Monday, December 1, 2014

The Sex-Abuse Crisis: What are Christians Doing About It?

It appeared to be a random “drive-by” smear on the Church, since the reference within it only popped up in the comment boxes of eight other Catholic blogs whose authors had written some specifically “Catholic” article. I clicked each link and, sure enough, the full comment was identical to the one I had received. I removed the comment from my own blog, but the basic message of it, when you strip away the passive-aggression and the curious paraphrasing, is actually an important one. This is what he/she wrote:

“Hi- I would like to request prayers for the victims of rape and abuse by members of the Catholic Church. Many of them were children when they were attacked or abused. This is also an ongoing crisis, with new victims each year, worldwide. I will remember them and their stories forever, but for the healing to truly take place, it will take the voices and efforts of many.

To paraphrase a poem by an Indian schoolgirl, "Too many Catholics, in too many countries, speak the same language -- silence." Thank you.”

The actual quote that was paraphrased is from the poem “Silence” written by Anasuya Sengupta. “Too many women in too many countries speak the same language of silence”. It gained notoriety after 1995 when Anasuya, a college student in Delhi at the time, sent it to Hillary Clinton. I am certain that the author would approve of her poem being used to give voice to victims of abuse. But why “Anonymous” would direct it only at Catholics seems like a smear against the Church instead of an effort to actually be a voice for victims.

But for all practical purposes, I could assume that “Anonymous” has been a victim of abuse by a Catholic, hence the paraphrase. It could very well be that [her] case was swept under a rug and left to fester in silence. If that’s even remotely the case, then this deserves to be heard on behalf of all of victims who have no voice and whose horror stories have been relegated to the closets. I happen to personally know a small handful of victims who were sexually abused (not by clergy, but by close relatives.) It is for these, and all the “anonymous” victims and “Indian schoolgirls” of the world, that I address the crisis of sexual abuse, where it’s occurring, and what is being done about it. And the Catholic Church will be a primary focus in honor of “Anonymous”, since it happens to be the only institution, religious or otherwise, where facts could be found, and are available to the public, regarding its own cases, and the proactive measures taken to prevent current and future abuse. Public schools are coming close to facing the problem head-on, but I don’t know of any actions taken on their part thus far.

If you replace “Catholic Church” with “Christian Community” in the prayer request, you get a truer sense of the message. A quick web search, for example, will show that Christians of all sorts are facing the sad reality of clerical abuse.

If you replace it with “Public Education System” or “American Public” or “Human Population of the World”, the message becomes truer still. In the U.S. alone, national statistics show that over 62,000 children are victims of sexual abuse each year (see Table 3-8 in THIS report, as well as Exhibit 3-e). This makes up nearly 10% of all types of abuse. Though the numbers have decreased slightly (63,527 in 2010 to 62,936 in 2012), that is a staggering number of children who have been victimized in such a horrendous way.

Even sadder is the fact that more than 80% of these abuse incidents happen at home by one or both "parents" (not necessarily biological, but step-parents, transient romantic relationships and common-law situations, etc.). The Child Welfare report showed that between 80.3 and 81.5% of all abuse (including sexual assault) occur at home by at least one parent (Page 21, Perpetrator Relationship and Pages 61-73, Perpetrators, Chapter 5). Another study confirms this, showing that 19% of those interviewed children were sexually abused away from home. This is a horrific statistic. That means over 50,900 cases of sexual abuse, in the home, were reported in 2012!

And just when you though it couldn’t get any more grim, these statistics are only those which have been reported to child welfare agencies. These figures don’t include the [who knows how many?] cases that have never been reported, or those that came up later by anonymous victims responding to surveys conducted, such as by public education entities. In a news release titled “Sexual Abuse by Educators”, one school system reported that, in a 1991 survey of high school graduates from North Carolina, “17.7% of males and 82.2% of females reported sexual harassment by faculty or staff during their school career and 13.5% of those surveyed said they had engaged in sexual intercourse with a teacher” (Grayson). The article goes on to report an estimated 4.5 million children, nationwide, have been victims of sexual harassment or misconduct by public educators.

A 2004 report by the US Dept. of Education testifies that “nearly 9.6% of [public school] students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career” (Shakeshaft). Dr. Charol Shakeshaft would later go on to state, “[T]hink the Catholic Church has a problem? The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.” This was noted in a moving column written by Tom Hoopes which was shared by CBS news.

But enough about parents and schools right now. Let’s talk about the Church, the abuses, whether this is an ongoing crisis, and what is being done about it.

According to the studies that have been conducted, there was a sudden surge of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between the 1960’s and 1980’s, and most of that prior to the 1980’s. A broader look estimates that 4% of Priests, from 1950 – 2002, have been accused of abuse. To compound this crisis, many cases were not being reported. It was in 2002 that a case finally came to light in Boston, and the media spotlighted it in a way that gave voice to all the victims who had not seen justice. The story became front page news, and reports from other victims started to surface. It was now clear to the Church that things had been swept under some rugs, and cases were uncovered that had been improperly dealt with, where abusers went unpunished.

