The yawning pandemic of child sex abuse by religious clerics and leaders of secular youth groups is an endemic scourge of human nature.
I’ll admit that I once suspected that there was something uniquely and inherently debased about Catholic clerics—a bias that only hardened as the avalanche of priestly pedophilia scandals crashed in wave after horrifying wave across the planet during the past few decades.
But solely scapegoating priests is demonstrably unwarranted.
Research indicates that priests, monks, and laymen are not uniquely guilty in this regard, and that male clergy from every denomination of every religion—all men in general, in fact—have a relatively equal average propensity for these destructive impulses.
As a 2010 Newsweek article by Pat Winger—“Priests Commit No More Abuse Than Other Males”—concluded:
Many [people] point to peculiarities of the Catholic Church (its celibacy rules for priests, its insular hierarchy, its exclusion of women) to infer that there’s something particularly pernicious about Catholic clerics that predisposes them to these horrific acts. It’s no wonder that, back in 2002—when a stunning Catholic sex-abuse scandal was making headlines in Boston [the focus of the 2015 Oscar-winning feature film “Spotlight”]—a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that 64 percent of those queried believed Catholic priests “frequently” abused children.
Yet experts say there’s simply no data to support the claim at all. No formal comparative study has ever parsed child sexual abuse by denomination, and only the Catholic Church has released detailed data about its own. But 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.
In fact, such abuse, however generally uncommon, is demonstrably, disturbingly an inevitable reality among all men and all organizations, especially where close and continuous interactions between adult leaders and children are integral.
Although I was raised Catholic and frequently attended the usual catechism classes and youth groups presided over by our local priest and his lay helpers, I myself never experienced anything remotely abusive (unless you count excruciating boredom). In fact, our local priest—the largely expressionless Father Roman— seemed far more interested in force-feeding religious dogma to us than any other activity. He was the polar opposite of touchy-feely or charismatic.
Still, middle-aged guys lacking wives or girlfriends always seemed strange to me as a kid.
And when pedophilia, anecdotally, seems to curiously cluster within particular youth organizations—in churches, scout troops, gymnastics teams, swim clubs, etc.—you can’t help but wonder if abusers consciously or unconsciously choose their vocations for proximity to the objects of their desires.
But it seems my misconceptions about the priesthood are nothing more than same-different bias, coupled with an abiding aversion to woo, rather than anything empirically grounded.
Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, explained to Newsweek in 2002:
We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of [sexual abuse] or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else. I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others.
The debauched behavior has been broadly spread worldwide in the deluge of child sex-abuse scandals that have, in the last several decades in particular, threatened to submerge churches of all denominations.
READ: The Hidden Devastation of Priestly Pedophilia: Suicide
These crimes against humanity indicate we humans are corrupted by myriad original sins embedded in our DNA and inflicted by our social environments. They are decidedly not the just desserts of an ancient mythical paradise and a tempting apple proffered by a Satanic proxy.
Even insurance companies, infamous for their hard-headed, hard-hearted focus on empirical data, have not specifically targeted Catholic organizations and clerics with higher premiums for sexual-misconduct liability coverage, Newsweek reported in 2002. Insurer studies at that time indicated no higher risk for such transgressions in Catholic churches than in other denominations.
2002 was the year the venerable Boston Globe newspaper exposed a widescale cover-up of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in the Boston area. The exposé spurred global investigations that found similar appalling concealments in Catholic institutions across the U.S., Canada, South America, and Europe, and also in countries in the Pacific, Africa, and Southeast Asia.
The financial burden of compensating victims has been enormous for the Catholic Church. In 2019-2020 alone, for instance, the Church paid $7.4 million just in liability insurance premiums through The National Catholic Risk Retention Group. Hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and awards has been paid by the US Church to victims to date, according to a 2023 Al-Jazeera report.
Although a relatively small percentage of Catholic priests have been accused of child sexual abuse in the US—about 4 percent of priests from 1950-1992, according to a John Jay College study—the number of victims looms large. Some 10,667 victims came forward during that period. And abuser percentages are low worldwide, as well, studies indicate.
These figures were dwarfed by those in later exposés into the current millennium.
Even though abuse by clergy may be a relatively tiny phenomenon in absolute terms, its contribution to the erosion of church institutions has been apparent. Up until as recently as the 1990s, 90% of Americans identified as Christian, but if current downward trends in American religiosity continue, Christians “will make up less than half of the U.S. population in just a few decades,” according to a report this year by Pew Research Center.
CNN reported Pope Francis I’s stark mea culpa regarding the continuing pedophilia scandals in a speech to US Catholic bishops in 2019:
The church’s credibility has been seriously undercut and diminished by these sins and crimes, but even more by the efforts made to deny or conceal them.
America is behind the curve in growing irreligiosity in the West, with Western European nations in particular showing more rapid secularization compared to the far more devout United States. But Americans are en route to catching up.
In the meantime, it’s useful to remind ourselves that child sexual abuse isn’t just a crime of Catholic clerics but rather, mostly, of random men in all walks of life that inflicts disproportionate, tragic damage to societies at large.
Although holding abusive priests and the Church accountable won’t by itself solve the universal problem of pedophilia or guarantee the protection of children, it certainly can’t hurt.