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American journalist David Gibson takes an honest look at the facts and myths surrounding the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, including the involvement of the pope and the Vatican, the role of the media and whether or not this is a particularly Catholic problem.

Seven Myths About the Catholic Church and Clergy Sex Abuse: An American Journalist’s View
By: David Gibson

Each issue carries an imprimatur from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
American Catholics may have thought the crisis over reports of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy had ebbed after exploding onto the front pages in January 2002 and continuing for several years. Horrible reports of abuse, plus financial scandals and financial payouts that threatened many dioceses, led to efforts at reform and a sense that the Church was tackling the problems. But at the end of 2009 and throughout much of 2010, a new “tsunami”—the term used by Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn—of reports swept across Europe and even reached the Vatican, raising serious questions about the past record of Pope Benedict XVI.

Some Church leaders welcomed the scrutiny as a necessary catharsis while others blasted the media or sought to spin the reports. Amid the hue and cry, sensible voices were often drowned out, and many myths arose. In this Update we’ll look at seven popular myths that are often heard, but which do not tell the whole story—or even part of it.

Myth 1: Pope Benedict is the culprit behind the cover-up of clergy sexual abuse.
Hardly. There is just one abuse case so far that can be traced directly to Benedict’s tenure as a bishop, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Archdiocese of Munich in his native Germany. In that case, in 1980, Ratzinger allowed an abuser into his diocese for psychiatric treatment, and the man was reassigned to a parish where he went on to abuse more children. It’s unclear whether Ratzinger signed off on the assignment, but at worst he seems to have acted more or less like many bishops at the time—no better, no worse.

While Cardinal Ratzinger headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982-2005), the Vatican’s office for orthodoxy, a few cases came under his jurisdiction (mainly from the United States), and the evidence shows he didn’t move with any great urgency to defrock abusive priests. That seems to be due in part to the Church culture at the time and also to the cumbersome rules governing “laicization” (return to laity)—rules that John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger’s boss, wanted enforced. A huge number of priests had requested laicization in the 1960s and 1970s, most to marry, and after John Paul became pope in 1978 he wanted to slow that exodus. But that slowdown also kept abusers in the priesthood who should have been quickly dismissed.

Finally in 2001, as the number of cases worldwide mounted, Ratzinger helped convince Pope John Paul II to let Ratzinger’s own Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith have jurisdiction for all of them. Some interpret that move as Ratzinger’s way of keeping the cases secret, though the Vatican says Church confidentiality did not preclude bishops from reporting crimes to civil authorities according to local law.

Ratzinger continued to blame the media for exaggerating the scandals, but he did move much more aggressively against abusers than John Paul had, and as the 2000s wore on, he became something of a convert as he realized the scope of the abuse. As pope he has publicly recognized those facts. He still has not punished bishops, however, with the same rigor that he has targeted abusers. Again, though, he is not the “puppet master” of the scandal in any way.
Myth 2: Pope Benedict is the hero of the story who can end the crisis.
This myth is the opposite extreme. First off, if Benedict was not the villain of the sex-abuse crisis—which was global and decades in the making; neither was he the caped crusader of accountability. Benedict has recognized (in his pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland, for example) how much the Church culture of past years and ignorance about sexual pathologies contributed to the scandals.

He himself was also deferential to the chain of command. While as a cardinal he pushed for action on some high-profile abuse cases that later exploded into public view—such as that of Marcial Maciel Degollado, a well-known Mexican priest who founded the Legionaries of Christ, and Austrian Cardinal Hans Hermann Groër—but when aides close to John Paul worked to keep a lid on the cases, Ratzinger had to back off.

It was only after extensive media reports and efforts by victims (and, yes, their lawyers) that top Church leaders could no longer avoid the realities and scope of the abuse. That gave Ratzinger greater leeway to pursue solutions—something he has pledged to do further as pope.

Still, it is also a myth to think that any single person—even a pope—can end the abuse crisis alone. Better policies must be implemented in terms of screening for the priesthood and seminary formation, and something approaching universal norms for reporting and laicizing priests should be developed for dioceses around the world. That is a matter of justice for the accused as well as for the accusers. It is a complex task that needs to start at the Vatican, but its success will require a commitment from bishops, clergy and laypeople working together at the diocesan and parish levels.

Again, there is no central figure behind the Catholic curtain pulling all the strings. If only there were, it would make resolving the crisis easy—and assigning blame even easier.
Myth 3: It’s a homosexual scandal, not a pedophile scandal.
Many defenders of the Catholic Church’s response to the abuse crisis like to point a finger of blame at gay men in the priesthood, claiming that a “lavender mafia” of homosexual priests is responsible for the vast majority of the abuses because upwards of 80 percent of the victims are male. They note that true pedophiles—men who are pathologically attracted to pre-pubescent children—constitute a small minority of the offenders.

These assertions suffer from numerous flaws. For one thing, research indicates that gay men in the wider society are no more likely to molest children than are straight men. In fact, studies say that most sexual abuse actually takes place within families. (And celibacy doesn’t seem to be a determining factor, either.)

Yes, 80 percent of the victims were male, but many offenders assaulted children of both sexes. For example, the late Father Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a secretive order that is currently under Vatican investigation for a range of dysfunctions, abused boys and also fathered children with several women. He even abused his own children. Moreover, the abusers had access to boys; they couldn’t go on overnight trips with girls or take them away unchaperoned. These priests did not necessarily identify as gay men, but they were certainly sexually confused and immature.

“It’s important to separate the sexual identity and the behavior,” says Karen Terry, a researcher from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which is conducting an independent study of sexual abuse in the priesthood from 1950 to 2002. “Someone can commit sexual acts that might be of a homosexual nature but not have a homosexual identity.”

