For over a decade, the Roman Catholic Church has been in deep crisis over the issue of sexual abuse by Her clergy. That some priests had molested or raped children was indisputable, but just how many had offended? The numbers are more than a simple matter of statistical curiosity. While everyone agrees that “one case is too many,” our view of the priesthood must be radically different if misbehavior was (and is) generalized and systematic rather than the responsibility of a couple of notorious rogues. How many pedophile priests are out there?
Finally, we have the answer to this question, or at least the nearest approach we are going to get. Under overwhelming public pressure, the Catholic bishops sponsored an independent report undertaken by the highly reputable John Jay College of Criminal Justice. (The full text of the report, released on February 27, can be obtained online at catholic-review-board.com/johnjaypdfindex.html). At first glance, the numbers sound appalling. As newspapers and television news programs noted, between 1950 and 2002, 4,392 priests were accused of abuse—a daunting number—and this group was accused of molesting 10,667 victims below the age of 18. As victims’-rights groups immediately complained, the likelihood that other instances of abuse had gone unreported meant that even these victimization figures might represent only the tip of an iceberg. Surely, not even the most sanguine member of the hierarchy could possibly take comfort in these findings.
Yet, once we have acknowledged the undoubted reality of abuse, and all the attendant emotional suffering, the report actually raises many significant questions about the popular stereotype of the “abuse crisis,” and, particularly, about its causes. And—though this was little noticed at the time—the report has quite explosive implications for understanding the recent history of the Catholic Church in America.
The primary question, of course, is how prevalent abusive behavior is and was among the Catholic clergy, and, in fact, the report reinforces the lower and more conservative estimates. While the roster of abusive priests certainly omits some unreported cases, it also includes instances of priests who have been accused on weak or shaky evidence. Investigators are counting all charges “not withdrawn or known to be false,” and total exoneration is a very high standard. The list thus includes allegations that would not have surfaced except in the furor of 2002-03. (An incredible one third of all accusations date from this two-year period, when priestly misdeeds hit the headlines almost daily). Of the 4,392 accused priests, almost 56 percent faced only one allegation of misconduct, and at least some of these would vanish under detailed scrutiny.
Anyone who has dealt with clergy-abuse cases knows that the victims run the full gamut of plausibility. The great majority are unquestionably sincere souls who have been deeply traumatized by their awful experiences, but a minority of accusers are blatantly in it for the money. These are the entrepreneurs who wait until after Father X dies to allege that he fondled them 30 years ago, an impossible charge either to verify or to contest. Given the legal environment today, however, cynical accusers know that an embattled diocese is likely to settle rather than face a hostile jury. A few so-called victims—a truly dangerous group—are disturbed individuals who have convinced themselves that they were victimized by priests, usually in impossible settings, and, again, their charges would not have been taken seriously in most previous eras. Fifteen years ago, they would have been denouncing satanic covens rather than priests.
In short, balancing the undercounting with the overreporting, the four-percent figure is probably a realistic estimate of the actual number of priests who have engaged in some form of abusive behavior. For what it is worth, my own estimate has been around three percent, though, in my book The New Anti-Catholicism, I gave the likely range as between one and five percent. If my estimate was marginally on the low side, I was nowhere near as wildly off as the vociferous advocates of a “Clergy Crisis” who gave the proportion of abusive priests as 10 or 20 percent, or more. One victim group, The Linkup, calculates that “Estimates of pedophile priests = 3,000 (6.1%) to 8,000 (16.3%) . . . Current experts claim a pedophile could abuse 200-265 children in a lifetime . . . 188 Bishops are responsible for the pain of at least 601,600 direct victims and as many as 9,475,200 indirect victims—a total of as many as 10,076,800 people” (theharrowing.com/stats.html). And that would not include priests active with teenagers, who could represent another ten percent or so of abusive clergy. As the John Jay investigators have now shown, such numbers, stemming from anticlerical activist groups, are commonly pseudostatistics.
The Linkup figures also point to another common belief that is now shattered—namely, that each abusive priest targeted vast numbers of children and youngsters. Fr. Andrew Greeley once suggested that each and every errant priest would have molested 50 or more victims. According to the evidence, though, over half of accused priests faced just one allegation, and the real problem was an extremely small core of highly persistent serial pedophiles, who massively “over-produced” criminal behavior—men such as John Geoghan or James Porter. Each of these serial molesters provoked ten or more allegations, and some were the targets of hundreds of plausible complaints. A select group of just 149 men accounted for over a quarter of all of the allegations from the entire half-century.
Looking at the report’s comprehensive tables, it seems that most dioceses were doing a surprisingly good job coping with reports of misbehavior, working as they did on the apparently correct assumption that, once a complaint was received about a priest, he would not reoffend. The well-publicized disasters occurred with the hard core of unstoppable serial offenders, a type of sexual deviant that was scarcely recognized in the criminological literature until very recent times. The fact that such cases proliferated in some areas—above all, Boston—indicates a massive administrative failure in those regions but not a situation that was typical of the whole Church.