The Archdiocese of Boston later credited the media for their work in bringing the crisis to light. “The media helped make our Church safer for children by raising up the issue of clergy sexual abuse and forcing us to deal with it.” Cardinal O’Malley continued, “All of us who hold the protection of children as the highest priority are indebted to the media’s advocacy on this issue.” (Archdiocese of Boston, “Ten Years Later”)

But what led to the abuses in the first place, and why the surge of abuses in that time frame?
There are several factors that all contributed. First of all, seminarians were not being screened as well as we now know they should have been, and they were entering seminary at younger ages. Worse than this, however, was the failure on the part of Bishops to act. Many of them were not aware of the scope of the problem. Those that did act simply followed the then-prevailing view that sex offenders could be rehabilitated. Obviously that was not the case, and we now know it. To complicate the matter further was the prevailing mentality that the Church should be “loving” instead of bound up in “rules”. While Canon Law required investigation, and expulsion of priests found guilty, the “love” mentality prevailed, and some in the Church all but forgot that punishment is more loving in the long-run.

Austen Ivereigh, in a book published by Our Sunday Visitor, provided a quote by Dr. Thomas Plante that sheds some light for us:

Thirty years ago, most priests entered seminary during high school, did not participate in a comprehensive psychological evaluation prior to admission, and had no training in sexuality, maintaining professional boundaries, and impulse control.” Plante continues, “Today, most applicants to the priesthood are much older…They have often had satisfying and appropriate intimate relationships before entering the seminary. They have completed a psychological evaluation that specifically examines risk factors for sexual problems. They now get good training in sexuality and issues related to managing sexual impulses. It is not surprising that the majority of the sex-offending priests that we hear about in the press are older”. (Plante, “A Perspective on Clergy Sexual Abuse”)

Ivereigh went to great lengths to provide quotes regarding the crisis from Bishops of the Church. I’ll cite three of those here:

The following is from the full body of US Bishops in June 2011:
Since 2002, the Church in the United States has experienced a crisis without precedent in our times. The sexual abuse of children and young people by some deacons, priests, and bishops, and the ways in which these crimes and sins were addressed, have caused enormous pain, anger, and confusion. AS bishops, we have acknowledged our mistakes and our roles in that suffering, and we apologize and take responsibility again for too often failing victims and the Catholic people in the past. From the depths of our hearts, we bishops express great sorrow and profound regret for what the Catholic people have endured.”

The Archdiocese of Boston, in “Ten Years Later” reflects, “As an archdiocese, as a Church, we can never cease to make clear the depth of our sorrow and to beg forgiveness from those who were so grievously harmed. We also must acknowledge and express our gratitude for all that survivors and their loved ones have done, and continue to do, to help make the Church, and all of society, safer for children. We are humbled as many survivors have offered forgiveness to the Church and encouraged others to re-establish their relationship with the God who offers all of us the gifts of love and healing.”

Pope Benedict XVI, in a March 19, 2010 “Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland”, writes, “It cannot be denied that some of you [Bishops] and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to the allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgment were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness.

So, where does that leave us? Has the crisis been resolved and have the abuses ceased? According to an annual CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) report, an average of 8 “credible” accusations have been made per year from 2005 to 2013 in the United States. The Media Report website details these numbers year-by-year in a research they conducted. While that may seem like a tiny little number in a body of 77.7 million U.S. Catholics, it is still too many. Even just one victim is a victim too many. And that number is only reflective of U.S. Catholics. We still have over 62,000 other cases of child sexual abuse per year to deal with in homes, schools, neighborhoods and other Christian communities.

There are several things the Church has done to address the crisis of sexual abuse, not only in regards to its own clergy, but in regards to the entire Catholic community.
- In 2002, the U.S. Bishops commissioned a report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The first part of the report was published in 2004 and was titled “The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholics Priests and Deacons in the United States”.
- The second part came out in 2011 and detailed the causes and context of the abuses. Ivereigh notes that the “report examined all plausible allegations of abuse of minors by clergy in the period between 1950 and 2002. The researchers used a very low standard of proof for the charges – ‘not withdrawn or known to be false’ – rather than proof of guilt.” The report found that 4% of clergy were accused in that 50-year period, 80% of the alleged abuses took place between the 1960’s and 1980’s, and there were an average of 200 accusations per year.

- In 2001, Pope John Paul II issued the motu proprio “Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela” which introduced two vital reforms on the direct reporting of abusive priests to the CDF and on fast-tracking the laicization process of abusive priests.

