Scandal creates contempt for Catholic clergy

by Electa Draper

The Denver Post

May 25, 2010

A steady stream of revelations and civil lawsuits over child sexual abuse by priests seem to signal the Catholic Church has the biggest problem with clerical scandals, but experts deny it is a hot zone of exploitation.

Insurance companies, child advocacy groups and religion scholars say there is no evidence that Catholic clergy are more likely to be involved in sexual misconduct than other clergy or professionals. Yet ongoing civil litigation of decades-old cases against a church with deep pockets keeps the Catholic Church in the headlines.

“There is no plausible evidence that Catholic priests are gangs of sexual predators, as they are being portrayed,” said Pennsylvania State University Prof. Philip Jenkins, eminent religion and history scholar, and a non-Catholic who’s studied the church’s abuse problems for 20 years [2].

Jenkins said there has been no formal study comparing denominations for rates of child abuse. However, insurers have been assessing the risks since they began offering riders on liability policies in the 1980s. Two of the largest insurers report no higher risks in covering Catholic churches than Protestant denominations.

Wisconsin-based Church Mutual Insurance Co. has 100,000 client churches and has seen a steady filing of about five sexual molestation cases a week for more than a decade, even though its client base has grown.

“It would be incorrect to call it a Catholic problem,” said Church Mutual’s risk control manager, Rick Schaber. “We do not see one denomination above another. It’s equal. It’s also equal among large metropolitan churches and small rural churches.”

Iowa-based Guide One Center for Risk Management, which insures more than 40,000 congregations, also said Catholic churches are not considered a greater risk or charged higher premiums.

“Our claims experience shows this happens evenly across denominations,” said spokeswoman Melanie Stonewall.

However, the largest insurer of the Catholic Church was silent on the subject.

Midwestern Catholic dioceses formed their own Nebraska-based nonprofit insurance group in 1896, now called the Catholic Mutual Group, which is the provider to 111 out of 195 U.S. Catholic dioceses. Catholic Mutual’s counsel, Tim Augustine, declined comment on sexual-abuse claims.

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children President Ernie Allen said his organization has received more than 825,000 reports of child abuse and does not see any statistical indication the Catholic Church has a greater prevalence of cases than any other setting — after accounting for the size of the church, the largest Christian denomination in the U.S. and the world.

“There is a common denominator among those who abuse children,” Allen said. “They seek out situations where they have easy access and cover. It should surprise nobody that an abuser is a teacher, coach, youth leader, pediatrician, minister, priest or rabbi.”

The Boy Scouts of America was recently ordered to pay $18.5 million to a former scout abused by an assistant scoutmaster in 1983, in a case that highlighted the Boy Scout organization’s secret files on suspected child molesters [3]. In the 1980s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the charter holder for an estimated one-third to one-half of the nation’s Boy Scout troops [4], according to CBS News.

Researchers and journalists examining the sexual and physical abuse by American public schoolteachers have found “a horrendous volume of cases,” Jenkins said, and nobody has paid the sort of attention to it that the Catholic Church has experienced since the late 1990s.

The Catholic Church has a particularly extensive network of schools and youth ministries, and Allen’s organization had been sharply critical in the past of the way it and other churches handled suspected abuse.

“Churches need to see that it’s not just a sin, it’s a crime,” Allen said. “I understand churches put great stock in redemption, but first and foremost they need to hold that person accountable.”

Allen said he has been pleased with the commitment of the Catholic Church in America to deal aggressively with the problem in the past several years.

The only comprehensive report on sexual abuse within any denomination was the study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of American Catholic priests [5]. No comparable report exists for any other denomination, Jenkins said.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned the study after sexual molestation cases rocked the church in 2002, yet the study, made by a college at City University of New York, is considered a rigorous independent review.

John Jay researchers found more than 4 percent of 110,000 priests active between 1950 and 2002 had faced accusations of sexual misconduct. There were 4,392 complaints, ranging from improper conversations to rape, filed by 10,667 victims under the age of 18.

However, child molestation is an under-reported crime, researchers said. They estimate sexual abuse among the general U.S. adult male population to be 10 percent to 20 percent.

The study also found that more abusive acts by priests occurred in the 1970s and 1980s than any other decades, yet one-third of all allegations, many of them decades old, were reported in 2002-03.

More than half of the offending priests in the John Jay study faced only one accusation. And 149 priests were serial offenders, responsible for 25,000 alleged incidents, more than a quarter of the total, and many of the cases involving very young children.

Yet despite a persistent label of “pedophile priest scandal,” Jenkins said, very few of the accused priests were pedophiles, those having abusing children before they reach the age of puberty, about 12 or 13. This in no way makes the acts more defensible, he said, but it demonstrates distorted public perceptions.

At the end of 2009, Baylor University released a national study of clergy sexual misconduct with adults [6] that concluded it was more common than previously thought and it occurred across all religions and denominations.

Yet many critics suspect the church’s celibacy requirement, exclusion of women from the priesthood and ancient hierarchical structure are factors in its clerical scandals.

The Catholic Church has been forced to scrutinize itself more than any other denomination and it suffers for its better record-keeping … and unique (hierarchical) structure,” Jenkins said.

Even the staunchest Catholics have been appalled by the church’s cover-up of sexual abuse cases and steps taken by many church officials to protect fraternity, image and coffers over Catholic youth.

“They were stupid,” said Jesuit priest Thomas J. Reese, Senior Fellow of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “The Catholic Church needs to apologize, apologize, apologize. There was no excuse for keeping those guys in ministry.”

Attitudes about child molestation have changed enormously over time, Jenkins said.

“No one looks at whether the attitudes of secular professionals in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were any less wrong than the church’s,” Jenkins said. “Commonplace therapeutic views until the 1970s were that pedophiles were curable and unlikely to repeat if removed from the setting. A dominant theme of the 1960s was that there was no significant damage to children in these cases.”

The Catholic Church is the only institution being scrutinized by the standards of today for decisions made 30 years ago, Jenkins said.

Yet many within the church, which holds itself up as a leading moral authority, say officials should have known better than to continually move offending priests from parish to parish.

“We will never understand it. The church knew it wasn’t right, yet so many things were swept under the rug,” said Mark Ross, a 73-year-old Thornton Catholic who spent decades in lay ministries. “Many people didn’t know it was happening. Others refused to believe it — it was too shameful. It breaks my heart. I feel sorry for the good priests, and there are so many of them.”

URLs in this post:

[1] Image:

[2] studied the church’s abuse problems for 20 years:

[3] Boy Scout organization’s secret files on suspected child molesters:

[4] one-third to one-half of the nation’s Boy Scout troops:

[5] comprehensive report on sexual abuse within any denomination was the study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of American Catholic priests:

[6] a national study of clergy sexual misconduct with adults: