Monday, August 20, 2018

Debunking some myths about the sex abuse scandal

I've been kind of obsessed with reading up about the sex abuse scandal.  Not to the point of reading the report out of Pennsylvania -- I don't want to actually read graphic accounts; that upsets the heck out of me and I can always read summaries elsewhere.  But I've been reading studies, statistics, and many, many editorials, trying to figure out how this happened and what can be done.  I think maybe I feel drawn to do this because I never followed the scandal at all before.  It broke while I was in boarding school and I was forbidden from reading anything about it -- a rule I followed till 2006.  But even after that, I tended to assume the usual talking points were true -- it was a problem at one time in the past, it's over now, and anyway the Catholic Church is no worse than anybody else in this regard.

But despite my interest in learning more, I've tried to stay relatively quiet.  It's not my problem to solve, and the one answer that keeps coming back to me -- just run far away! -- is not acceptable to most of my friends.

Only, after the initial anger and sadness -- reactions which heartened me, as I saw more and more people acknowledging the problem -- there has been a backlash of the old defensiveness.  Or else people are latching onto it as a way to attack their ideological opponents.

So I thought I'd write a master post with answers to some of the most common bits of misinformation here, so I don't have to keep typing up the same responses and digging up the same links.  My main sources are the John Jay Report (summarized here) and the Australian study, The Royal Commission on Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse.  I'm also drawing a little from the work of the late Richard Sipe, expert on the psychology of priests.  Here goes.

Myth #1: Sex abuse by priests is extremely rare and it's much less common than in other organizations.

This claim is often trotted out and I've seen it in many Catholic articles, but none ever cited a source. I've scoured the internet for evidence of it, and I think I've found it here. But it actually says Catholic priests are no more likely to abuse than other religious ministers, not than, say, teachers or scout leaders. It also isn't a rigorous study: they simply asked a few experts who deal with sex abuse whether they see more from priests or other ministers. Certainly I know many other religious groups have a sex abuse problem: evangelicals and Mormons come to mind. But that doesn't mean every denomination has a problem of the magnitude of the Catholic Church.
What hard data I can find is as follows:

  • 4% of priests in America have been accused of sexual crimes against minors according to the John Jay Report
  • "Of the 4,392 clergy accused, 3,300 were not investigated because the cleric had already died. Of the remainder 1,021 were reported to police and of those, 384 were charged, resulting in 252 convictions and 100 prison sentences; In total, out of the 109,694 priests who were surveyed, 100 were imprisoned." [ibid.]  That makes .26% of all Catholic priests in the US during the time period actually convicted--though this isn't a fair data point, considering 3/4 of the priests involved had died, and in many of the rest of the cases, the statute of limitations had expired.  
  • "Even the John Jay study of the Crisis of Sexual Abuse in the United States has only recorded the priests “reported” for the sexual abuse of minors (now well over 5,000 since 1950) from the data supplied by the various dioceses. As more cases are documented the actual number of abusing priests is approaching 10 percent, for instance in Boston and Albany. Los Angeles had 11.5 percent of its active priests in 1983 subsequently revealed to be sexual abusers. The Diocese of Tucson harbored 24 percent abusers on its active clergy rolls in 1988—including retired Bishop Francis J. Green." [Richard Sipe]
  • In America, from 2001 to 2005, 2500 teachers have been disciplined for sex crimes against minors, out of three million teachers.  I get .08% out of that -- but over only five years, whereas the John Jay Report covers decades.  I am not sure how you'd convert those numbers, but it still is a fraction the size even of the convictions of the Catholic priests.
  • What about the population overall?  It took me a lot of digging but I think I have an answer. "According to the National Center for Missing And Exploited Children, .262% of the population are sex offenders[6]. We know that juveniles are the victims of approximately 66% of sex offenses[7], which means we can estimate that 66% of sex offenders have crimes against juveniles, or .17292% of the population." [source]  That would make Catholic priests significantly more likely to be convicted of a sex crime against a minor -- even given the extensive coverup which hindered convictions from happening. 

