Top 10 Myths About Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church
The year anniversary of the PA grand jury report offers a point for reflection.
By Thomas G. Plante
August 1, 2019
Sexual abuse perpetrated by Roman Catholic priests has been headline news for years. But even with so much press attention, there are many commonly accepted myths about this issue. Remarkably, evidence-based research doesn't always receive attention, while sensationalized stories that create a particular—but sometimes false—narrative do. This ultimately misinforms and harms the public—not to mention efforts to keep kids safe in and outside of the Church.
As we approach the year anniversary of the recent uptick in media attention due to the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report (as well as the now-former Cardinal McCarrick abuse allegations), let’s review the top 10 myths about clerical abuse in the Catholic Church.
Myth 1: Sexual abuse is more common among Catholic priests than other groups of men.
About 4 percent of Catholic clerics had credible or substantiated accusations of child sexual abuse of minors (both prepubescent children and postpubescent teens) during the last half of the 20th century (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004, 2011). Research data, although from limited small scale studies, finds the prevalence of clerical abuse among non-Catholic religious communities consistent with the Catholics. If you review insurance claims against Church communities for sexual victimization perpetrated by their clerics, you’ll find that that there is no difference between Catholic and non-Catholic groups (Zech, 2011).
A U.S. Department of Education study found that about 6 percent of public schoolteachers had credible or substantiated claims of sexual abuse of minor children under their charge (Shakeshaft, 2004a, 2004b) during the same time frame as the Catholic clerical data was obtained. Furthermore, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) report that approximately 3 to 5 percent of men meet the diagnostic criteria for pedophilia. These numbers increase significantly if you include men who sexually violate postpubescent teenagers, which is illegal in most jurisdictions, but not a diagnosable psychiatric disorder according to the DSM-5.
In other words, there simply is no evidence that Catholic priests sexually abuse children or teens at rates higher than other groups of men, in or outside of religious communities; they may actually abuse at rates lower than the general population of men and of public schoolteachers during similar time periods.
Myth 2: Catholic clerical sexual abuse is still common today.
The relentless press attention gives the impression that sexual abuse of children is still commonplace in the Catholic Church, even though the vast majority of cases of clerical abuse occurred before the mid-1980s (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004, 2011). After the Church reforms articulated in the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002a, 2002b), the number of new cases in the United States averaged about a dozen per year; during the past five years, it went down to about one new case per year. The Church has gone from averaging about 660 new cases of abuse per year during the 1970s to about 1 new case per year since about 2014 (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2011; Steinfels, 2019; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2018). In fact, few realize that the well-known Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical abuse in that state during the past 70 years found only two cases from the 21st century—with both cases already known and managed (Office of Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2018; Steinfels, 2019).
Myth 3: Most clerical sex offenders victimize hundreds of children.
Sensational cases of clerical abuse dominate the press. The famous Fr. John Geoghan case in Boston that was highlighted in the 2002 Boston Globe’s Spotlight report included credible or substantiated reports of 138 victims over many years (Boston Globe Investigative Staff, 2002). Other famous cases (e.g., Fr. James Porter in Massachusetts and Fr. Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana) also included a large number of victims as well.
But these examples are actually anomalies. In reality, the average number of victims per offender is about one, and only 129 clerics accounted for more than a quarter of all known cases of abuse. This suggests that a very small number of serial offenders caused much of the abuse crisis (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004, 2011). The most common offense by far was fondling, not rape or penetration. Clerics raping young prepubescent victims were rare. The most common abuse story involved a cleric fondling one victim, who was typically a teenage boy. (Of course, all victimization is horrific and should be addressed.)
Myth 4: There have been fewer numbers of reported victims in recent years because it takes decades for them to come forward.
In the past, victims were reluctant to come forward and report abuse by Catholic clerics. This is also true of non-Catholic abuse cases, as well as abuse perpetrated by other high status and powerful individuals (e.g., teachers, coaches, esteemed relatives). Back in the mid to late 20th century, there were good reasons to keep reports of abuse quiet. First, no one would likely believe a child’s report of abuse, especially when the offender was a high-ranking and respected member of the community, such as a priest. Second, boys were not thought to be targeted as sexual abuse victims as people generally thought that only girls were victims. Third, law enforcement and health care professionals were not trained about the signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse until the mid-1980s. Fourth, mandated child abuse reporting laws didn’t become commonplace until the 1980s. And finally, victims were typically further victimized if they did come forward—they were routinely disbelieved or were blamed for whatever happened to them (see Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith, 1990; Shakeshaft, 2004a, 2004b).
Though barriers remain, many of these reasons to avoid reporting child abuse have significantly lessened in the 21st century. There are many more incentives to report abuse today than in the past. For example, cultural shifts mean that victims are more likely to be believed, cash settlements are often made available to victims, and mandated reporting laws make reporting more common than it once was. Research suggests that we should not necessarily expect a large wave of reports decades from now for clerical abuse committed in more recent years (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2011).
Myth 5: Homosexual men are to blame for the clerical abuse problem.
Many assume that homosexual men are the cause of the clerical sexual abuse problem in the Catholic Church. They note that about 80 percent of clerical abuse victims are boys (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004, 2011). Additionally, they report that Catholic clerics have a larger percentage of homosexual men than in the general population of men (Plante, 2007).
