By Philip Jenkins
Every day, the news media have a new horror story to report, under some sensational headline: Newsweek, typically, is devoting its current front cover to "Sex, Shame and the Catholic Church: 80 Priests Accused of Child Abuse in Boston." Though the sex abuse cases have deep roots, the most recent scandals were detonated by the affair of Boston priest John J. Geoghan.
Though his superiors had known for years of Geoghan´s pedophile activities, he kept being transferred from parish to parish, regardless of the safety of the children in his care. The stigma of the Geoghan affair could last for decades, and some Catholics are declaring in their outrage that they can never trust their church again.
No one can deny that Boston church authorities committed dreadful errors, but at the same time, the story is not quite the simple tale of good and evil that it sometime appears. Hard though it may be to believe right now, the "pedophile priest" scandal is nothing like as sinister as it has been painted -- or at least, it should not be used to launch blanket accusations against the Catholic Church as a whole.
We have often heard the phrase "pedophile priest" in recent weeks. Such individuals can exist: Father Geoghan was one, as was the notorious Father James Porter a decade or so back. But as a description of a social problem, the term is wildly misleading. Crucially, Catholic priests and other clergy have nothing like a monopoly on sexual misconduct with minors.
My research of cases over the past 20 years indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination -- or indeed, than nonclergy. However determined news media may be to see this affair as a crisis of celibacy, the charge is just unsupported.
Literally every denomination and faith tradition has its share of abuse cases, and some of the worst involve non-Catholics. Every mainline Protestant denomination has had scandals aplenty, as have Pentecostals, Mormons, Jehovah´s Witnesses, Jews, Buddhists, Hare Krishnas -- and the list goes on. One Canadian Anglican (Episcopal) diocese is currently on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of massive lawsuits caused by decades of systematic abuse, yet the Anglican church does not demand celibacy of its clergy.
However much this statement contradicts conventional wisdom, the "pedophile priest" is not a Catholic specialty. Yet when did we ever hear about "pedophile pastors"?
Just to find some solid numbers, how many Catholic clergy are involved in misconduct? We actually have some good information on this issue, since in the early 1990s, the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago undertook a bold and thorough self-study. The survey examined every priest who had served in the archdiocese over the previous 40 years, some 2,200 individuals, and reopened every internal complaint ever made against these men. The standard of evidence applied was not legal proof that would stand up in a court of law, but just the consensus that a particular charge was probably justified.
By this low standard, the survey found that about 40 priests, about 1.8 percent of the whole, were probably guilty of misconduct with minors at some point in their careers. Put another way, no evidence existed against about 98 percent of parish clergy, the overwhelming majority of the group.
Since other organizations dealing with children have not undertaken such comprehensive studies, we have no idea whether the Catholic figure is better or worse than the rate for schoolteachers, residential home counselors, social workers or scout masters.
The Chicago study also found that of the 2,200 priests, just one was a pedophile. Now, many people are confused about the distinction between a pedophile and a person guilty of sex with a minor. The difference is very significant. The phrase "pedophile priests" conjures up images of the worst violation of innocence, callous molesters like Father Porter who assault children 7 years old. "Pedophilia" is a psychiatric term meaning sexual interest in children below the age of puberty.
But the vast majority of clergy misconduct cases are nothing like this. The vast majority of instances involve priests who have been sexually active with a person below the age of sexual consent, often 16 or 17 years old, or even older. An act of this sort is wrong on multiple counts: It is probably criminal, and by common consent it is immoral and sinful; yet it does not have the utterly ruthless, exploitative character of child molestation. In almost all cases too, with the older teen-agers, there is an element of consent.
Also, the definition of "childhood" varies enormously between different societies. If an act of this sort occurred in most European countries, it would probably be legal, since the age of consent for boys is usually around 15. To take a specific example, when newspapers review recent cases of "pedophile priests," they commonly cite a case that occurred in California´s Orange County, when a priest was charged with having consensual sex with a 17-year-old boy. Whatever the moral quality of such an act, most of us would not apply the term "child abuse" or "pedophilia." For this reason alone, we need to be cautious when we read about scores of priests being "accused of child abuse."
The age of the young person involved is also so important because different kinds of sexual misconduct respond differently to treatment, and church authorities need to respond differently. If a diocese knows a man is a pedophile, and ever again places him in a position where he has access to more children, that decision is simply wrong, and probably amounts to criminal neglect. But a priest who has a relationship with an older teen-ager is much more likely to respond to treatment, and it would be more understandable if some day the church placed him in a new parish, under careful supervision.
The fact that Cardinal Law´s regime in Boston seems to have blundered time and again does not mean that this is standard practice for all Catholic dioceses, still less that the church is engaged in some kind of conspiracy of silence to hide dangerous perverts.
I am in no sense soft on the issue of child abuse. Recently, I published an expose of the trade in electronic child pornography, one of the absolute worst forms of exploitation, and my argument was that the police and FBI need to be pressured to act more strictly against this awful thing.
My concern over the "pedophile priest" issue is not to defend evil clergy, or a sinful church (I cannot be called a Catholic apologist, since I am not even a Catholic). But I am worried that justified anger over a few awful cases might be turned into ill-focused attacks against innocent clergy.
The story of clerical misconduct is bad enough without turning into an unjustifiable outbreak of religious bigotry against the Catholic Church.