Thomas J. Reese

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?

What Next?

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.

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is editor in chief of America.

Comments

Christina | 7/23/2009 - 3:46pm
What absolute nonsense.
The John Jay Criminal College acknowledged that 80% o the abuse in the Church involved HOMOSEXUAL priest molesting POSTpubescent boys between the ages of 10 to 17.
Paedophilia was rare. The Jesuit order also had one of the highest amount of offenders than any other order. But of coure, the liberal dissident magzine, American Magazine, aren't going to reveal this, are they?
References: Goodbye Good Men, The Faithful Departed- books
Juan Colas | 3/15/2004 - 8:48pm
In "Facts, Myths and Questions" (America, 3/22/04) Fr. Thomas J. Reese expresses skepticism that there can be 6 to 10 times as many victims of clergy sex abuse as have come forward.

I am a prosecutor, handling mostly cases in which the state is seeking commitment for treatment of serious sex offenders. It is generally recognized that sex offenders, particularly true pedophiles, have more victims than are known. There is no consensus on the ratio and it is a difficult question to study rigorously.

An estimate of 6 to 10 times as many victims as have come forward seems a little high as an average, but not as a range. I recently reviewed a psychological evaluation of a pedophile who admitted to at least 12 times as many victims as had been known to police. That is unusually high, but nearly every offender I have seen who abused children was eventually found to have had at least 3 times as many victims as were known at the time of the first allegation to authorities. An average of 4 or 5 unknown victims for every known victim does not seem unreasonable.

For the same reason, it very likely that in fact most of the abusers were serial offenders even though only one allegation was reported against them.

We should not underestimate the power of sex offenders to coerce silence and denial in those who have been sexually abused as children. A child pornography ring based in Wisconsin was broken up a few weeks ago, and some of the children whose assaults were depicted in the seized video tapes nonetheless denied in police interviews that they had been sexually abused.

Finally, the phenomenon of fewer allegations against religious than diocesan priests is interesting. Fr. Reese speculates that this is because of greater isolation of diocesan priests. An alternative, sadder and at least as plausible explanation is that religious orders have been even less forthcoming about abuse than have the bishops. Orders have less accountability to the laity than even bishops and have greater ability, in concert with bishops or independently of them, to move offenders about.

Fr. Reese is correct when he says the John Jay report is only the beginning.

John A. Melloh, S.M. | 3/17/2004 - 9:35pm
While I was genuine appreciative of the (usual) insightful comments of Thomas J. Reese, S.J., I was disappointed that he did not include another category in his article, viz. "Myths About the Bishops." With Reese's clear perceptivity, I am sure that he could have made additional perceptive comments.

Charles E. Zech | 2/9/2007 - 12:47pm
Thank you for the recent series of articles on the report by John Jay College (3/22).

As excellent as those articles were, like much of the information contained in the secular press, they failed to analyze fully the financial data collected by the researchers and neglected to comment on the report’s shortcomings in the financial area or on the financial impact on the dioceses.

The John Jay Report calculates the total cost of the scandal thus far as $573 million ($237 million has not been covered by insurance). By its own admission, the report seriously understates the extent of the financial impact because it fails to include recent expensive settlements like those in the Archdiocese of Boston, as well as potential future settlements from the more than 1,000 pending legal cases for which cost figures are not yet available.

But there are other causes for the underestimation of the financial impact. The report considers only the abuse of minors under age 18. But the press has reported on a number of abuse settlements involving young men (frequently seminarians), which would inflate the cost figures. More significantly, fully 14 percent of the dioceses and religious orders failed to report any financial figures at all for the John Jay Report. In addition, other dioceses reported only partial figures: 40 percent failed to provide data on the cost for priest treatment expenses, 38 percent gave no data on attorney’s fees, and 20 percent failed to provide complete cost figures for victim compensation. It is likely that the total cost of the scandal to the dioceses, even after insurance payouts, will exceed one billion dollars.

