruction of myths. At the same time, they left many questions unanswered.
The myths have been promoted by people on both sides of the debate—those who want to beat up on the church and those who want to downplay the crisis. But what are the facts reported in this study of sexual abuse in the church between 1950 and 2002?
Myths About the Priests
Myth: Less than 1 percent of the clergy are involved in sexual abuse. Fact: 4,392 priests, or 4 percent of the total number of members of the Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002, have had allegations made against them. [Editor’s note: As of the end of 2005, over 5,000 priests have been accused of abusing almost 13,000 minors.]
Myth: Much of the abuse was not really serious. Fact: All incidents reported to John Jay involved more than verbal abuse or pornography. Only 3 percent of the acts involved only touching over the victim’s clothes. On the other hand, 57 percent of the acts involved touching under the victim’s clothes, 27 percent involved the cleric performing oral sex, and 25 percent involved penile penetration or attempted penetration.
Myth: Most of the abusers were serial offenders. Fact: 56 percent of priests had only one allegation against them. The 149 priests who had more than 10 allegations against them were responsible for abusing 2,960 victims, thus accounting for 27 percent of the allegations.
Myth: These offending priests were “dirty old men.” Fact: Half the priests were 35 years of age or younger at the time of the first instance of alleged abuse.
Myth: Many of the abusive priests had been victims of sexual abuse as children. Fact: Fewer than 7 percent of the priests were reported to have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children.
Myth: Celibacy caused the sex abuse crisis. Fact: 96 percent of priests (all of them obliged by celibacy) were not involved in sexual abuse.
Myth: Homosexuality caused the abuse crisis: Fact: No one knows the exact percentage of priests who are homosexual. Estimates have ranged from 10 percent to 60 percent. In any case, most homosexual priests were not involved in the sexual abuse of minors.
Myth: Most abuse was done under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the priest did not know what he was doing. Fact: Although 19 percent of the accused priests had alcohol or substance abuse problems, only 9 percent used drugs or alcohol during the alleged instances of abuse.
Myths About the Victims
Myth: There were 60,000 to 100,000 victims of sexual abuse. Fact: While we know only the number of victims who reported their abuse to bishops, it is difficult to see how there could be 6 to 10 times as many victims as the number (10,667) who came forward.
Myth: The victims did not approach the church but sent their lawyers. Fact: Only 20 percent of the allegations were reported to the church by lawyers representing victims. Almost 50 percent of the allegations were reported by victims, plus another 14 percent by parents or guardians.
Myth: Most of the abuse occurred with older teenagers. Fact: Only 15 percent of the victims were 16 to 17 years of age; 51 percent were between the ages of 11 and 14.
Myth: Abusers targeted children of single mothers. Fact: Only 11 percent of victims were living with their mothers only. Almost 79 percent of the victims had both parents living at home.
Myth: Most abusers threatened their victims. Fact: Only 8 percent of victims were threatened by their abuser. Most abusers indulged in “grooming,” a premeditated behavior intended to manipulate the potential victim into complying with the sexual abuse; 39 percent of the clerics offered alcohol or drugs to their victims.
Myths About the Church
Myth: The abuse is a result of the seminary training after the Second Vatican Council (1963-65). Fact: Almost 70 percent of the abusive priests were ordained before 1970, after attending pre-Vatican II seminaries or seminaries that had had little time to adapt to the reforms of Vatican II.
Myth: This problem is unique to the Catholic Church: Fact: The John Jay report notes that in the period 1992-2000, the number of substantiated sexual abuse cases in American society as a whole has been between 89,355 and 149,800 annually. At a minimum, this number for one year is eight times the total number of alleged abuses in the church over a period of 52 years.
Myth: The abuse is still going on at the same rate. Fact: The number of alleged abuses increased in the 1960’s, peaked in the 70’s, declined in the 80’s and by the 90’s had returned to the levels of the 1950’s.
Myth: The Catholic Church has been slower to respond to this crisis than the rest of American society. Fact: The John Jay study reports that for the country as a whole the number of substantiated sexual abuse cases peaked at approximately 149,800 in 1992 and declined by 2 percent to 11 percent per year through 2000. Since sexual abuse in the church appears to have peaked in the 1970’s and declined in the 80’s and 90’s, the church seems to have been ahead of the rest of American society.
Myth: Billions of dollars have been spent by the church dealing with this crisis. Fact: Though the cost may eventually reach a billion dollars, the figure reported by John Jay was $472,507,094. [Editor’s note: CNS reported on March 31, 2006, that the costs had reached $l.5 billion.]
Myth: The church is spending more money on treating priests and hiring lawyers than on the victims. Fact: 83 percent of the amount spent by the church went to compensation for victims; another 4 percent went to treatment for victims.
Myth: The church knew about these allegations from the very beginning. Fact: According to the John Jay report, one-third of the accusations were made in the years 2002-3. Two-thirds have been reported since 1993. “Thus, prior to 1993, only one-third of cases were known to church officials,” says the report.
Myth: The bishops should leave this problem to the criminal justice system. Fact: When allegations were made known to the police, only one in three accused priests was charged with a crime; only 3 percent of all priests with allegations served prison time. There seems to be no correlation between the severity of the offense and whether the alleged victim contacted the police or whether the priest was ultimately charged or convicted, according to the report.
Myth: The abusive priests always/never received treatment. Fact: Nearly 40 percent of priests alleged to have committed sexual abuse participated in treatment programs. The more allegations a priest had, the more likely he was to participate in treatment, according to the report.
More Research Needed
The John Jay report, which covers the period of 1950-2002, is an excellent first step in the research on this problem, but it raises as many questions as it answers:
• 4,392 priests (4 percent of the clergy) were accused of sexual abuse. Is this better or worse than other professions—teachers, social workers, scout leaders, doctors, lawyers, psychologists—or the total male population? No one knows, because comparable studies have not been done.
• 10,667 individuals reported abuse. Are there more victims? Definitely. The bishops could report only on those who had come forward. One-third of the allegations were reported in 2002-3. How many more are out there?
• A few serial abusers (147) were responsible for a quarter of all allegations. Why were these men not spotted and dealt with by other priests and church officials?
• More than half the priests had only one allegation against them. Is this because their names were never made public, or were they truly one-time offenders? Would it be safe to return any of these men to ministry?
• The number of alleged abuses increased in the 1960’s, peaked in the 70’s, declined in the 80’s and by the 90’s were at the levels of the 1950’s. Were there more cases prior to 1960 that simply were not reported or recorded? Will there be more cases reported for the 90’s as time goes on? Or did most bishops get their act together in the late 80’s, so that most abusers were dealt with and potential abusers were not ordained?
• Fewer religious priests (2.5 percent) had allegations against them than diocesan priests (4.3 percent). Is the “Lone Ranger” model of priestly life detrimental to the life of celibacy?
• Eighty-one percent of the victims were male. Why? What role does homosexuality play in this crisis? There is no hard data on what percentage of the clergy is homosexual, because the bishops refuse to allow such a study.
• Was there a higher incidence of abuse by priests who entered the seminary at a younger age—that is, who entered high school seminaries—compared with those who entered college or post-college seminaries?
• Did the treatment programs to which abusive priests were sent have an impact on reducing abuse?
The John Jay report can be only the beginning, not the end, of research on the problem of sexual abuse in the church. The more the problem is studied, the more likely it is that the church will change from being part of the problem to being part of the solution to the epidemic of sexual abuse in our country, where 20 percent of women and 15 percent of men report that they were victims of child sexual abuse as children, with about 80 percent of the victims saying they were violated by a family member.