Press Accounts of Abuse Miss Half the Story
Clergy Sex Assaults on Children May Be Largely a Problem of the Past

By William Bole
National Catholic Reporter
February 20, 2004

With all the revelations about Roman Catholic priests and their sexual sins, there would seem to be little left to say about the history of clergy sexual abuse. But one thing that has been scarcely said is that the problem as we know it is most likely a matter of history.

The impression usually left by media accounts is that sexual abuse of minors is a recent or ongoing scourge in the Catholic church. Plaintiffs’ lawyers proclaim the abuse “will never stop” unless the church has to pay, big time, for these crimes. In a cover story last year, one national Catholic magazine did its part by asking, “Are our children safe yet?”

Lawyers are right to seek justice for victims. Journalists are right to dissect the church’s response to this crisis. But what if the molestation of minors is something that happened a long time ago in the church and has rarely happened since, as far as anyone knows? What if the kids have been safe in the church, or as safe as anywhere else, for two decades or longer?

That would be closer to the empirical truth as understood by most experts on this subject. By nearly all accounts, most of the known cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests occurred well before the 1990s. Some researchers have even traced these offenses primarily to a cohort of men who graduated from seminary in the early 1970s, at the height of the sexual revolution in the United States.

Later this month, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice will release a church-commissioned study that promises to throw some authoritative light on this question. But there will be public clarity only if the news media takes notice; recent experience raises doubt.

Consider the blistering report on six decades of clergy sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese issued by Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas Reilly last July.

Sexual abuse by Catholic priests was portrayed in the report as “one of the greatest tragedies to befall children” in Massachusetts. Speaking to the press, Reilly went all the way, calling it “the” greatest tragedy among the state’s children -- “ever.” Similarly alarming was the language in the report, suggesting that the archdiocese has still not reined in predatory priests.

At the same time, there was a chart on Page 12 of the Reilly report that, strictly by numbers, drew a different picture.

There were 789 alleged victims who complained directly to the archdiocese over six decades, and the chart showed that most of these cases (445) dated to the 1960s and 1970s. Only 33 of the cases were linked to abuse in the years between 1993 and 2000.

Those numbers indicated that the archdiocese, however callously it handled many complaints, had been getting the abuse problem under control for a decade or longer.

Even so, the report referred to the decades -- including the 1990s -- when there was a “growing problem of clergy sexual abuse of children” in the archdiocese. That generalization (“growing”) conflicted with the document’s own chronologies.

Reilly was, of course, acting as a law enforcement official. It was up to reporters to offset the prosecutorial spin. Very few did. The Boston Globe ran 10 articles about the report, and not one alluded to the finding that the vast majority of alleged incidents took place in the fairly distant past. To be honest, NCR made no mention of it, either.

Keep in mind that the Boston archdiocese was notorious in its response to many sexual-abuse allegations. It egregiously violated guidelines put in place by the U.S. bishops in the early 1990s. So, one might suspect that if anything, the cases were proliferating in Boston more recently than in other dioceses. In the wider church, these dreadful events may be even farther behind us.

Admittedly, nobody really knows if the abuse has stopped in the church -- and every expert will say it has certainly not stopped in the broader society. It is conceivable that years from now, victims will reveal many such acts committed by clergy during this decade, just as we have learned belatedly of children victimized in the 1970s.

That is a terrifying possibility, but is it likely? One crucial difference today is that (thanks in part to NCR and The Boston Globe) the subject of sexual abuse in the church is no longer cloaked in silence. Victims are speaking out, knowing they will be heard and compensated.

In addition, Santa Clara University psychologist Thomas G. Plante points out that most child molesters have multiple victims, but it takes only one victim to expose an abuser. Plante makes a compelling argument that if serious numbers of priests were out there preying on even larger numbers of children, we would have some inkling of it.

In other words, sexual assaults on children in the Catholic church may well be largely a thing of the past, though it is a scandal of the present. That is according to the best available evidence -- which is not quite available in press accounts. Readers are still left with the vague impression of a continuing plague in the church.

At this turn in the clergy sexual abuse crisis, perhaps it is the press that needs to be probed.

William Bole is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Commonweal magazine and other publications. He lives in Massachusetts.


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