Sexual Abuse by Catholic Clergy and Laypersons in France: How Many Victims?

Bitter Winter - Center for Studies on New Religions [Torino, Italy]

February 25, 2022

By Massimo Introvigne

The number of 300,000+ mentioned in a 2021 report, now seems uncertain and is hotly debated. But the problems for the Catholic Church remains huge.

In October 2021, the Commission indépendante sur les abus sexuels dans l’Église (CIASE, Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the [Catholic] Church) released its report. The CIASE studied sexual abuse in a Catholic context rather than sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy only, as it also included abuse perpetrated by laypersons associated with Catholic institutions. Although the detail was overlooked by some foreign media, the CIASE was “independent” in the sense that the Catholic Church did not control its work and results, but it was appointed and funded by the French Catholic Bishops, not by the government or by any other secular institution.

The report concluded that between 1950 and 2020 the victims of sexual abuse in a Catholic context in France had been 330,000, of which 216,000 were abused by Catholic priests, monks, and nuns. Not unexpectedly, the report generated headlines throughout the world. The first reaction by the Catholic Church was of shame and repentance, expressed both by the French Bishops and the Vatican.

However, after the dust settled, doubts were raised about how the CIASE had obtained its figures. Eight members of the Catholic Academy, all well-known scholars, criticized the methodology adopted by CIASE. The commission and its  president Jean-Marc Sauvé reacted strongly in interviews both with printed and electronic media, and published a long answer with several new documents.

What is the interest of this controversy? As a scholar who has studied the pedophile crisis in the Catholic Church, and a participant in past projects, both sponsored by the Vatican and by secular institutions, about the issue, my answer is that the debate may be qualified either (or both) as irrelevant or of some significance, depending on the perspective.

Statistical controversies are ultimately irrelevant is what we are discussing is the responsibility of the Catholic clerics (and some laypersons) who sexually abused children, women, and men, and of the bishops who failed in their duty to control them. The CIASE and its critics agree on some essential points: that the victims in France were several thousands; that some perpetrators continued their crimes for years and the bishops were either unwilling or incapable to stop them; and that some bishops actively hid their criminal pedophile priests from prosecution by secular authorities.

This is one of the most dramatic crisis in the long history of the French Catholic Church (and of the international Church as well, of course), and may well be the most shameful. If there had been one or ten victims, it would already be a shame. Since victims were certainly in the thousands, there are no words to describe the tragedy, and the bishops who did nothing or did not do enough are inexcusable.

On the other hand, whether the victims were 30,000 (admittedly a totally hypothetical figure) or 300,000 has an interest, more than for the general public, for the social scientists studying the phenomenon and for the Catholic and secular authorities called to address it. 30,000 victims would already reveal a systemic problem, but whether the real number is 30,000 or 300,000 is of some importance for comparative studies of the Catholic Church and other institutions, and for fine-tuning the measures that should be imperatively adopted.

A risk in the debate, which Sauvé did not avoid when he delivered strong-worded and emotional answers to a technical criticism and claimed that his opponents were “in denial” or defending a “clerical church,” is to consider any attempt to discuss the CIASE methodology and its figures as a form of disrespect for the victims. On the contrary, victims or potential victims are best served by studies as accurate as possible.

Were the CIASE figures accurate? I will ignore here the criticism of the Catholic academics, since while illustrious in their fields they may have a conflict of interest. I will focus on a document commissioned and published by CIASE itself among those prepared to answer the Catholic academics. It is a report by five inspectors generals of the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (INSEE, National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), the national statistics bureau of France placed under the authority of the Ministry of Finances. This is a secular and official institution, and the inspectors were asked by Sauvé to help him answer his Catholic critics.

They tried their best to humor Sauvé, and stated repeatedly that it cannot be proved that his figures are false. However, being serious professionals, they also wrote that the arguments supporting the figures are “fragile.” To understand their caution, we should explain how the CIASE arrived at its results. First, our patient readers need to understand what an Access Panel is.

It is a group of Internet users who have agreed in general to participate in online surveys, and have supplied certain demographic data allowing for a better sample selection. I have been myself the partner of a company specialized in surveys about brands and products for thirty years, and I know that an Access Panel is a crucial asset for such companies.