By the way, the 149 priestly superpredators also distort the study in other ways. Reading the report, many were struck by the remarkably high number of very young victims, suggesting that a high proportion of abusive clergy were true pedophiles. In fact, a large proportion of the young children listed were the victims of the small cohort of extreme multiple offenders. Including these cases serves to lower the average age of the total victim population. While few priests are pedophiles, pedophilic priests claim a vastly disproportionate number of victims.
Let me suggest a slightly different way—a rather more positive way—of interpreting the figures in the John Jay report. Over the past half-century, the overwhelming majority of Catholic priests—24 out of 25—never once attracted an allegation of sexual misconduct with minors, even in the overheated and litigious atmosphere of the past three years. As for serial pedophiles—those monsters of the popular stereotype—they were extraordinarily rare, accounting for perhaps one priest out of every 750.
In any given year in this same long period, out of a Church averaging around 50,000 priests and 45 to 55 million members, perhaps 200 children were abused or molested nationwide, a disproportionately high number of them in Boston and New England. As to whether this overall figure is large or small relative to other institutions, we simply do not know, because no other social or professional group has ever been subjected to anything like the same scrutiny. Nor can it be known whether this represents a distinctly Catholic crisis. Since the term crisis indicates acute severity, however, we must ask: Acute compared to what? I would like to see the John Jay team let loose, with comparably intrusive powers of access, among the files of the nation’s public-school teachers.
For the sake of argument, however, let us grant that the Catholic Church faces and has faced a persistent and wide-ranging problem of clerical misbehavior. What were its causes? Perhaps surprisingly, given its remit, the new report not only describes patterns of abuse but strongly suggests an historical and social context: Almost certainly, we are looking at the effects of the Second Vatican Council on the Church in America. This is evident from the demographic characteristics of the accused priests. No less than a quarter were ordained between 1960 and 1969, and the typical “profile” of abusive clergy points to a man born about 1940 and ordained at the end of the 1960’s. Equally suggestive is what we now know about the date at which the recorded misbehavior occurred. One astonishing table (page 19 of the report) shows a Himalayan peak in reported abuse between 1975 and 1980, an awful six-year period that produced over 40 percent of all recorded incidents for the whole 52-year era under study. Reported incidents have plummeted since the late 80’s, and this change probably reflects a real decline of abusive behavior. Certainly, the vast majority of dioceses toughened their response to abuse in these years, and most introduced quite draconian codes of conduct in response to the crises of 1992-94. In that sense, the nightmare is past or passing.
Though the correlation of clerical misbehavior with the post-Vatican II era looks solid, the reasons for the linkage are open to debate. Probably, moral and disciplinary controls over priests did undergo a grave decline, in consequence of the hemorrhage of men leaving the priesthood. Higher authorities simply tolerated levels of misbehavior that they would once have stamped on in the knowledge that the offenders could easily be replaced—but that older assumption was no longer valid in 1975 or 1980. Also, clergy in the 60’s and 70’s were not immune from social pressures toward sexual experimentation, the sense that old injunctions against adultery or pederasty were destined to perish in the new age of ethical relativism. The “typical” offender grew up within the certainties of the church of the 1950’s and saw them progressively demolished in the late 60’s: Perhaps naturally, he saw no reason why the process would not continue indefinitely. Why should he not indulge his desires?
For whatever reason, the “abuse crisis” has to be seen as a generational phenomenon, associated especially with a cohort of priests who began their careers in post-Vatican II chaos. A startling ten percent of priests ordained in 1970 would ultimately be the focus of abuse allegations. (In recording this grim fact, we should not, of course, forget that, even in these years, the vast majority of priests would remain true to their vocations.)
To turn to a still-more-explosive theory: How far was the abuse problem a homosexual issue? Responding to the release of the John Jay report, the Washington Times headlined “Gay Priests Cited In Abuse Of Boys.” Justifying this statement, the newspaper stressed the heavy preponderance of young male victims, which apparently has grown substantially over the decades. But the homosexual element of the story is at once exaggerated in some ways and underplayed in others. The fact that most of the priests studied abused boys rather than girls does not, of course, imply that male homosexuals as such have any particular tendency toward child molestation, so, to that extent, any “gay” emphasis would be misplaced. Yet having said this, adult homosexual men may well have a sexual interest in male teenagers, just as some heterosexual men are attracted to 16-year-old girls. This kind of attraction accounts for a large component of the “single complaint” clergy cases, and this element of the problem can legitimately be linked to homosexuality within the priesthood. Much of the problem involves not pedophilia or molestation, but pederasty—that all-but-forgotten word. To some extent, the peak of clerical abuse does correlate with the growth of homosexual clerical subcultures during the 1970’s.
Though ostensibly a close study of a clerical “crime wave,” the John Jay report offers rich materials that illuminate many other aspects of Church life and development. And, though the data can be interpreted in many ways, one powerful theme seems to be a grave indictment of Church administration and clerical culture in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. I wonder if the criminologists and social scientists involved realized what a contribution they were making to modern church history?