The U.S. Catholic Church is still shuddering
from the effects of the sexual abuse crisis. Most Catholics are still critical of the church's handling of the
matter, and one in 10 are considering leaving the faith altogether. Some believe that clerical celibacy is at the
core of the crisis, while others blame the all-male character of the priesthood. Reading such accounts, though,
it's easy to forget that we have not the slightest idea how serious the abuse problem is among Catholic priests
as opposed to other professionals dealing with children.
That statement may sound outrageous — of course Catholic priests have a huge abuse problem! But why do we think
that? News stories frequently note similar cases involving members of a wide range of professions, not just clergy of all denominations but also scoutmasters and secular schoolteachers.
So how do their rates of abuse compare with those of priests? We have precisely no evidence on the issue.
No reputable scholar has ever conducted a survey of the abuse problem as it affects any other profession, in a
way that would allow us to make direct comparisons with the Catholic clergy. If anyone believes that priests offend
at a higher rate than teachers or non-celibate clergy, then they should produce the evidence on which they are
basing that conclusion. I know of none. Saying "everybody knows" does not constitute scientific methodology.
Beyond question, though, the abuse issue affects non-Catholic settings. Particularly eye-opening is the detailed
report on; " Educator
that Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft compiled
for the U.S. Department
of Education in 2004.
Among other findings, we read that about 10% of secular school pupils in grades eight to 11 report having been
at the receiving end of such sexual misconduct, broadly defined. That does not mean that 10% of teachers misbehave,
rather that a tiny number offend frequently, and egregiously: very much the same situation, in fact, as among Catholic
Why, then, do we hear so much about Catholic cases? What is different about the Catholic Church is the manner in
which its problems have come to light, and this involves both the nature of the institution itself and the workings
of the law. As a result, the church is much more open to civil litigation than any other institution. These lawsuits
allow the exposure of numerous cases that would never have surfaced if the perpetrators were not priests.
The next time you read an account of an abuse scandal affecting priests, note the time frame in which the acts
allegedly occurred. Almost certainly, it will date from long ago, probably 30 years or more. Why is that? Typically,
an individual sues a church over abuse that he suffered in his childhood, and in the Catholic context, he might
well find written evidence to confirm his charges of misconduct long ago. He is, after all, dealing with an institution
that prizes its collective memory and preserves records dating back centuries. The victim can not only find embarrassing
information about Father John Doe, but his lawyers also then can force a diocese to disclose ever more information
about ancient charges against other priests, which can lead into other jurisdictions. One case thus becomes the
basis for a whole network of interlocking investigations. Perhaps it's good that such older abuse cases are still
coming to light, but the long passage of time makes it very unlikely that the charges can be investigated in a
fair or reliable way.
Nor does the plaintiff in a civil case have to meet the high standards of a criminal case, of proof beyond a reasonable
doubt. He just has to convince a jury that his allegations are more probably true than not. Most civil cases involving
priestly abuse go forward on the basis of evidence that would not stand up in a criminal court. Often, dioceses
settle dubious cases to avoid expensive legal proceedings, but such closure can be a mixed blessing. Whatever the
merits of the particular case, critics take the fact of settling to suggest that the church is paying blood money
to conceal its crimes. That's not just a church problem. Celebrities and corporations face the same problem, that
the public does not understand the workings of litigation.
As the resulting Catholic horror stories accumulate, so many media organizations develop a ready-made format for
reporting them, a familiar mythology of specifically Catholic malpractice. Saying that does not mean charging any
particular news outlet with deliberate religious prejudice: Some go to great lengths to be fair to accused clergy.
But when we approach the issue as a specifically Catholic one, we inevitably cast the church as villain, to the
exclusion of other interpretations. The more firmly the public accepts the image of the sinister priest, the harder
it becomes to find juries who will disbelieve abuse allegations. The more cases are reported, the more people come
forward to publicize their own complaints. Most plaintiffs are reporting genuine victimization, but some are not.
Abuse in public
Few institutions, secular or religious, offer anything like the same advantages for plaintiffs. The internal records
of other bodies are rarely as thorough as those kept by the Catholic Church, and they lack the elaborate organizational
framework. It's simply not as easy to dredge up old cases. And specific legal oddities mean that it's much harder
to sue other institutions. As public entities, public schools, for instance, operate under governmental or sovereign
immunity. While schools can be sued, plaintiffs face restrictions that don't apply to Catholic dioceses. Financial
liability is limited, and complaints have to be brought within a set time, using rigid administrative procedures.
As a result, at least until recently, it just was not possible to pursue cases from long ago.
But that might be changing. Recently, plaintiffs have found ways to sue public schools for abuse they suffered
long ago, charging that school districts violated their federal civil rights to receive an education free of the
menace of harassment or sexual discrimination. In one well-publicized case that should serve as a national wake-up
call, a woman won
a $3.7 million judgment
against a Kentucky school district for sexual abuse she experienced in the late 1970s. However widely this particular
decision may apply, it's very likely that such lawsuits will spread in coming years, so that we will undoubtedly
be hearing a great deal more about abusive educators.
Presently, though, pedophile pastors or teachers are little known to the general public, while pedophile priests
have become a familiar villain. In consequence, cases of abusive priests are reported as part of a systematic crisis
within a deeply flawed church, while non-Catholic offenders are treated as isolated villains, just bad apples within
The sexual exploitation of children is a heinous offense with lifelong consequences, and the trauma is all the
greater when the offender is a trusted mentor, a pastor, priest, or teacher. It is profoundly unjust to focus all
our attention on the victims of one type of perpetrator to the exclusion of others.
Philip Jenkins is the author of Pedophiles and
Priests and the
Acknowledgement to USATODAY