The CIASE used an Access Panel managed by a company called Bilendi. Its Access Panel includes 760,000 panelists but for the CIASE research a subpanel of 243,600 panelists was selected. Of these, 46,014 answered the questionnaire, but to guarantee certain proportions between different categories of respondents, 28,010 answers were kept for the analysis. Of these 28,010 online respondents, 171 claimed to have been abused in a Catholic context, and 118 of the 171 said they had been abused by priests or male or female members of religious orders.

The CIASE or, more exactly, the INSERM (Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale, the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, which in turn worked through IFOP, the Institut français d’opinion publique, French Institute of Public Opinion, a highly respected polling and market research firm) that conducted the research for the CIASE, then used a mathematical proportion.

If there were 171/118 victims among 28,010 French citizens, how many victims would there have been among the general population? Since the second figure for the period 1950–2020 is known, the calculation is comparatively simple, and gives the figure of 330,000 victims, of which 216,000 may have been victims of priests or male or female members of religious orders.

Let me explain for the non-professionals that this is not unusual. It is a normal way of proceeding in market researches. However, the companies that sell and buy market researches, conducted through the use of Access Panels, know that they do not offer “the truth,” but merely indicate a trend. The problem is that in this case the public opinion has been told that the figures were “true.” The INSEE inspectors note that an Access Panel includes only those in the general population that have a good Internet literacy and are willing to participate in online surveys.

Obviously, this excludes large parts of the population. Second, even among the members of the Access Panel selected for the research, “81% did not activate the link, notwithstanding two reminders.” Third, while the methodologies of INSERM and IFOP, which are highly respected organizations are known, much less is known about how Bilendi, which managed the Access Panel, operates.

Again, one should not suspect conspiracies here. Market research companies defend the confidentiality of their Access Panels and their methods because this is, after all, what they sell. However, there is a widespread debate about Internet market research companies, their methods, and their Access Panels, and within this debate skeptical opinions about the results are often formulated by scholars and professionals.

Keeping in mind that the INSEE inspectors opinion had been solicited to help CIASE answer the Catholic academics’ criticism, it is highly significant that they note that they “cannot guarantee that there is not a significant bias that may have affected the final results. It is the Access Panel phase that prevents us to come to totally reassuring conclusions.” Obviously, the inspectors “cannot state that the estimations are far away from the true figures either.” Simply, they don’t know. While serious institutions have been involved, “nothing can guarantee that the Access Panel did not have an unbalanced structure,” which in this case would have generated unreliable results. And, just as the inspectors don’t know, we don’t know.

Journalists have commented the INSEE inspector document and the controversy, but I am not sure they fully appreciate the technical problems. A journalist specialized in religious issues such as Jean-Marie Guénois noted in Le Figaro how far the CIASE report figures were from different works counting the victims who started a legal or canonical action (4,832, according to a study of the École pratique des hautes études, EPHE) or who answered a previous request for witnesses by the same CIASE (2,738).

There are good reasons to argue that these figures were too low: for a number of reasons, many victims do not testify and do not file actions. Yet, many doubts on the spectacularly higher CIASE 2021 estimation remain.

My conclusion is that there is no conspiracy and nothing specially sinister in the CIASE/INSERM/IFOP way of calculating, as normal methods used in normal researches were used. As the INSEE inspectors write, there are elements indicating that the CIASE results may be close to the reality, but there are other elements that would lead to the conclusion that they are “fragile” and uncertain. It would perhaps be important to explain to the general public that these are hypothetical estimations obtained through mathematical formulas.

Let me reiterate once again that even if one concludes that the “fragility” evidenced by the INSEE inspectors supports the conclusion that the CIASE figures are exaggerated, this does not change the fact that thousands, and probably tens of thousands—although perhaps not hundreds of thousands—of French citizens were sexually abused between 1950 and 2020 in a Catholic context, most of them by the clergy; that this could not have happened without serious shortcomings and, in some cases, complicity by the bishops; and that the tragedy evidences systemic problems in the Catholic Church that should be acknowledged and addressed.

On the other hand, a serious and necessarily technical discussion on the figures may help those called to study preventive measures for the future. Accusing those who doubt the CIASE numbers of trying to justify the crimes that manifested themselves within the Catholic Church is worse than a misunderstanding. It is a form of intolerance, which makes any serious discussion impossible.