As a Catholic I’ve grown used to people taking shots at the church for the paedophilia cases. The shots are, unfortunately, a result of something that the church has to bear and bear responsibility for. The acts of the priests themselves and the cover up that occurred at bishopric levels is a reality which is not explainable or something that can be ‘spun’.
This isn’t to say that the shots taken are fair. For the most part, they are not. Mostly they are poor attempts at being humorous. I’m sure the parents of those abused and the parishioners who discovered that the priest who gave their daughter’s first communion was an abuser find great humor in mocking the church.
(really? you have the time to setup a fake Twitter account for this stuff?)
But what is most unfortunate is that as soon as I try to explain all the church is doing to both uncover and prosecute legitimate abuse cases, and the work the church is doing to prevent this from happening in the future, I am accused of defending pedophiles or defending those who responded in a criminal way to the crimes.
I must admit, it is effective at deterring an honest look at the situation. Maybe this is why in 2002 the Wall Street Journal found that 64% of respondents to a poll thought that priests frequently abused children. Anecdotally, I’ve spoken to some of the people who make these ‘jokes’ about the abuse cases and most believe that the church is somehow responsible for attracting or creating pedophiles, not just irresponsible in cleaning up the mess.
So it is with some trepidation, and frankly sadness, that I put forward this defense. Not of the abusing priests, and not the covering up, but defending against those whose wish, intentionally or through indifference, is to perpetuate the notion that the Catholic church is a hotbed for sexual abuse.
The Actual Numbers (and Why It Doesn’t Matter)
The single largest study done on abuse within the ranks of the clergy is the John Jay report, a report which was commissioned by the church of the John Jay College of Criminal justice. The report examined every accusation of abuse from 1950 – 2002.
I will not summarize the report here. You can either read the report, or the summary over on Wikipedia. The important number here is the final number: 4%. That is the result that the percentage of priests who were accused (not convicted or penalized) of abuse.
Abuse rates for society in general are hard to estimate, but Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates the number at 10%. Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, estimate it to be closer to 20% (a number which seems high to me). When we get to other professions that deal with children, the numbers are chilling: it is estimated that in every school in our country there is an average of 3 abusive teachers per school. Regardless, rates of abuse are not higher within the church than society in general – a conclusion that Ernie Allen stated:
“We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else”
(most of the information here is taken from an article in the Daily Beast, but there is plenty of information for anyone who searches)
But none of this really matters, does it? I don’t write or quote these statistics with pride and say “See!?!? We are just as bad, and maybe a bit better than the rest of society!” An abuse rate of 1 out of 100,000 is too high and inexcusable.
The Handling of Abuse
Once someone is called out for taking a shot at the church and sexual abuse, the tact is often to point fingers at the cover ups. Admittedly, the cover ups, the shifting around from parish to another after submitting an offending priest to counseling was not the proper response.
Common defenses of the church and this shifting around from parish to parish is that the bishops were following the best medical advice at the time and following the exact same practice that was used by school districts and other organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America. But frankly, I don’t find this convincing or comforting in any way.
I think an honest, frank assessment of the initial handling of the abuse cases is that it took too long for the church to wake up to the scandal within its own walls. But fortunately, I think that has changed. The church today is one that has recognized the problem and has taken concrete steps to eliminate the problem. Compare the church’s actions against those of our public school system which unfortunately houses a surprising number of abusers. The church has established boards within it’s diocese’s to investigate accusations. The church has paid out over a billion dollars in restitution money in recognition of its leadership failures (again, comparing against our school system we certainly don’t see these steps). The church commissioned the largest study of its kind just to gain better insight into the profiling and patterns that lead to the abuse so that it can methodically root out potential offenders. The church in the US requires that any person, priest or laity, go through required training on how to recognize the signs of abuse, and how to report potential cases of abuse. In my diocese alone, every year students are required to go through classes intended to give them the tools to protect themselves from abusers, and the means to know how to report it should they be abused.
More can still be done, and the church is active in continuing to learn what can be done to prevent further abuse, and to work on existing cases in an attempt to make restitution.
I challenge any person to put forward another institution that is more proactive in today’s society, and more aware of the reality of abuse, than the Catholic church. And it is not because abuse is more rampant within the church (as stated above), it is because the church is more serious about dealing with it than other institutions.