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Myth 4: Sexual abuse is more pervasive in the Catholic Church than in other institutions.

Actually, the John Jay study, which is based on a comprehensive survey of more than 4,000 priests credibly accused of abuse from 1950 to 2002, finds that about four percent of all priests during that time committed an act of sexual abuse on a minor. That seems consistent with data on many similar professions, though solid research is lacking.

For example, an extensive 2007 investigation by The Associated Press showed that sexual abuse of children in U.S. schools was “widespread,” and most of it was never reported or punished. And in Oregon last April, a lawsuit brought against the Boy Scouts of America showed that since the 1920s, BSA officials kept extensive “perversion files” on suspected abusers but kept them secret. (These files were first made public in the 1980s—see Patrick Boyle’s book Scout’s Honor).

“We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else,” Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told Newsweek. “I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others.”

One reason abuse in the Catholic Church is reported on so widely is that the Church keeps careful records. As a result, the Church is one of the few institutions to yield a fairly reliable portrait of its personnel and abuse over the decades.

So the good news is that the Catholic Church appears to be no different from most other institutions in terms of the incidence of abuse or even the reflex to cover it up. Of course, that’s also the bad news: Shouldn’t the Catholic Church, especially the priesthood and hierarchy, be better than Enron or the local school district?

Myth 5: Clergy sexual abuse is worse in the United States than anywhere else.
Reporting on abuse cases has certainly been more intensive and exhaustive in the United States than elsewhere. But as the past year has shown, abuse cases are also a sad fact of Church life in Ireland and across Europe. And in fact, there is a growing recognition that the sex-abuse crisis is a serious, though underreported, problem in other parts of the world, in particular Africa and Latin America.

Those abuses have not come to light to the same extent, however, nor has there been the same effort to create policies for dealing with abusers and helping victims. Part of the problem is the culture of many regions in the global south. But there is also the challenge of differing legal systems which may not provide the same opportunity for justice.

Myth 6: The media are unfairly targeting the Catholic Church.
There is no doubt that the Vatican and the pope and the Catholic Church in general are the chief focus of coverage of the sexual abuse of children. But while the pope’s champions argue—often in harsh and conspiratorial language—that the media are deliberately singling out the Catholic Church for tough coverage, the data tell a broader story.

The Catholic Church and the pope in fact do receive the lion’s share of media attention, but it is not only a focus on clergy abuse. The pope is a world leader and temporal head of one of the world’s most visible and storied religious traditions. Holidays like Christmas and Easter tend to be dominated by images of Catholicism because it has such great imagery to display. Moreover, there are more than 1.1 billion Catholics around the world, and the Catholic Church is the largest single denomination in the United States by far, with more than 65 million baptized members. The pope also makes news by making pronouncements on a range of topics, many of them controversial, and when he travels abroad it is a major news event.

But those trips and those other occasions for news coverage by and large result in good publicity for the Church. Indeed, the annual survey of religion in the news conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life showed that in 2008—the year Benedict XVI traveled to Washington and New York—coverage of the pope and Catholicism accounted for more than half of all news stories about religion, and the vast majority of those were positive or explanatory stories. In fact, Benedict continued to dominate religion coverage in 2009, with much of that coverage highlighting his efforts at peacemaking in the Middle East.

In 2010, reporting on the sexual abuse scandal and the pope’s role was far greater in the European press, in fact, than in the American media.

Myth 7: The sex-abuse crisis will spark a mass exodus of Catholics.
The “conventional wisdom” was that the epidemic of revelations of clergy abuse in 2002 would infuriate Catholics to such an extent that they would abandon the Church en masse, or at least withhold their donations and drive it into insolvency. That wisdom seems to be making the rounds again in 2010 as another wave of scandal stories washes over the Church.

But American Catholics have turned out to be unconventional in that they by and large stuck with the Church. Catholics tend to love their parishes and their priests. Even if they don’t practice, Catholics don’t easily shed their Catholic identity and all the cultural, sacramental and familial markers that identity bears.

To be sure, Catholics of all stripes were furious with the bishops. But a 2008 poll by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University showed that even the bishops enjoyed a rebound, as the level of satisfaction with the hierarchy jumped 14 points from 2004, up from just 58 percent to 72 percent (see

The Pew 2007 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey also shows that among Catholics who have left the Church, the sexual-abuse crisis was low on the list of reasons for departing—well behind a number of other hot-button issues such as teachings on homosexuality, the role of women, abortion and contraception (see

On the other hand, Catholic leaders can’t stand pat. Some 10 percent of all Americans are former Catholics, and without the benefit of immigration, the number of American Catholics would be in decline rather than growing slightly. Moreover, polls in Europe show a significant spike in rates of formal defection from the Church.

The Catholic Church today already faces many challenges, both internally and externally. It is called not only to nurture existing Catholics, but also to evangelize, to preach Good News, to draw more into the fold. The sexual abuse crisis does not help in either of those central tasks of the Church. But neither does the scandal spell the end of Catholicism. Whatever the misconceptions, Catholics cannot afford to be compla-cent about issues that contributed to the crisis. It can’t ignore poor leadership, expressed, we now see so clearly, in a lack of transparency and accountability. And we can’t pretend that any of us, from pulpit to pew, is not touched by sin.

David Gibson is a longtime Catholic journalist who once worked for Vatican Radio in Rome. After returning to the United States he wrote for many newspapers and magazines, and he is the author of two books, the latest one a biography of the current pope titled The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World. Gibson currently covers the religion beat for He wrote about this topic in the Washington Post.

NEXT: Father, Sister, Brother, Deacon: Is God Calling Me? (by Elizabeth Bookser-Barkley)

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