October 5, 2018


Sex abuse cases are tragic; most are not recent

With all the news that has been reported about the clergy sex-abuse scandal in the Church, we feel that we have to comment on one important misapprehension.

Sometimes during discussions about this subject, someone will say, “I can’t believe that this is still going on.” Or someone will elaborate, “This was first reported 15 years ago, and nothing has been done about it!”

The facts are that most of the cases are from decades ago, and it’s not true that nothing has been done about it.

The majority of cases being reported by the Church in the United States today are the same cases that were reported when the scandal was first brought to light in Boston in 2002. And most of the new allegations against priests are about things that happened decades ago.

The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University has analyzed 8,694 allegations of sexual abuse. According to Mark Gray, the researcher who did the study, the peak years of reported incidents are the same as when the revelations of abuse began in the Boston area in 2002.

(Full disclosure: This editorial writer once served on the CARA board of trustees. Further disclosure: Former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick was on the board at the same time.)

There were relatively few incidents of sexual abuse prior to 1960. But during the 1960s, when the so-called “sexual revolution” hit our society, there were 2,227 cases, according to allegations made later. That number jumped to 2,710 during the 1970s. That was the peak.

In the 1980s, the number of cases, according to allegations made later, dropped to 1,520. During the 1990s, there were 346 cases. During the 2000s, there were 179 cases, and during the present decade, 123 cases.

Of course, even one case is too many, and we aren’t trying to excuse the priests who committed those sins or crimes. We only want to emphasize that most of those cases happened decades ago because some people we have talked with think that they were recent.

Gray, CARA’s researcher, made that same point. He said that many Catholics remain unaware that “abuse cases were more common before 1985 than since. The fact that any abuse occurred at all, regardless of when, is horrifying. … Yet, this detail is important in understanding the causes of the scandal, what legal actions are possible, and the steps that can be taken to prevent any future abuse.”

Perhaps we should also clarify who the victims of the child abuse are. Some of the priests who committed these crimes are called pedophiles, adults who prey on pre-pubescent children. But most of these cases involved priests abusing teenagers or adults, sexually mature men or women, not children. That was the case with former Cardinal McCarrick, who was accused of improper activities with seminarians. Again, that doesn’t excuse what was done. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.

Some of the priests undoubtedly were pedophiles, who were unable to conquer their sickness. But other cases involved a single incident of a priest with an adult.

As for the charge that nothing has been done since this scandal became public, that simply isn’t true. The U.S. bishops have set up many procedures to prevent men with tendencies to abuse children or teens from entering seminaries. And once there, seminarians are evaluated to try to ensure that they will be able to live celibate lives.

Finally, we must say a word about the secondary victims of this scandal: the 96 percent of priests who are faithful to their vows and who have not, and will not, abuse anyone. A study made after these charges became public showed that only 4 percent of priests were involved.

Yet, as they walk down the street wearing clerical garb, priests know that people are looking at them with suspicion. Msgr. Owen Campion, a retired priest who was a longtime editor at Our Sunday Visitor, wrote that he is tired, and angry, about the necessity to refrain from using a public restroom if there was the possibility of a child or young man in there by himself.

So let us pray for all the good priests who are faithfully serving us.

—John F. Fink

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