It is true that most victims of clerical abuse are boys. But research informs us that abusing clerics were “situational generalists” victimizing whoever they had access to and trust with (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2011; Terry & Ackerman, 2008). Priests, historically, had easy and regular access to boys more so than girls (e.g., altar servers, all-boy schools, and sports teams).
Furthermore, sexual orientation is not a risk factor for child sexual victimization. Homosexual men are, by definition, sexually interested in other men, not young children. Thus, blaming homosexual men for the clerical abuse problem in the Catholic Church isn’t supported by clinical or research data.
Myth 6: Mandatory celibacy causes Catholic priests to sexually abuse children.
Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy and thus are not allowed to be married or partnered (Coleman, 2006; Cozzens, 2006; Manuel 2012; US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006). Most other religious groups do not require celibacy of their clerics.
Many argue that celibacy places Catholic clerics at risk of sexually abusing children. This isn’t true. Celibacy for any reason—such as religious vows, not having a suitable sexual partner, conflictual partnered relationships, medical or psychiatric disabilities, or personal choice—does not turn someone into a pedophile where children become the object of sexual desire. Celibacy may cause challenges with adult sexual expression that might result in a priest violating their religious vows with other adults but it doesn’t increase the risk of child sexual abuse (Manuel, 2012).
Myth 7: The lack of female priests in the Catholic Church causes clerical abuse.
The Catholic Church has been criticized for years for not allowing women to be priests or deacons in the Church. Many believe that the Church would be better served if women could more fully participate in the Church by ordaining them to be clerics. Many argue that an all-male clerical system is sexist and discriminatory and limits the richness, talents, and unique perspectives that women would offer if they had equal access to the priesthood.
Men are statistically much more likely to sexually abuse children and teens than women (American Psychiatric Association, 2013; Finkelhor et al., 1990). Yet, female clerics wouldn’t necessarily stop male clerics from abusing children, and so female clerics wouldn't eliminate the risk associated with sexual abuse perpetrated by males.
Myth 8: All victims are being totally truthful.
Though most are, not every report of clerical sexual abuse is true. Some victims are sincere in their reporting but, sadly and tragically, their reports themselves are not truthful. Some victims have come forward, for instance, who experience significant psychopathologies such as schizophrenia and other thought disorders that involve delusions and hallucinations. Others have been susceptible to the suggestion of therapists, lawyers, the press, and others regarding repressed memories (Ahrens, 1995; Loftus, 2002 Price & McDonald, 2003). High-profile examples include abuse reports against Cardinal Bernadine in Chicago and Cardinal Mahoney in Los Angeles that were discovered to be false claims. And most tragically, some reports of abuse are intentionally untrue for those seeking large cash settlements or attention (Valladares, 2012).
While the majority of clerical abuse claims by victims appear to be true, some are not. Thus, careful investigations are needed for all claims, including those that happened many decades ago where confirmatory evidence may be hard or impossible to find.
Myth 9: Clerical offenders went into the priesthood so that they could abuse children.
Some people believe that clerical sex offenders went into the priesthood and attended seminary intentionally to get easy access to children so that they could abuse them. Research on sex offending clerics tells us that most of these men had no intentions of abusing anyone when they entered seminary (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2011; Plante, 1999, 2011). There simply is no evidence that these men decided to attend seminary to become priests with the express purpose of sexually abusing children.
Myth 10: The Church has done nothing to keep children safe and offending priests out of ministry.
Many believe that the Church has stonewalled any effort for reform. However, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken steps to address clerical sexual abuse. In 2002, the Conference passed the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms that outlines national policies and procedures based on evidence-based best practices for dealing with clerical abuse (US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002a, 2002b). The Charter requires all dioceses and religious orders in the United States to follow a series of strategies to combat clerical abuse. These include, (1) reporting all accusations of clerical abuse, no matter how long ago they occurred, to local law enforcement, (2) establishing and maintaining a lay review board of local experts representing relevant professionals such as law enforcement, child protection, mental health, and such to review all cases of reported abuse, (3) participating in yearly audits by an independent and secular auditing firm to ensure that all dioceses follow compliance efforts, (4) removing all creditably accused clerics from ministry for life and keep them away from the public, (5) hiring a victim assistance coordinator to support and advocate for victims of clerical abuse, and (6) offering safe environment child protection training for all involved with the Catholic Church including clerics, lay employees, volunteers, and even children. Additionally, maintaining a national review board for child protection that includes national experts (US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2018).
More can always be done to prevent child abuse and to be sure that those who might harm children are kept out of ministry. Vigilance is always important for children's safety. But the fact that credible accusations have been reduced to an average of one new case per year in the United States from levels that were almost 700 times higher several decades ago at least suggests that these best practices are actually working effectively (Steinfels, 2019; US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2018).
Commonly held myths regarding clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church need to be dispelled if we are wish to understand clerical sexual abuse in the Church and to be prepared to do all that we can to prevent it from occurring in the future. Fortunately, best practices and quality research data is available to both provide safe environments for children in the church and to screen and better manage potential or current clerics that could be at risk of harming children (Praesidium, 2001).
An emotionally charged topic like child sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests elicits strong feelings from people in and outside of the Catholic Church. The story has resulted in national and international headline news on a regular basis for almost 20 years. It is critically important to dispel myths about this problem and separate facts from fiction in order to ensure that children are safe both within and outside of the Catholic community and that those who might harm children are identified and prevented from access to them. To do otherwise would certainly be scandalous.
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About the Author
Thomas Plante, Ph.D., ABPP, is a professor at Santa Clara University and an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.