Let's turn to the Australian data.  This isn't exactly parallel to the American situation, but I'm referring to it because there is a great deal more information available on sex abuse in Australia thanks to the work of the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.  This was a government project to investigate child sex abuse in all institutions, religious and secular, and make recommendations to prevent the same from happening again.
  • The Royal Commission found that between 1950 and 2010, 7% of Catholic priests were accused of sex abuse.
  • They don't seem to have similar percentages for each religion studied, but the breakdown in cases was 61.8% Catholic, 14.7% Anglican, 7.3% Salvation Army, and the rest Protestant and other.  I compared this to census data from 1986 (since this is in the middle of the time period studied) and found Australians were 26% Catholic, 23% Anglican, .5% Salvation Army, in addition to many other religions.  This shows that, proportionally, Catholics had a much bigger abuse problem than Anglicans.  However, the Salvation Army also had a disproportionate rate of abuse, so it would be untrue to say that Catholics are the only denomination with a problem.  [source]
  • Australian data for schools is as follows: "Almost one in three of all survivors we heard about in private sessions (2,186 survivors or 31.8 per cent) told us they were sexually abused in a school setting as a child. Of these survivors, three-quarters (75.9 per cent) said they were abused in non-government schools, of which 73.8 per cent identified a Catholic school and 26.4 per cent identified an Independent school." [source]  This is surprising given that two-thirds of Australian children go to a government school. [source]  However, Australia does have a terrible history of putting Aboriginal children in abusive religous boarding schools, so we may be seeing some of that problem here.

This does seem to demonstrate that while the problems in the Catholic Church are not entirely unique, neither are they exactly the same as everywhere else -- schools, other denominations, or the population at large.  Of course, because there are a lot more teachers and parents in any country than priests, it is far more likely any given child is abused by someone other than a priest.  But we can safely conclude that the Catholic Church has a bigger problem than elsewhere.  And no one denies it has also been compounded by a poor institutional response.

Myth #2: This is a gay problem -- the cure is getting rid of gay priests.

This myth comes in several parts.
1.  The majority of abuse has had male perpetrators and male victims.
2.  That means the perpetrators were homosexual.
3.  The cure is ridding the priesthood of all homosexuals.

The first point is true.  Though very often people will add that the victims were supposedly "postpubescent," thus drawing an inference that the men who abused them were attracted to them because they looked like adult men.  That part is false.  Over half the victims were within a very narrow age window: 11-14 years old, with the average age being 12.  Most boys go through puberty after twelve.  I've taught 14-year-old boys and most of them did not look like adult men.  They looked like gawky children.  My guess is that boys of this age were targeted because this is an age when they are most likely to be altar boys.  They are between the age when they would be allowed to go on trips or to boarding schools, and the age when they might have the courage or strength to fight off an attacker.

Most likely, boys were more accessible to priests during the years mentioned.  And the John Jay report does mention that the share of female victims went up after girls were allowed to be altar servers, so that seems to confirm this view.

The second point is not true.  Oddly, many men who identify as heterosexual and have sexual relationships with adult women also abuse boys.  Fr. Maciel, for instance, had two mistresses as well as many male victims.  Some will claim that this still counts as gay because they did have sexual contact with males, but these men don't fit the expected profile of a gay man.

"Research suggests that child sexual abuse is not related to sexual orientation: perpetrators can be straight, gay, lesbian or bisexual. Research has indicated that ‘men who identify as heterosexual are just as likely as men who identify as homosexual to perpetrate child sexual abuse’. We heard about adult perpetrators who were married or had adult sexual relationships with people who were not of the same gender as the children they sexually abused.  In Case Study 18... we heard about a child sex offender, Jonathan Baldwin, who was a Youth Pastor at the Sunshine Coast Church. One of Baldwin’s colleagues, Dr Ian Lehmann, told us that despite concerns brought to his attention, he did not suspect the relationship between Baldwin and the boy he was abusing to be improper because Baldwin was at the time in a relationship with Dr Lehmann’s adult daughter, whom he later married. Research suggests some perpetrators who sexually abuse children of a particular gender may do so because they only have access to children of that gender.  It is a common misconception that all perpetrators who abuse children of the same gender as them are primarily same-sex attracted and identify as a gay man or lesbian woman."  (RCIRCSA)

" Clergy who exhibited homosexual behavior were not significantly more likely to abuse minors than those who did not. Sexual identity is different, of course, from sexual behavior, and the study did not identify the sexual orientation of all the offenders. The report suggests that one reason the majority of victims were male may be that boys were more accessible to the predators than girls. The data show that the percentage of girls who were victims increased after girls were allowed to become altar servers." (John Jay Report)

And that shows the third point is false too.  If abusers don't fit the usual profile of a gay man, how can they be somehow "rooted out"?  They will not tell seminary directors they are gay, because they don't think of themselves as gay.  If asked, they may point to past relationships with women.  And amazingly, they may preach very loudly about the evils of homosexuality.  Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Fr. Tony Anatrella, and (outside the Catholic Church) Ted Haggery fit this profile.

