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William Oddie FAITH Magazine July – August 2011

Facing up to the Scandal of Abuse in and out of The Church

It may be time to return to the question of clerical child sex abuse, for the subject has moved on. Since I last wrote on this subject, in the period approaching the Pope's triumphant visit (which, like many others, I was very concerned that this issue would be used by the Dawkins/Tatchell coalition to wreck) work has continued within the Church to understand the problem.

In the last week of May, three separate and unconnected documents emerged which in their different ways contributed to this important aim, two from within or actually initiated by the Church, the other an entirely secular report which gives us the general context of the problem. I will proceed by presenting extracts from all three reports, with as little comment from me as I can manage.

I begin with "Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom: a Study of the Prevalence of Abuse and Neglect" published by the NSPCC. This gives the general background of this problem in society at large within the wider question of all maltreatment of children. This is what it has to say (under the heading "Who are the abusers?") about who is most likely to be involved in child sex abuse:

"Numbers of respondents recording sexual activity with relatives which were against their wishes or with a person 5 or more years older, were very small: 3\% reported touching or fondling and the same proportion had witnessed relatives exposing themselves. The other categories of oral/penetrative acts or attempts, and voyeurism/pornography were reported by 1 \%. Much larger numbers had experienced sexual acts by non-relatives, predominantly by people known to them and by age peers: boy or girlfriends, friends of brothers or sisters, fellow pupils or students formed most of those involved. Among older people, neighbours and parents' friends were the most common. Very few said that the person involved was a professional."

Nowhere does the report refer to the Church or to Catholic priests, who, here at least, are simply not on the NSPCC's radar.

The second document, much more detailed, and specifically focused on the clergy (because that's what the American Catholic bishops asked for), is a report by a research team from the non-Catholic John Jay College, who have a track record in this field. I wrote in the January 2009 issue of this magazine about a previous John Jay report into this subject, their 2004 report The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, which was carried out in 2004 for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This was a survey of 90\% of the priests and deacons reported to have had allegations of child sexual abuse made against them, from the 70s to the '90s. One conclusion was that "if the yearly ordination totals fordiocesan priests accused are compared to the overall number of diocesan priests ordained in that year, the percentages of accused priests range from a maximum of almost 10\% in 1970, decreasing to 8\% in 1980 and to fewer than 4\% in 1990." Four per cent, however, is still a lot of priests, far too many. But as I wrote then, "The John Jay report's most important finding.... had to do not with the number but with the nature of the sexual abuses alleged: The report states that 80\% to 90\% of priests who sexually abused children over the past 52 years had been involved with adolescent boys - ephebophilia - not prepubescent children - paedophilia."

The scope of the John Jay College's latest report is wider. Its title is identical with one exception: "The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010". The New York Times mostly reported it with more respect than one might have expected from an organ which has in the past exhibited a distinctly anti-Catholic tinge:

"A five-year study commissioned by the nation's Roman Catholic bishops to provide a definitive answer to what caused the church's sexual abuse crisis has concluded that neither the all-male celibate priesthood nor homosexuality were to blame.

"Instead, the report says, the abuse occurred because priests who were poorly prepared and monitored, and were under stress, landed amid the social and sexual turmoil of the 1960s and 70s.

"Known occurrences of sexual abuse of minors by priests rose sharply during those decades, the report found, and the problem grew worse when the church's hierarchy responded by showing more care for the perpetrators than the victims.

"The 'blame Woodstock' explanation [The NY Times showing its true colours?] has been floated by bishops since the church was engulfed by scandal in the United States in 2002 and by Pope Benedict XVI [not much, surely?] after it erupted in Europe in 2010.

"But this study is likely to be regarded as the most authoritative analysis of the scandal in the Catholic Church in America. The study, initiated in 2006, was conducted by a team of researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City at a cost of $1.8 million. About half was provided by the bishops, with additional money contributed by Catholic organisations and foundations. The National Institute of Justice, the research agency of the United States Department of Justice, supplied about $280,000."

What The New York Times calls the "blame Woodstock" explanation for the rise of clerical sex abuse cases in the Seventies, despite the paper's evident scepticism, cannot be entirely discounted, since as the researchers of the John Jay College (hereafter JJC) pointed out in their latest report, "the sexual abuse of minors is a pervasive problem in society and in organisations that involve close relationships between youth and adults.....No exact measure exists for the number of youths who have contact with priests in the Catholic Church in a year.... [but] despite the media focus on child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, it is clear that these abuse acts are a small percentage of all child sexual abuse incidents in the United States."