- The Church established a zero-tolerance policy in 2002, such that any one act of abuse which is admitted or established will lead to the immediate removal of the cleric from ecclesiastical ministry.
- Bishops have also visited with victims around the United States.
- In many conferences around the globe, immediate reporting of abuse to civil authorities is mandated, with immediate suspension of the accused cleric.
- In 2010, Canon Law was further updated to allow for quicker justice for victims.
- Bishops and the Popes have written heart-felt letters of apology, which in turn have led to further investigations into seminaries and dioceses by other Bishops.
- By 2012, “Safe Environment” training was in place in 193 dioceses in compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children. This led to 2.1 million clergy, employees and volunteers, and 5.2 million children being trained to recognize abuse and learn how to report it. Background checks have been conducted on 1.88 million volunteers and employees, 166,000 educators, 52,000 clerics, and 6,000 seminarian candidates.
- Each diocese has adopted a Code of Conduct to provide clear guidelines and has designated victim assistance coordinators and abuse review boards staffed by people of relevant professions.
- The Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection assists dioceses in setting up Safe Environment training programs.

- The Vatican also maintains a web page titled “Abuse of Minors: The Church‘s Response”, which catalogs the response of the Church to the abuse crisis.

While these efforts on the part of the Catholic Church are proactive and can effect real change in making the Church a safe place for our children, Ivereigh wisely points out, “The crisis is not over until every bishop’s conference across the globe ensures that allegations are never again swept under the carpet.

He continues, “The appalling crime of clerical sex abuse of minors is a profound betrayal of priests’ calling and the Gospel. For many years, the Church, like other institutions, failed to grasp the extent of sexual abuse and its compulsive nature; decades ago, it mishandled accusations and failed to punish perpetrators. But in the past 10 years, it has gone further than any other institution in putting in place vital reforms to ensure it can never happen again. Those reforms have made the Church transparent, accountable, and one of the safest places for young people…In the United States the system of safeguarding is exceptional, and recommended as a model for other institutions to follow. Increasingly, that can also be said of the Church in other countries, too.” (Austen Ivereigh, “Clerical Sex Abuse”)

What of other organizations, schools or churches? Well, we don’t really know because none of them have conducted such a detailed survey like the Catholic Church has.

As seen earlier, we do know that public school systems are at least looking at the crisis and gathering information. In 2007, Associated Press conducted research on the issue in schools, but found “that sex abuse of children in U.S. schools was widespread, and mostly unreported (or “covered up”)”, says Ivereigh. “It found ‘2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered, or sanctioned from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct.’ Professor Charol Shakeshaft of Virginia Commonwealth University studied 290,000 cases of alleged abuse between 1991 and 2000; out of a sample of 225 teachers who admitted sexually abusing a pupil, not a single one had been reported to the authorities.” (Ivereigh, emphasis mine).

It would be nice if more institutions and organizations were digging into the crisis, and my prayer is that more will. While we would hope our society would not fall into the moral depravity of child molestation, Tom Hoopes points out a very sad reality in his aforementioned column:

Yet, outside the Catholic Church, the reaction is increasingly accommodation instead of outrage. The April 17, 2002, issue of USA Today featured an article titled ‘Sex Between Adults and Children’ – a euphemistic way of referring to child molestation. Under the headline was a ballot-like box suggesting possible opinions one might hold on the subject: ‘always harmful, usually harmful, sometimes harmful, rarely harmful.’ The newspaper’s answer: ‘Child age and maturity make for gray areas.’” He goes on to mention Mary Eberstadt’s “Pedophilia Chic”, the North American Man-Boy Love Association, and the heroic treatment given by Hollywood to accused child molesters.

The sex abuse crisis is a very real crisis that goes far beyond any one church or community. It is everywhere and will never go away until EVERYONE does something about it. “Anonymous” is spot on in [her] prayer with these words, “for the healing to truly take place, it will take the voices and efforts of many”.
The Catholic Church has done, and continues to do, something about it. Schools are just beginning to look into it. What are other Christians doing about it? What is YOUR church or community doing to protect our children?

I would like to thank Austen Ivereigh and Our Sunday Visitor Publishing for the copious amount of research put into the clerical sex abuse crisis. Ivereigh’s original research can be found in the OSV-published book, “How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot-Button Issues”. The book can be purchased at the OSV website HERE.

*Image uploaded by blog author and not associated with the "quote" in any way.


  1. Thank you, David, for an insightful article about sexual abuse of children. This is a tragic, ongoing problem, and I am thankful the Church has taken steps to reduce the incidence of abuse. I say "reduce" as opposed to eliminate, for as long as sin exists, it will not be eliminated - in the Church, in public and private schools, by those in authority in our sports leagues, and most prevalent, in the workplace.

    This is a sin problem, not a Catholic problem; yet our priests are easy prey to sensational journalism, and eager plaintiff attorneys. As you well note, the abuse is everywhere, and I pray God's light will eliminate the darkness and bring evil deeds to light.

    1. "This is a sin problem, not a Catholic problem." YES! That.

  2. Thank you for the excellent research into a difficult topic. My blog was targeted with the "anonymous" comment. I usually automatically trash such comments, but I let this one stand as it did raise some interesting points. You've handled it very well.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Ex-Youth Pastor Convicted in Texas -