So, while abusers may be primarily targeting boys, there's no reason to think that simply saying "no gay seminarians" (a rule the Church has already made) or defrocking priests who preach in favor of gay marriage would do a thing to solve the problem.

That said, it turns out a lot of the talk of a "gay subculture" in the priesthood isn't the conspiratorial myth I thought it was.  There is male-on-male predation going on in the priesthood and in seminary, and I do think there may be a connection between that and child sex abuse.  Is it possible that priests molested by older priests, then turned around to molest others?  It certainly could be.  But that needs to be disentangled from the notion of identifying as gay, because the people who are participating it do not all identify as gay, and there are surely lots of priests who do think of themselves as gay who aren't predatory.

It may help to consider that a large proportion of priests may be homosexual.  I've seen numbers ranging from one third to one half of priests.  Especially before the sixties, homosexuality was so stigmatized that a single man might need some kind of "cover" to avoid being accused of being gay.  The priesthood was a popular option.  What this means is that there are not a few members of a "lavender mafia" that need to be purged, but thousands and thousands of gay priests, many of whom are sincerely pious and keep their vow of chastity.  Would people still feel the same about "getting rid of the gays" if they realized that might mean getting rid of their own beloved parish priest, who sat up all night with their dying grandfather and who has never ever touched a child?

The worst part of this is that it's a bit of a smokescreen predators like to cast.  If they can shift suspicion onto people who identify as gay, then all they have to do is not identify as gay and they will be seen as innocent.  I have heard plenty of claims that the sex abuse scandal is over and won't return now that gay men are barred from entering seminary.  All we have to do is wait for all the priests from before that change to die.  But that's going to be a long generation during which children continue to be abused, before we finally realize that we haven't actually rooted out the abusers.

Myth #3:  This crisis could be solved by priests getting married.

Well, this one is a bit of a half-truth.  In its simple form it's false; you can't simply issue a pedophile a wife and have him stop molesting.  More likely, he will molest his own children.  And isn't that a pretty icky attitude toward women, that they should sacrifice themselves to evil and abusive men to keep them from raping anybody else?  And it is a fact that most child molesters are not vowed to celibacy; many are married, including married clergy in non-Catholic religions.

That said, many experts (Richard Sipe, the Royal Commission) do believe relaxing the celibacy requirement would help.  For one thing, Catholic priests are not all celibate, despite their vows.  Richard Sipe claims that about half of priests are sexually active.  He also cites these numbers from a group of 354 priests who are sexually active and report on their sexual activity:

"53 percent of this group are sexually active with adult women.
21 percent are sexually active with adult men.
14 percent are sexually active with minor boys.
12 percent are sexually active with minor girls.
In all 74 percent are involved with adults.
And 26 percent are involved with minors.
65 percent of priests choose sexual partners of the opposite sex.
35 percent of priests choose same sex partners." [source]

When celibacy is practiced this little, is it really celibacy at all?

But it's not the same as simply not having a celibate priesthood.  Instead, it's a situation where everyone has secrets, some of which may be used as blackmail material.  Perhaps this is part of why the bishops didn't move against abusive priests they knew about -- they were afraid of getting caught in their own sexual lapses.

I suspect that not everyone is capable of being celibate.  That's why teens who pledge abstinence still get pregnant, couples using NFP get pregnant, priests with a vow of chastity have sex, and so on.  If they find a willing partner, they wind up giving in.  Most of them do not offend against minors, but choose adult partners.  Still, it creates a culture where everyone secretly knows that the vow of chastity is only an ideal.

Something similar may be the case with the ban on openly gay priests.  The secrecy about orientation may actually drive some of the worst behaviors.  Victims don't want to admit they were victimized for fear of people thinking or knowing the victim is gay.  Predators use the knowledge that a target is gay to single him out.  (How did they learn that the target was gay?  If I believe what I read, from hearing his confession.  There is no bottom of the awfulness.)

