The Roman Catholic Church in the United States must regard 2002 as one of the most traumatic years in Her history.  Any Catholic who hoped that the media might eventually find a new subject for horror stories would have been further disheartened this past January, when television and print media suggested that a whole new chapter was about to open in the ongoing abuse scandals.  After a year of cases reputedly involving child abuse and “pedophilia,”  the headlines suddenly screamed of the victimization of nuns, who apparently were being violated in astonishing numbers.  Within days of the original story, the claim that 40 percent of American nuns had been raped or molested, usually by priests, had become a social fact, part of the common currency of charges against the Catholic Church.  With solemn determination, American lawyers began to face the task—thankless but, nevertheless, immensely profitable—of litigating on behalf of this new category of victims.

It might already be too late to stem this particular tide, but before we get too far into this latest “crisis,” we should note that the whole Nun Affair presented by the media is profoundly misleading and founded on very weak evidence.  The fact that claims were broadcast so widely, and in such hysterical terms, is stark testimony to the loathing with which much of the U.S. media seems to regard the Catholic Church and Her clergy.

The Nuns’ Story originally had quite reputable roots.  In the mid-1990’s, a group of researchers at Jesuit-founded St. Louis University undertook a large-scale survey of sisters, of whom 1,100 responded.  That is a large sample, likely to be representative of the wider population.  The researchers were careful to distinguish different types of misconduct and varying grades of severity.  Where they ran into a problem was in using language that normally carries implications far beyond the strict technical meaning.  For instance, if someone says, “My daughter was abused,” that phrase conjures up nightmare images of criminal molestation that may fall short of actual rape but would, undoubtedly, be very traumatic for the victim and her family.  Some of the nuns responding to the survey were, in fact, reporting assaults of this kind.  One woman said that “a priest fondled one of her breasts during confession.”  By any conventional standard, that represents assault, and the offender is and should be liable for criminal penalties.

Although the researchers spoke repeatedly of abuse or victimization, however, only a small minority of the cases they reported could really be understood in this way.  In fact, the St. Louis survey strongly recalled those now notorious reports of the 1980’s in which various feminist academics claimed that some mind-bogglingly high number of women had been subject to rape, molestation, or sexual assault.  Just what was the rate of abuse?  Well, what would you like?  A quarter of all women?  Half?  Just choose your survey.  What was happening, of course, was that researchers were defining assault in some hopelessly vague sense and then finding that large numbers of women were agreeing that, yes, this had happened to them.

And the St. Louis study definitely included such very broad categories.  To quote the report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (January 5): “The first [category], child sexual abuse, was defined as any sexually oriented contact with a person of the same or opposite sex where the target is younger than 18.  The second, sexual exploitation, was defined as any sexual advance, request for sexual favors, or other verbal or nonverbal sexual conduct that occurs when a woman entrusts her property, body, mind or spirit to another person acting in a professional role.  The third, sexual harassment, was defined as any unwelcome sexual advance that affects employment decisions, interferes with work, or creates a hostile or intimidating work environment.”  Note that, in each of these categories, the definition largely depends on the subjective interpretation that a given individual puts on a particular event.  One woman may not even notice a nudie calendar in an office; another might think it a powerful sexual threat.  One woman may scoff at a request for a date; another might decide she has been harassed or exploited.  Responses can vary just as widely to a hand on the knee, a late-night phone call, an invitation to get a drink.  And the “child abuse” category seems to include the startling claim that any sexual interaction with a girl under 18 constitutes abuse.  As written, that certainly includes “petting” with another teenager after the prom.  With terms and definitions so hopelessly vague, it is amazing that the reported proportion of “victims” was anything less than 100 percent.

Against this background, just what horrors did the survey reveal?  First, priests and religious were not, in fact, terribly likely to abuse.  Twenty percent of nuns reported being victims of “child abuse” (sic), but mainly at the hands of nonclerical male relatives.  Around eight percent of nuns claimed some kind of “exploitation” by priests or other nuns, but this conduct included virtually any behavior that the individual might construe, plausibly or not, as a sexual advance.  Taking a still more nebulous category, around five percent of nuns reported some kind of “harassment” from clergy or religious.  In each category, clergy and religious represented only a small part of the overall problem of victimization.

Based on this survey, we can reasonably say that, over the decades, nuns have faced a problem of unwanted sexual advances, though it is far from clear that they are more exposed to them than are  women in any other profession or career.  Nor is there any reason to believe that priests, religious, or other nuns are terribly likely to abuse—though the tolerance of lesbianism in more liberated orders might open the way to greater harassment.  We can reasonably read the St. Louis survey and say: This is a crisis?

Nothing in the report conceivably justifies the media reports last January that—while not actually falsifying evidence—lumped together very different kinds of activity to generate a crisis of “sexual victimization.”  The headline story in the Post-Dispatch repeatedly implied both that vast numbers of nuns were being raped and violated—rather than just placed in situations that some found embarrassing—and that the victimization was stem-ming from clergy of the ever-sinister Catholic Church.  On the first count, one of the original researchers declared that “Catholic sisters are being violated, in their ministries, at work, in pastoral counseling.”  This point was reinforced by the vignettes used to illustrate the story, such as the tale of the priest whose hands wandered during Confession.  Reading the news story casually, we would undoubtedly assume that molestation or rape was the fate of the “forty percent” of nuns who “have suffered some form of sexual trauma.”  And once a neat figure like 40 percent enters popular discourse, it tends to live on, despite all subsequent efforts at debunking.  Didn’t you know that 40 percent of nuns have been raped?  Experts have proved that.

And who has been guilty of this systematic mass rape?  The original study made it relatively clear that clergy represented only a minority of misconduct; in the news stories, however, priests were front and center.  To quote the Post-Dispatch once more, “Already shaken by a yearlong sex abuse scandal involving priests and minors, the Roman Catholic Church has yet to face another critical challenge—how to help thousands of nuns who say they have been sexually victimized.”  That sentence is little short of brilliant.  It says nothing inaccurate—the Church is indeed shaken; nuns may have been sexually victimized—but the juxtaposition implies that the Nun Crisis is, in fact, a subset of the larger pattern of abuse, in which priests molested and bishops hushed up the crimes.  And, lest it be thought that I am drawing extravagant conclusions, it was fascinating to watch the head-lines that other papers composed when they picked up the syndicated Post-Dispatch story.  Repeatedly, they presented the story as if priests were raping and molesting nuns—and in legions.  In its headline, my local Knight-Ridder newspaper gave prominence to three key words—Nuns, Abused, and PriestsSee?  Those priests are at it again.  Aren’t altar boys enough for them?

The St. Louis survey is a profoundly unsensational document that does not paint a hostile or even controversial picture of the Catholic Church.  In fact, it was little noticed when it was originally reported in 1996, or when summaries appeared in learned journals two years afterward.  It is only in the aftermath of the recent child sexual-abuse crisis, which reached its height in Boston, that the media decided to exploit this old story to put another nail in the Catholic coffin.  The current attention focused on this nonstory is a telling illustration of how far the media is prepared to go to attack the Cath-olic Church and how many people are prepared to accept these charges without question.  The only remaining question is: Why don’t they just quit stalling and re-print The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk?