There’s no excuse for clerical child abuse: but it needs to be recognised that the sexual abuse of minors is more common in secular society

Mgr Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's chief prosecutor of clerical sex abuse, kneels at a prayer service for victims (Photo: CNS)

I begin with an address given at the recent ad limina of a group of American bishops by the Holy Father, who began by referring to his last visit to the United States. One of his purposes in making the visit, the Pope said, was that he wished to recognise the reality of clerical child abuse, and

… to acknowledge personally the suffering inflicted on the victims and the honest efforts made both to ensure the safety of our children and to deal appropriately and transparently with allegations as they arise.

He then went on to say that it was his hope

… that the Church’s conscientious efforts to confront this reality will help the broader community to recognise the causes, true extent and devastating consequences of sexual abuse, and to respond effectively to this scourge which affects every level of society. By the same token, just as the Church is rightly held to exacting standards in this regard, all other institutions, without exception, should be held to the same standards.

Now this is not an emphasis usually to be found in his statements on the subject of clerical child abuse. But it was necessary to say it: that this is not uniquely a problem for the Catholic Church, even though we have been the first ones who have had perforce to confront it. Now, it is for others to do what we have done, “to respond effectively to this scourge which affects every level of society”.

For the fact is that though it cannot be any kind of excuse for the abominable crimes which have indeed been committed by a tiny minority of our priests, in the words of a headline in Newsweek magazine (April 10) last year – which I quote as being an irreproachably non-Catholic source, as well as being a journalistically respectable one – “The priesthood is being cast as the refuge of pederasts. In fact, priests seem to abuse children at the same rate as everyone else.”

It turns out, in fact, that even that didn’t go far enough: the evidence (of which more presently) is that Catholic clergy actually abuse them less than everyone else. But it’s worth recalling that Newsweek magazine continued by pointing out that “experts say there’s simply no data to support the claim [that the Church is “a refuge for pederasts”] at all …. based on the surveys and studies conducted by different denominations over the past 30 years, experts who study child abuse say they see little reason to conclude that sexual abuse is mostly a Catholic issue. ‘We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else,’ said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”

According to Dr Thomas Plante of Stanford University, “available research suggests that approximately two to five per cent of priests have had a sexual experience with a minor” which “is lower than the general adult male population that is best estimated to be closer to eight per cent.” I repeat (for I know from experience that I will be hysterically accused of making excuses for clerical child abuse and of seeking to underplay the importance of the problem) that this is no excuse: the abuse of minors by priests should simply never happen.

But there is a danger, which the Holy Father has recognised, though he has not, rightly, unduly emphasised it: if he did, he too would be accused of trying to minimise the Church’s share of responsibility. The danger is that if we Catholics accept without contradiction the unjustifiable scapegoating of the Church which has been going on for far too long, we give society at large a ready excuse for not confronting what needs urgently to be confronted: which is that this is a simply massive problem, which society at large has not even begun to address. And that is appallingly unjust to the overwhelming majority of abused children, most of whom have never even met a priest.

A document published by the NSPCC, which I quoted on this subject earlier this year, entitled “Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom: a Study of the Prevalence of Abuse and Neglect”, 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.

Not everyone agrees about professional misconduct. According to a report carried out for the US Department of Education entitled Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature, “9.6 per cent of all students in grades 8 to 11 report contact and/or non-contact educator sexual misconduct that was unwanted”. The percentage of students who report experiencing sexual misconduct by teachers indicated that more than 4.5 million children were subjected to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade. The report continued that “Possible limitations of the study would … suggest that the findings reported here underestimate educator sexual misconduct in schools.” The report’s author, Charol Shakeshaft, concludes, inter alia, that “the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by [Catholic] priests”.

Again I repeat: abuse by Catholic priests should never happen. In the words of Dr Pravin Thevathasan in a book published by the CTS, The Catholic Church and the Sex Abuse Crisis: “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.”

The indications are, he finds nevertheless, “that the sexual abuse of minors is significantly higher in secular society than in the Church”, though he insists that “this does not excuse the behaviour of abusive priests”. All the same, he says “One of the immense dangers of focusing unduly on clergy abuse is that we might fail to protect vulnerable children in the wider society”. Now, the Holy Father has very gently suggested the same thing: “just as the Church is rightly held to exacting standards in this regard, all other institutions, without exception, should be held to the same standards.”

So far, that hasn’t even begun to happen; now, it should.