If celibacy were optional, you'd see more straight priests.  And if there weren't a policy against gay seminarians, it might not be something you could hold over anyone's head.  Women priests or women in leadership positions were also recommended by the Royal Commission, but obviously that's never going to happen.

Myth #4: This the fault of the American bishops.

Americans tend to assume the problem is with their own bishops.  After all, the paper trail leads right to the bishops' door.  But the pattern is actually global, with scandals breaking out in Ireland, Australia, Mexico, Italy, and elsewhere, all following a very similar playbook.  And there is some evidence that the trail leads past the bishops' door and all the way to the Vatican.  For instance, John Paul II had been informed many times about Maciel, and forbade any investigation.  Benedict XVI was informed of McCarrick's predatory behavior and did not make any move.  And Francis, of course, was told about Juan Barros before installing him as cardinal.

It may be that the very structure of the church is inimical to accountability.  While other churches can fire a priest immediately, through a board of directors or local leadership, Catholic priests can only be laicized by the Vatican.  The tribunal is secret and until recently could only include priests.  And, just like our own legal system, there is a statute of limitations, so priests who abused long ago, even if the abuse is proved, may remain in the priesthood permanently.

I have a suspicion that some of the American bishops might have petitioned that abusing priests be laicized, only to have their requests denied.  They could complain about this publicly -- but the pope put them in their positions and can remove them just as fast.  How would we know?  I recently watched a documentary, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, which suggested this.  However, I've had difficulty in tracking down the documents they cited.  (Which is why I find videos a terrible way to get information; it's almost impossible to track down the sources.)  I do recommend the video, and if I track down the documents, I will add them here.

If the rot really does go all the way to the Vatican, the best the laity can do is wait and hope.  The pope chooses the cardinals and the cardinals choose the pope -- there is no part of church structure that allows for lay appeals or lay accountability.  Even nuns have no role.

From the Royal Commission:
"The governance of the Catholic Church is hierarchical. We heard that the decentralisation and autonomy of Catholic dioceses and religious institutes contributed to ineffective responses of Catholic Church authorities to child sexual abuse, as did the personalised nature of power in the Catholic Church and the limited accountability of bishops. 
The powers of governance held by individual diocesan bishops and provincials are not subject to adequate checks and balances. There is no separation of powers, and the executive, legislative and judicial aspects of governance are combined in the person of the pope and in diocesan bishops. Diocesan bishops have not been sufficiently accountable to any other body for decision-making in their handling of allegations of child sexual abuse or alleged perpetrators. There has been no requirement for their decisions to be made transparent or subject to due process. The tragic consequences of this lack of accountability have been seen in the failures of those in authority in the Catholic Church to respond adequately to allegations and occurrences of child sexual abuse.
The hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church created a culture of deferential obedience in which poor responses to child sexual abuse went unchallenged. Where senior clergy and religious with advisory roles to diocesan bishops or provincials of religious institutes were aware of allegations of child sexual abuse, often they did not challenge or attempt to remedy the inadequate responses of their bishop or provincial, or believed that they could not do so."  (RCIRCSA: Volume 16)

Now it's not entirely hopeless.  Occasionally lay people have been able to change the church, either from within or without.  St. Catherine of Siena changed it from within, Martin Luther from without.  And of course all lay people can make changes in their own lives: they can exercise more suspicion about religious environments where their children are, they can believe children who report abuse instead of shaming them for speaking against a priest, and they can report all crimes directly to the police instead of expecting the diocese to handle them.

Most of all, though, I think it's important for people to avoid using this scandal as an opportunity to grind their favorite axes ("it's the gays!" / "it's celibacy!") and focus on accountability and openness.  What needs to change, more than anything, is the clericalism which assumes the laity, and the secular government, can't have anything useful to add and therefore don't need to know anything.  The hierarchy should be encouraged to open up all their records, to come clean once and for all in every diocese about just how bad it was.  All bishops who concealed crimes from the police and moved abusers to new parishes should step down--not to a pleasant retirement and the title Bishop Emeritus, but to a life of quiet penance and reflection.  And the Vatican needs to look to parts of the world where we haven't heard as much: Europe, Latin America, and Africa all have sexual scandals and need the kind of reform the US bishops have been working on, or more thorough reform than that.

Further Reading:

1 comment:

MrRoivas said...

There was a diocese where a quarter of priests were sexual predators.

Words fail me.

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