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  Clergy Sexual Abuse: Facts, Myths and Questions

By Thomas J. Reese
The Tidings [United States]
February 24, 2006

http://www.the-tidings.com/2006/0224/myths.htm

For those who have been following the sexual abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church since the mid-1980s, the reports by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People provided confirmation of hunches and the destruction of myths. At the same time, they left many questions unanswered.

The myths have been promoted by people on both sides of the debate --- those who want to beat up on the church and those who want to downplay the crisis. But what are the facts reported in this study of sexual abuse in the church between 1950 and 2002?

Myth: Homosexuality caused the abuse crisis: Fact: No one knows the exact percentage of priests who are homosexual. Estimates have ranged from 10 percent to 60 percent. In any case, most homosexual priests were not involved in the sexual abuse of minors.

Myths About the Priests

Myth: Less than 1 percent of the clergy are involved in sexual abuse. Fact: 4,392 priests, or 4 percent of the total number of members of the Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002, have had allegations made against them.

Myth: Much of the abuse was not really serious. Fact: All incidents reported to John Jay involved more than verbal abuse or pornography. Only 3 percent of the acts involved only touching over the victim's clothes. On the other hand, 57 percent of the acts involved touching under the victim's clothes, 27 percent involved the cleric performing oral sex, and 25 percent involved penile penetration or attempted penetration.

Myth: Most of the abusers were serial offenders. Fact: 56 percent of priests had only one allegation against them. The 149 priests who had more than 10 allegations against them were responsible for abusing 2,960 victims, thus accounting for 27 percent of the allegations.

Myth: These offending priests were "dirty old men." Fact: Half the priests were 35 years of age or younger at the time of the first instance of alleged abuse.

Myth: Many of the abusive priests had been victims of sexual abuse as children. Fact: Fewer than 7 percent of the priests were reported to have experienced physical, sexual or emotional abuse as children.

Myth: Celibacy caused the sex abuse crisis. Fact: 96 percent of priests (all of them obliged by celibacy) were not involved in sexual abuse.

Myth: Homosexuality caused the abuse crisis: Fact: No one knows the exact percentage of priests who are homosexual. Estimates have ranged from 10 percent to 60 percent. In any case, most homosexual priests were not involved in the sexual abuse of minors.

Myth: Most abuse was done under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the priest did not know what he was doing. Fact: Although 19 percent of the accused priests had alcohol or substance abuse problems, only 9 percent used drugs or alcohol during the alleged instances of abuse.

Myths About the Victims

Myth: There were 60,000 to 100,000 victims of sexual abuse. Fact: While we know only the number of victims who reported their abuse to bishops, it is difficult to see how there could be 6 to 10 times as many victims as the number (10,667) who came forward.

Myth: The victims did not approach the church but sent their lawyers. Fact: Only 20 percent of the allegations were reported to the church by lawyers representing victims. Almost 50 percent of the allegations were reported by victims, plus another 14 percent by parents or guardians.

Myth: Most of the abuse occurred with older teenagers. Fact: Only 15 percent of the victims were 16 to 17 years of age; 51 percent were between the ages of 11 and 14.

Myth: Abusers targeted children of single mothers. Fact: Only 11 percent of victims were living with their mothers only. Almost 79 percent of the victims had both parents living at home.

Myth: Most abusers threatened their victims. Fact: Only 8 percent of victims were threatened by their abuser. Most abusers indulged in "grooming," a premeditated behavior intended to manipulate the potential victim into complying with the sexual abuse; 39 percent of the clerics offered alcohol or drugs to their victims.

Next: Father Reese assesses myths and facts about the church, and suggests the kind of additional research that is needed, as well as questions that need to be answered. Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese is the former editor in chief of America Magazine. This article is reprinted from America, Mar. 22, 2004 with the permission of America Press, Inc. (c) 2004. All rights reserved. For subscription information, visit www.americamagazine.org.

 
 

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