A friend of mine recently responded to a local newspaper cartoon with a letter to the editor and a cancellation of his subscription. The cartoon depicted a woman being harassed by a bishop about her use of contraception but the bishop then making a forward comment about her little boy. While this cartoon is utterly tasteless, the truly shocking element of all of this were the reader comments submitted on the newspaper’s website. The sheer ignorance of most individuals regarding the priest abuse scandal is astounding. Our mainstream media outlets would lead you to believe that a majority of priests were abusers and the numbers of victims in the millions. Without minimizing the seriousness of the abuse that did indeed occur, it’s important to take a look at the facts and let them speak for themselves.
Here’s how to start. There is an important document known as the John Jay report that outlines the specifics of the crisis with documented statistics. This report was commissioned by the Catholic Church and independently conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York to take a critical look into the matter of accusations against priests to try to get a better understanding of why this crisis occurred in the first place. To my knowledge, this was an unprecedented move on behalf of the American Catholic church. I have known of no other institution upon discovering a weakness of this nature that has freely chosen an investigation into their own operation, but this is exactly what the Catholic Church did.
The study revealed many interesting elements. Some of the more notable was the fact that this was not a rampant problem among the clergy. The bulk of abuse occurred between the 1960s and 1980s. This problem affected only 4 percent of the priesthood. Also, out of the estimated 100 million Catholics in America, only 6,700 cases were substantiated. Granted, every case of abuse is one too many, and the church has taken significant actions to make sure children are protected moving forward. Interestingly, I have often conducted my own unscientific poll by asking friends, “How many victims do you think there were in the priest abuse scandal in America?” Most of whom I have asked respond with totals in the millions, not in the thousands. Again, I don’t want to make light of anyone harmed by a predator priest, but to have a total that is statistically in the one, one-thousandths of a percentile is not the epic figures many people immediately guess.
The John Jay report gets very specific about the nature of the abuse cases. Less than 2 percent of the 6,700 cases were actually classified as pedophilia. The other 98 percent were what is considered ephebophilia. This is still an egregious act, but I believe it’s important to set the record straight and realize that the problem was not with young children, but rather focused on pubescent boys between the ages of 11 and 17. Again, not to excuse the issue, but we need to really see what the nature of the problem was. Also, of the 6,700 cases 75 percent were of some other nature than actual sexual activity. Inappropriate touching over the clothes was a top reported abuse.
If we were to compare these figures to the culture at large, where an estimated 2 percent are of some form or another sexually deviant, we could easily see that our figures are 10 times lesser than the general public. These are numbers you will never see reported in the major media.
The major media have done the Catholic Church a huge injustice. Never have John Jay reports been presented accurately in any of the dominant media outlets. If a priest is accused, even wrongly, all we hear about is the accusation, which immediately makes him guilty in the eyes of the public. Many priests have been exonerated due to inconclusive evidence. Do we ever hear about these? Our own United States Conference of Catholic Bishops established a one-strike policy for accusations. If the report is deemed credible, which typically only requires some degree of corroboration, the priest of removed from service immediately. This policy was a reaction to the criticism that the bishops had been lax with wayward priests in the past. For the past 10 years, however, this has been the standard. This is never reported in major media stories. It’s still somehow believed that priests are getting reassigned and problems are being swept under the rug. None of which is remotely true.
Another misconception in all of this is that our popes have been accomplices. No one, not even most Catholics, understands what the governance system is within the church. We have a structural component known as subsidiarity. This is a system that brings autonomy to the lowest level of governance. For Catholics the first level of autonomy is within the family. If a decision can be made or a problem solved on this level, then so be it. There is no need for interference from a higher level. The pastor at the parish does not need to be involved with the affairs of the families within the parish.
Conversely, if there is a problem within the family that the family cannot solve, then the parish may get involved with the request of the family. This is true on every level of the hierarchy within the Catholic Church. The local bishop is not concerned with the daily business of a parish unless there is a problem brought to his attention to which he must respond. This is most especially true on the pontifical level. If every issue of every diocese in the world were the direct responsibility of the pope, nothing would ever get done. Subsidiarity is a beautiful management philosophy. Unfortunately, in our cultural constructs of top down micro-management, the principle of subsidiarity is a foreign concept.
Based on the management philosophy of subsidiarity, the abuse challenge never needed to go beyond a bishop. Now you might debate the handling on the diocesan level, but nonetheless, this wasn’t a Vatican problem. The dioceses involved were ill prepared to deal with something of this nature. This is something no one should ever have to deal with. Look at our public schools of the past several decades to see a glaring example of the same issue equally mishandled. Statistics would say the problem there is 10 times worse, however. I believe we really need to get perspective of this picture and see that the problem, while still a problem, was not accurately presented, using the facts that were made available by the John Jay report. Not to mention that the Catholic Church needs to be given credit for the actual handling of the problem once it was discovered.
The silver lining for the Catholic Church through this trial is that we have gotten better. Our screening for seminary candidates is far more stringent than in decades past. Because there were problems linked to particular seminaries all of the seminaries were carefully scrutinized. All were reformed to some degree. Some were closed and reopened only after total overhauls to their operation. We have enacted a training program for our laity as well that teaches us the warning signs of abusers and how to respond appropriately to anything you suspect. All of these measures were self-imposed. We recognized our weaknesses and responded responsibly. Now new cases are almost nonexistent. In the rare case that something new does materialize it is rarely with a priest. None of the good news is being reported. We are still seen as some sort of deviant, secretive and despicable organization in the eyes of far too many. I, for one, want to set the record straight.
Leo Brown is a certified Catechist of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lexington and general manager of the Catholic radio station Real Life Radio 1380 AM and 94.9 FM. Leo is a central Kentucky native, a communications graduate from EKU, was formerly known as Freakdaddy at both Double Q and Z103 and has spent close to 15 years in active ministry. Hear Leo daily on Real Life Radio as the host of Diocese Live from 3:10 to 5 p.m. His views are his own and not those of KyForward.