What's interesting is that though both these reports by independent and secular organisations (NSPCC and JJC) either state or imply that child sex abuse is part of a problem in society as a whole and not a particular problem for the Catholic Church, in other words that Catholic priests are no more likely than anyone else to be involved in it, Dr Pravin Thevathasan, the author of the third document on this subject published around the same time, "The Catholic Church & the Sex Abuse Crisis", published by the CTS, is not inclined to deploy this fact to get the Church off the hook.

Nevertheless, there is now a growing willingness - as long as it is made clear that this is no excuse for the existence of this appalling crime within an organisation which ought to be an example to society at large rather than a reflection of it - to think seriously about what that implies for our relationship to a society which, because of our bishops' gross mishandling of the problem, we now have small hope of influencing in this matter. As Dr Thevathasan concludes (p. 68):

"It is true that the abuse of minors is rife within society. But we claim, by the grace of God, to be members of the one Church founded by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and we are therefore called to a higher standard than that found in society at large. We are called by our Holy Father to enter a period of purification and repentance. There have been services of repentance and many victims have finally felt that they have been heard by the Church. May they continue to find the healing love of Jesus Christ."

He also opens his report (which should be widely read and pondered) with the same reflection (p3):

"In this work, no excuses will be offered in order to justify the appalling crime of sexual abuse perpetrated by a small number of Catholic priests -about 2 to 4\% credible accusations in the United States and less than this in the United Kingdom in the last forty years - nor for the pastoral negligence of some bishops. To quote Pope Benedict, sexual abuse has 'profoundly wounded people in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime'."

But he adds:

"The Pope has also said that the crimes of priests, while reprehensible, should be seen in the context of the times in which these events took place. Citing the rise of child pornography and sexual tourism, he concludes that moral standards in society at large have broken down."

This is, I suggest, what we should now focus on. Continuing to reflect on our own involvement in this appalling problem, we need to understand that though, as the American researcher Charol Shakeshaft reflected in a report for the US Department of Education, children are, as Dr Thevathasan also points out, "a hundred times more likely to be abused in school than by priests", and though this "does indicate that the sexual abuse of minors is significantly higher in secular society than in the Church", we cannot be complacent: "this does not excuse the behaviour of abusive priests". The Holy Father's clear guidance is that the Church at large is still called upon "to enter a period of purification and repentance and of prayer for the victims of clerical child abuse".

All the same, he says, "one of the immense dangers of focussing unduly on clergy abuse is that we might fail to protect vulnerable children in the wider society".

And this is indeed a real danger. For, the trouble with scapegoats is that they are set apart as such to make society feel better about itself, and not to cope with the real problem thus shuffled off into the wilderness. Child sex abuse is a problem for society at large which it has barely begun seriously to address. The JJC report has been greeted by howls of fury by atheist bloggers, determined not to be thus cheated of their prime article of indictment against the Catholic Church, their favourite target. Take Miranda Scott Hale, who immediately concluded: "This report isn't better than nothing. It's a major setback in the movement towards Church accountability". By this, of course, she means indelible and above all exclusive guilt. She neglected to mention her aggressivelyatheist agenda, posing as a dispassionate observer. A fellow atheist blogger, however, on his site The Heathen Hub ( revealed that she is actually "one of... the atheist movement's footsoldiers", and quotes her as saying that she is "really tired of sceptics who are committed to investigating and criticising irrationality unless that irrationality is of the religious sort.... just so that the sceptic in question can .... avoid offending religious individuals". Well, she and many others are still out for Catholic scalps: we aren't just scapegoats for them, we are the ultimate enemy, and against us no tactic is out of bounds. But if The New York Times can report thatthe JJC report "is likely to be regarded as the most authoritative analysis of the scandal in the Catholic Church in America", maybe, just maybe, the atheists are now on the back foot and we are finally on the way to seeing this all but intractable problem on the way to being successfully confronted and lived through. There may be light at the end of the tunnel; on the other hand, the sour old joke may still come true: it could be an oncoming train.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2011