Catholic Church Sexual Abuse: A Decade of Crisis

By Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP
May 2, 2012

This year marks the 10th anniversary of The Boston Globe ’s investigative report on child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in Boston, unleashing a remarkable and unrelenting crisis in the church across the United States and much of the world. Much has happened in the decade since this story made front page news yet there is a remarkable amount of misinformation and myths about clergy sexual abuse that still exists.

This includes the notion that Catholic clergy are much more likely to be sex offenders than men from other groups as well as that the cause of the abuse crisis has to do with celibacy requirements for Catholic priests or due to homosexual men. Many believe the church continues to be a safe haven for sex offenders and abuse continues to be rampant.

Psychologists and other mental health professionals who may conduct evaluations or treat clergy abuse victims, clergy offenders or even just rank-and-file Catholics must be updated on what we know about the problem in order to provide ethical and competent services. Good quality research data and best clinical practice guidelines are available but infrequently used. Hysteria seems to be more common than reasoned discourse when it comes to this topic even among professionals.

As a psychologist and professor who treats and evaluates clergy abuse victims and offenders, consults with many church dioceses and religious orders, as well as conducts research on this topic now for 25 years, I’ve been amazed at how often knowledgeable and thoughtful mental health professionals as well as the public can be misled by news reports and intense emotional reactions to this issue.

Quality research data published in 2004 (the Nature and Scope Study) and 2011 (the Causes and Context Study) conducted by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice dispel many of these myths and offer state-of-the-art research findings on sexual abuse of minors in the church and throughout society.

These studies (among others) find that during the past 60 years 4 percent of Catholic priests and religious brothers had credible allegations of sexual misconduct with minors in America, peaking during the 1970s with significant and dramatic declines starting to occur in the early 1980s. In fact, 94 percent of known cases occurred before 1990.

No empirical evidence exists that indicates that these figures are lower among other clerical or other types of groups with men having regular access to and control over children (e.g., non-Catholic clergy, coaches, school teachers, boy scout leaders). Recent news from college athletics at Penn State and Syracuse universities underscore that child sexual abuse is not confined to the Catholic Church or to any church organization but can occur wherever adult men have power, control and unsupervised access to youth.

It is startling that research finds that about 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women in America report that they were sexually violated as a child by an adult male with about 80 percent of the offenders being relatives such as step-fathers, uncles, older brothers and cousins. Although horrific, Catholic priests are not more likely to violate children than other men. Therefore, blaming mandatory celibacy as a root cause is misguided.

Many wish to blame clergy abuse on the high number of homosexual men in ministry (with best research-based estimates to be between 25 percent and 40 percent in the Catholic priesthood). Psychologists and other mental health professionals are well aware that sexual orientation by itself is not a risk factor for crimes against children.

In fact, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics all offer position statements after carefully reviewing the research evidence making clear that homosexuality is not a risk factor for sex crimes against children.

Research also finds that 80 percent of the victims of clergy sexual abuse are teens and not pre-pubescent children. Therefore, most offenders in the Church are not pedophiles at all. The often heard phrase “pedophile priest” is misleading.

The number of new cases of sexual abuse by priest in the United States during the past decade averages about 10 per year with decreasing numbers in most recent years. Most of the recent offenders are international priests who often did not have the same training and screening as those trained and ordained in the United States.

We have learned in the past decade that when institutions are confronted with allegations of child sexual abuse perpetrated by valued organizational members they typically respond with denial, cover up and efforts to protect the institution from accountability, lawsuits, embarrassment and scandal rather than making their top priority the well being of victims. This has been true in the Catholic Church as well as in other institutions.

A decade after The Boston Globe’s report, there is much to be hopeful about in keeping children safe in 2012 and beyond. Mandated reporting laws, intense media attention, victim advocacy, scrutiny and many new policies and procedures employed by the Catholic Church articulated in what is referred to as the Dallas Charter, such as zero tolerance policies, annual audits of dioceses, educational efforts such as safe environment training programs for all employees, volunteers and members of the Church who are involved with youth, criminal background checks and mandated psychological and behavioral screening of clergy applicants or new international priests and other efforts all work together to keep children safer in the presence of adults.

While much has been done in the past decade, more still needs to happen to make the system of child protection in the church and elsewhere air tight. Problems still exist in trying to get everyone to follow well conceived and articulated policies and procedures as well as the law (such as the recent challenges in the dioceses of both Kansas City and Philadelphia).

So, there is still plenty of work that needs to be done. Using the best available research and clinical data without affect and agendas is the best way for psychologists and other professionals to keep children safe both in and outside of the Catholic Church.

Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP, is professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and author of several books on clergy abuse including the just-released Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012 . Learn more at He may be reached at .

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