But What About Pope Benedict?
It is popular to throw out the accusation that Ratzinger was complicit and even proactive in the cover up of abuse. Much of this accusation comes from a New York Times article published here.
Much has been said about this and written about this. I won’t rewrite what already exists in spades. I would recommend for anyone who truly believes in critical thought and evaluating all the evidence explore this site with many of the refutations to those claims.
In the interest of fairness, I have not explored all of the refutations in detail myself, but have done enough research to put that article in sufficient doubt. I also look at the actions and words of Benedict as pope in relation to the scandals.
Current Situations – A Proper Response?
Despite the efforts, the church is still dealing with past abuse cases that surface, and current abuse cases that do occur. In 2010 In addition to dealing with these legitimate cases, the church also has to deal with the myriad of false cases from settlement seekers and those who want to do injury to the church or one of its members.
This is a bigger problem than most realize. When an organization is paying out billions of dollars in settlement payments, that organization will be the target of scammers looking to take advantage of a quick settlement. Additionally, enemies of the church whose goal is to cause problems, remove priests that they do not agree with, or just hate the church for a variety of reasons, use the abuse scandals as a vehicle to slander and impose additional costs on the church.
As with all statistics, the number of falsely accused priests varies depending on who is calculating the numbers and how they are doing so. This Newsbusters article quotes a number as high as 50%. Other sources have numbers that vary greatly. Probably the most even handed piece I read on the issue was from a risk management firm that was not talking about aggregate numbers, but looking at the situation purely from a risk management standpoint. The assessment of a risk management firm can be extremely useful as they insure church’s across all denominations against such lawsuits. Predictably enough, Catholic churches are not charged higher premiums for protection than other denominations or religions.
The false accusations against priests, whether due to nefarious intentions or more innocently, mental illnesses, are something that the church has a duty to protect itself and its priests from. I would hope that any person, catholic, atheist, friendly to the church, or enemy of the church, would agree that no innocent person should be unjustly accused and slandered without the proper due process in place.
And we see that process being put into place in today’s church. @formerTheist and I had a discussion yesterday about this article regarding former nuncio Wesolowski who has had allegations swirling around him for a while now. The focus of @formerTheist’s post was that the spokesman renounced a fellow priest who spoke out on Wesolowski and blamed the media for stoking the flames of intrigue in the case. The accusations against Wesolowski are disturbing – it is a matter which has caused the church to remove him from his post.
We do not know the evidence that the diocese has received, and we are not privy to the details of the case other than what the accusation is. We do know that there is strong enough reason for suspicion that the church has removed him from his duties. We also know that the church has asked for a formal prosecution of Wesolowski.
Now I am not privy to this case to be able to say if every action is being handled perfectly. If I were a gambler, I’d bet that somewhere along the line of people who are handling the case there is room for improvement or actions that are correctable. But what we see in this case is the process at work of trying to substantiate a claim and action from the highest authorities to get this right.
Why I Write This
Writing about this issue is one that does bring sadness. Hearing of any priest committing any crime is troubling and disturbing, and we do not have to limit it to pedophilia. But what is also frustrating is witnessing enemies of the church, and those apathetic to the church who are only too happy or too complicit to be willing to perpetuate a false notion that the church is some sort of isolated group where sexual abuse runs rampant and no one cares.
That is simply dishonest and requires a willful ignorance of the facts.
I do not expect the jokes to stop, and I will likely have no response the next time I see one. But hopefully a few people who read this will realize that by painting the priesthood as a synonym to child abuse they are painting tens of thousands of men as criminals who are not and who would vigorously go out of their way to make sure the few who are face prosecution. Hopefully a few will see the stark double standard that exists between how we view the leadership of the church and its handling and how we view the school system, the Boy Scouts of America, the NCAA, other religious institutions, etc.
The church is in this position because it was slow to respond and failed to see the fault of some of its members, and for that it will continue to be required to make amends. Let’s recognize the good that the church is doing, encourage its leadership for more, discourage those who would use child abuse to fabricate false claims, and most of all recognize the need to protect our children in every situation where they are exposed to adults who could do them harm.