Clerical child abuse still needs to be addressed: but it is now much more a question for society at large

A copy of the most recent John Jay report into the causes of the clerical abuse crisis in the United States (Photo: CNS)

It is time to return to the question of clerical child sex abuse. Since I last wrote on this subject, in the period approaching the pope’s visit (I was very concerned, as were many others, that this issue would be used by the aggressive atheist coalition to wreck the visit) work has continued within the Church to understand the problem.

This week, three separate documents have emerged which in their different ways contribute to this important aim, two from within or actually initiated by the Church, the other an entirely secular report which gives us the general context of the problem. I will proceed by presenting extracts from all three reports, with as little comment from me as I can manage.

I begin with “Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom: a Study of the Prevalence of Abuse and Neglect” published by the NSPCC. This gives the general background of this problem in society at large within the wider question of all maltreatment of children. This is what it has to say (under the heading “Who are the abusers?”) about who is most likely to be involved in child sex abuse:

“Numbers of respondents recording sexual activity with relatives which were against their wishes or with a person 5 or more years older, were very small: 3% reported touching or fondling and the same proportion had witnessed relatives exposing themselves. The other categories of oral/penetrative acts or attempts, and voyeurism/pornography were reported by 1%. Much larger numbers had experienced sexual acts by non relatives, predominantly by people known to them and by age peers: boy or girlfriends, friends of brothers or sisters, fellow pupils or students formed most of those involved. Among older people, neighbours and parents’ friends were the most common. Very few said that the person involved was a professional.”

Nowhere does the report refer to the Church or to Catholic priests, who, here at least, are simply not on the NSPCC’s radar. The second document, much more detailed, and specifically focused on the clergy (because that’s what the American Catholic bishops asked for) is a report by a research team from the non-Catholic John Jay College (who have a track record in this field). To read the report in pdf, again, you will have to google the title, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010”. This report concludes, among other things, that

“The sexual abuse of minors is a pervasive problem in society and in organizations that involve close relationships between youth and adults. …. Although no exact measure exists for the number of youths who have contact with priests in the Catholic Church in a year…. Despite the media focus on child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, it is clear that these abuse acts are a small percentage of all child sexual abuse incidents in the United States.”

What’s interesting is that though both these reports by independent and secular organisations either state or imply that child sex abuse is part of a problem in society as a whole and not a particular problem for the Catholic Church, in other words that Catholic priests are no more likely than anyone else to be involved in it, Dr Pravin Thevathasan, the author of the third document on this subject to be published this week, “The Catholic Church & the Sex Abuse Crisis”, published by the CTS (who are, don’t forget, publishers to the Holy See), is not inclined to deploy this fact to get the Church off the hook. Nevertheless, there is now a growing willingness – as long as it is made clear that this is no excuse for the existence of this appalling crime within the Church, an organisation which ought to be an example to society at large rather than a reflection of it – to think seriously about what that implies for our relationship to a society which we now have small hope of influencing in this matter. As Dr Thevathasan concludes (p68),

It is true that the abuse of minors is rife within society. But we claim, by the grace of God, to be members of the one Church founded by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and we are therefore called to a higher standard than that found in society at large. We are called by our Holy Father to enter a period of purification and repentance. There have been services of repentance and many victims have finally felt that they have been heard by the Church. May they continue to find the healing love of Jesus Christ.

He also opens his report (which should be widely read and pondered) with the same reflection (p3):

“In this work, no excuses will be offered in order to justify the appalling crime of sexual abuse perpetrated by a small number of Catholic priests – about 2 to 4% credible accusations in the United States and less than this in the United Kingdom in the last forty years – nor for the pastoral negligence of some bishops. To quote Pope Benedict, sexual abuse has ‘profoundly wounded people in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime’.”


“The Pope has also said that the crimes of priests, while reprehensible, should be seen in the context of the times in which these events took place. Citing the rise of child pornography and sexual tourism, he concludes that moral standards in society at large have broken down.”

This is, I suggest, what we should now focus on. Continuing to reflect on our own involvement in this appalling problem, we need to understand that though, as the American researcher Charol Shakeshaft reflected in a report for the US department on Education which I have written about myself in this space, children are, as Dr Thevathasan also points out “a hundred times more likely to be abused in school than by priests”, and though this “does indicate that the sexual abuse of minors is significantly higher in secular society than in the Church”, we cannot be complacent: “this does not excuse the behaviour of abusive priests”, he insists. The Holy Father’s clear guidance is that the Church at large is still called upon “to enter a period of purification and repentance and of prayer for the victims of clerical child abuse”.

All the same, he says (and as I have myself already suggested elsewhere), “One of the immense dangers of focusing unduly on clergy abuse is that we might fail to protect vulnerable children in the wider society”.

For, the trouble with scapegoats is that they are designed to make society feel better about itself, and not to cope with the real problem thus shuffled off into the wilderness. Child sex abuse is a problem for society at large which it has barely begun seriously to address.