Unfortunately, many bishops are stonewalling on the financial impact of the scandal. In an attempt to deflect criticism, a number have issued statements to the effect, “Diocesan payments with respect to the clergy abuse scandal came from investment income, not parishioner contributions.” The kindest term for this rhetoric is ingenious. Bishops understand that the ultimate source of all diocesan investment wealth comes from the contributions or bequests of previous generations of Catholics. Do the bishops honestly believe that it was the intention of those parishioners that their contributions and bequests (and the investment return earned on them) be used for clergy abuse costs, typically with no transparency or accountability?

Finally, both bishops and parishioners need to understand that the real financial cost of the scandal is not so much in the funds expended, but rather in the important uses to which these funds could have been employed, but for which they were not available. As a consequence of the financial costs of the scandal, we have fewer (and more poorly funded) diocesan programs, including those that reach out to the most needy. The underfunded deferred maintenance in our parishes is a ticking financial time bomb. And I am sure there is no need to remind anyone of the scandalously low salaries paid to our parochial school teachers and other dedicated lay personnel. The billion-dollar payout could certainly have been put to better use!

The extent of the abuse is enormous. But its financial impact has only begun to be felt.

Joseph Claude Harris | 2/9/2007 - 12:41pm
The article “Facts, Myths and Questions” (3/22) stated that the research by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice reported a cost of $472 million for the sexual abuse scandal. In fact, the John Jay research actually gave a cost estimate of $572 million. Further, the article said that the cost may eventually reach a billion dollars. I prepared an estimate of the total cost of the scandal, using data from the John Jay research and reports published by the Associated Press. I assumed that data describing cost of claims for non-respondent dioceses was the same as costs for respondent dioceses and religious communities. If this assumption is valid, the estimated total cost thus far is $1.051 billion in actual and anticipated costs. These costs represent events that have occurred and, as such, would be recognized in financial statements. I think that the phrase “may eventually reach” in the article should be revised to read “has reached.”

Juan Colas | 3/15/2004 - 8:48pm
In "Facts, Myths and Questions" (America, 3/22/04) Fr. Thomas J. Reese expresses skepticism that there can be 6 to 10 times as many victims of clergy sex abuse as have come forward.

I am a prosecutor, handling mostly cases in which the state is seeking commitment for treatment of serious sex offenders. It is generally recognized that sex offenders, particularly true pedophiles, have more victims than are known. There is no consensus on the ratio and it is a difficult question to study rigorously.

An estimate of 6 to 10 times as many victims as have come forward seems a little high as an average, but not as a range. I recently reviewed a psychological evaluation of a pedophile who admitted to at least 12 times as many victims as had been known to police. That is unusually high, but nearly every offender I have seen who abused children was eventually found to have had at least 3 times as many victims as were known at the time of the first allegation to authorities. An average of 4 or 5 unknown victims for every known victim does not seem unreasonable.

For the same reason, it very likely that in fact most of the abusers were serial offenders even though only one allegation was reported against them.

We should not underestimate the power of sex offenders to coerce silence and denial in those who have been sexually abused as children. A child pornography ring based in Wisconsin was broken up a few weeks ago, and some of the children whose assaults were depicted in the seized video tapes nonetheless denied in police interviews that they had been sexually abused.

Finally, the phenomenon of fewer allegations against religious than diocesan priests is interesting. Fr. Reese speculates that this is because of greater isolation of diocesan priests. An alternative, sadder and at least as plausible explanation is that religious orders have been even less forthcoming about abuse than have the bishops. Orders have less accountability to the laity than even bishops and have greater ability, in concert with bishops or independently of them, to move offenders about.

Fr. Reese is correct when he says the John Jay report is only the beginning.

John A. Melloh, S.M. | 3/17/2004 - 9:35pm
While I was genuine appreciative of the (usual) insightful comments of Thomas J. Reese, S.J., I was disappointed that he did not include another category in his article, viz. "Myths About the Bishops." With Reese's clear perceptivity, I am sure that he could have made additional perceptive comments.