During their annual meeting in Baltimore this week, more than twenty bishops and cardinals delivered passionate speeches about the abuse scandal. This came on the heels of the Vatican’s directive earlier in the week that the U.S. bishops wait to vote on new standards of bishop accountability until the Holy See meets about the issue in February.
That surprising intervention from Rome spurred yet another round of media stories about clerical sex abuse in the Church, with some speculating that the delay in voting on new standards would leave more minors vulnerable to predatory priests. The tacit assumption being that without special oversight, Catholic priests—because they are priests— pose a potential danger to children.
I certainly don't want to excuse or downplay the crimes of Catholic priests and bishops in this area, which are real and unspeakably heinous. But I do want to take a step back from the emotional issues surrounding the scandal (which I’ve addressed in my podcast) and focus on a simple factual question:
Are Catholic priests more likely to abuse minors than other comparable authority figures?
If they are, then either a) the Church has a problem weeding out abusers who seek to become priests or, more alarmingly, b) something about the priesthood itself encourages sexual abuse. In either case, it’s a particularly Catholic problem that requires a Catholic solution.
But, if Catholic priests are no more likely to abuse children than anyone else, then the solution lies elsewhere. If sexual abuse is not a distinctly Catholic problem, it doesn’t require a distinctly Catholic solution—like changing the Church’s teaching on priestly celibacy or breaking the seal of the confessional. And the popular stereotype of rampant priestly sexual abuse should be opposed as an unjust myth.
Is there sexual abuse among Protestant clergy? A 2018 study by three criminologists revealed that hundreds of claims of sexual abuse are made every year against pastors and other Protestant church leaders (despite the fact that most Protestant pastors are married). According to the study’s authors:
Three faith-based insurance companies that provide coverage for 165,500 churches—mostly Protestant Christian churches and 5500 other religious-oriented organizations—reported 7,095 claims of alleged sexual abuse by clergy, church staff, congregation members, or volunteers between 1987 and 2007. This is an average of 260 claims of alleged sexual abuse per year, which resulted in $87.8 million in total claims being paid.
I find that many people are surprised at these numbers. One reason they may tend to associate sexual abuse with Catholic clergy more than Protestant clergy is that the Catholic Church has a centralized hierarchy committed to meticulous record keeping. This allows not only Church authorities but eventually journalists and grand juries to review accusations made over many decades in parishes across an entire region, leading to greater publicity for Catholic abuse cases and thus a perception that they’re especially common. Because this organizational structure is absent in most Protestant churches, it’s more difficult for outside groups both to determine how often sexual abuse claims are made and how often they get swept under the rug by leaders.
In the absence of consistent and detailed record-keeping, insurance payouts for substantiated abuse claims have become one of the best objective indicators of abuse frequency. And according to one industry spokeswoman, “Our claims experience shows this happens evenly across denominations.” In fact, the John Jay Report, a detailed study of sex abuse by Catholic clergy, suggests that number of Catholic cases is lower: it found that between 1987 and 2007 (the same years covered in the Protestant clergy abuse report) an average of about 100 claims of sexual abuse were made against Catholic priests each year (with the majority occurring before the mid-1990’s).
Ernie Allen, the director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said in an interview with Newsweek magazine, “We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else. I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others.”
But neither is sex abuse a distinctly religious problem. A 2004 report from the U.S. Department of Education indicated that one out of ten public school students experience some kind of unwanted sexual advance from an educator. Two-thirds of those students say the advance involved some kind of physical contact. According to the report’s author, “more than 4.5 million students are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and twelfth grade.”
Why, then, does the public still associate priests with sexual abuse and not public school teachers, who may be in the present moment more likely to abuse children?
Perhaps it’s because news media tend to report on crimes like clergy abuse in “waves” that can leave an impression in the public mind that they’re more common than they really are. (For example, pervasive media coverage of mass shootings may lead people to think violent crime is at an all-time high, but according to FBI statistics violent crime actually dropped by forty-eight percent between 1993 and 2016.) Also, since one-third of those who were abused between 1960 and 1980 waited to report the crime until after 2002, and since fresh reports of investigations, like that of the Pennsylvania grand jury this year, are treated as news even though the incidents they cover are usually decades old, there can be a compression of events that magnifies their perceived frequency.
In nearly all cases, opportunities for minor sexual abuse arise when an adult is alone with a child and is already accepted as an authority figure to be obeyed. This explains why churches, synagogues, and schools are such ripe environments for abuse. This also explains why Catholic clergy sex abuses dropped dramatically after 2002 when the USCCB instituted mandatory reporting guidelines and Catholic dioceses enacted “safe environment policies” that prohibited adults from being alone with minors except in approved situations.
In order to prevent this horrific crime from being committed against any child, we should continue to implement these policies and make sure they get applied to all Catholics—including bishops and other leaders in the Church’s hierarchy. We should also encourage non-Catholic organizations to adopt similar policies.
Religion reporter David Gibson summarizes their effectiveness: “The Catholic Church may be the safest place for children. Whatever its past record, the Catholic Church in the U.S. has made unparalleled strides in educating their flock about child sexual abuse and ensuring that children are safe in Catholic environments.”