Shocking statistics

Catholic Herald [London, England]

February 21, 2022

By David Quinn

An extraordinary claim appeared in a column by Matthew Syed in the Sunday Times yesterday, namely that up to a million Italian children have been abused by Italian priests since 1950. No-one can fail to have been shocked by such a figure, but from where does it originate? The answer is that it comes from a member of ‘The Abuse Network’ which is calling on the Church in Italy to investigate clerical sex abuse as has happened recently in France and Germany. Speaking to The Times, Francesco Zanardi (pictured above), himself an abuse victim and member of ‘The Abuse Network’, said: “I believe the number of victims could be as high as a million here”.

But what does he base that figure on? What he has done is extrapolate from a number that appears in the recent French report that was commissioned by the French hierarchy.

Based on a survey, that investigation estimated that from 1950 to the present day, about 5.5 million French people have been victims of sex abuse as children, and around 216,000 of these were abused by priests.

Zanardi says that Italy has two and a half times as many priests as France (52,000 vs 20,000) and therefore Italian clergy may have abused up to one million children.

But if we accept his formula, we arrive at a figure of 540,000, because two and a half times 216,000 is 540,000, not a million.

If that smaller figure is more accurate (we can’t assume it is), it’s still horrifying, but half Zanardi’s estimate, which Syed obviously takes at face value.

This may seem like hair-splitting, but it does matter. When we estimate the number of people who are victims of crime in any given period, it is important to be as accurate as possible, or we might as well pluck figures out of thin air.

Syed takes Zanardi’s estimate (which he wrongly attributes to the Vatican’s Fr Hans Zollner) and then launches into a broad-ranging attack on institutional religion in general, and the Catholic Church in particular.

He allows that the Church has done good things and that there are many good priests and laypeople.

Nonetheless, he argues that the good provides a cover for the bad and concludes that the Catholic Church is both a “benign organisation” and a “criminal racket”.

That is a whopping claim, on a par with the estimate of one million victims of Italian priests. There is a big and qualitative difference between saying something has criminal members and calling it a “criminal racket”, which suggests it is set up to deliberately commit crimes.

On the basis of Syed’s logic, the scouting movement is also a “criminal racket” because it has claimed so many abuse victims. Would it be reasonable to say that the good the scouting movement has done really amounted to a cover for all the bad things?

For that matter, we could extend Syed’s argument to Britain as a country because so many crimes have been committed in the name of Britain and the Empire down the centuries. Maybe Britain itself is both a benign country and a criminal racket?

Perhaps Syed would say that this is indeed the case, but I doubt if, on this basis, he would want Britain to cease to exist. I have the impression, however, that he would prefer if the Catholic Church disappeared because he singles it out. I hope I am wrong. He can always make clear to his readers if that is what he wants.