By: David Gibson
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.
Each issue carries an imprimatur
from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
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.
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
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.”
Myth 4: Sexual
abuse is more pervasive in the Catholic Church than in other institutions.
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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
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
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 cara.georgetown.edu/beliefattitude.pdf).
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 pewresearch.org).
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.
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
PoliticsDaily.com. He wrote about this topic in the Washington Post.
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