Sex Abuse and the Catholic Church – Common Misconceptions and Facts
Compiled by: Michael Hansen, Ph.D. & Fr. Marcel Taillon
Misconception: Many Catholic priests are involved in the sexual abuse of children.
Fact: According to comprehensive record reviews of three major archdioceses of the U.S. (Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago) between 1.5 and 1.8% of priests have received credible allegations of the sexual abuse of minors during the past forty years (since 1960). One case it too many but the numbers reported are not always accurate.
Misconception: All Catholic priests who abuse minors are pedophiles.
Fact: According to the standard psychiatric manual DSM-IV, pedophilia refers to “sexual activity with a prepubescent child.” Of the small percentage of priests who have received credible allegations of the sexual abuse of minors, less than 10% of these cases have involved misconduct with prepubescent children (P. Jenkins, 1996). This is less than 0.3% of the more than 100,000 priests who have served in the U.S. during the past forty years. Cases of predatory pedophilia, which have been the focus of media reports, are rare exceptions among clerical perpetrators of sexual abuse.
Misconception: Due to a requirement of celibacy, Catholic priests are more likely to be involved in the sexual abuse of minors than religious ministers who can be married.
Fact: Although media attention has focused almost exclusively on reported cases of the sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic priests, this type of misconduct occurs among ministers of all major religious traditions, medical and mental health professionals, coaches, scout leaders, camp counselors, etc. Most cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by family members of the victim in the form of incest. In addition, most adults who sexually abuse minors are, or will be, married.
Misconception: The problem of sexual abuse of minors has occurred among some priests because of a regressive, unhealthy Catholic teaching on human sexuality.
Fact: Catholic teaching focuses on the inherent dignity and value of the human person who is made in the image and likeness of God. In this context, the fundamental goodness of human sexuality as expressed in the mutual self-giving of the sacrament of marriage or in the celibate state as an offering to God in service to the Church is emphasized. By embracing the Catholic teaching on human sexuality, one develops a healthy, integrated Christian vocation that brings true happiness. Consonant with this teaching, the Church clearly condemns sexual abuse and mistreatment of any kind as an affront to the basic dignity of the human person.
Misconception: The U.S. bishops should have known that abusive priests were likely to re-abuse. There is no accountability for U.S. bishops to follow the law and report cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests to local authorities.
Fact: The vast majority of cases of sexual abuse by priests occurred over twenty years ago. At that time it was commonly thought that following a program of psychological treatment the individual abuser was no longer at risk for further abuse and therefore could be returned to active ministry. Currently, we have a much greater understanding of the gravity of this problem including the realization that treatment may or may not be effective depending on the condition of the abuser.
Although mistakes have been made in the past, during the past ten years most U.S. Catholic bishops have adopted comprehensive reporting guidelines for cases of the sexual abuse of minors by priests and other diocesan employees and have worked closely with local authorities to address these cases in a responsible manner. The Diocese of Providence formulated clear policy and procedural guidelines addressing this matter in 1994. In addition, “The Charter For the Protection of Children and Youth” formulated by the U.S. Catholic bishops at their USCCB meeting in Dallas in June of 2002 has further reinforced the strong policy that has been in existence in our diocese since 1994.
Misconception: Parish donations and Catholic Charity Drive contributions are being used for legal fees and settlement costs related to sexual abuse cases.
Fact: All of the monetary contributions to a parish are utilized to directly support the operations of the parish or other diocesan agencies. In addition, special collections are regularly taken up for specific purposes such as the Catholic Charity Drive or the Seminary Collection to support the formation of future priests. These contributions are never allocated for costs related to abuse cases. Such costs are covered by diocesan liability insurance policies or other assets.
Misconception: Because of sexual abuse by some priests, this is not an appropriate time to actively promote vocations to the priesthood, religious life, or the celibate state.
Fact: It is certainly an appropriate and important time to actively promote vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Although a few priests have been involved in the sexual abuse of minors, our Holy Father recently reminded us at World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto that the vast majority of our priests are hard working and dedicated ministers of the gospel. Our church needs young and vibrant witnesses to the Gospel of Christ through the cultivation of healthy and holy vocations to the priesthood and religious life.