The Catholic Church in the United States is going through one of the most traumatic periods in its long history.
Every day, the news media have a new horror story to report under some sensational headline. Though the sex-abuse cases have deep roots, the most recent scandals were detonated by the affair of former Boston priest John J. Geoghan.
Though his superiors had known for years of Geoghan's pedophile activities, he kept being transferred from parish to parish, regardless of the safety of the children in his care. The stigma of the Geoghan affair could last for decades, and some Catholics are declaring in their outrage that they can never trust their Church again.
No one can deny that Boston Church authorities committed dreadful errors, but at the same time, the story is not quite the simple tale of good and evil that it may appear to be. Although hard to believe right now, the "pedophile priest" scandal is nothing as sinister as it has been painted---or, at least, it should not be used to launch blanket accusations against the Catholic Church as a whole.
We often hear the phrase "pedophile priest.' Such individuals can exist: Father Geoghan was one, as was the notorious Father James Porter a decade or so back. But, as a description of a social problem, the term is wildly misleading. Crucially, Catholic priests and other clergy have nothing like a monopoly on sexual misconduct with minors.
My research of cases over the past 20 years indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination---or, indeed, than non-clergy. However determined news media may be to see this affair as a crisis of celibacy, the charge is just unsupported.
Literally every denomination and faith tradition has its share of abuse cases, and some of the worst involve non-Catholics. Every mainline Protestant denomination has had scandals aplenty, as have Pentecostals, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, Buddhists, HareKrishnas---and the list goes on.
One Canadian Anglican (Episcopal) diocese is currently on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of massive lawsuits caused by decades of systematic abuse, yet the Anglican Church does not demand celibacy of its clergy.
However much this statement contradicts conventional wisdom, the "pedophile priest" is not a Catholic specialty. Yet when did we ever hear about Protestant "pedophile pastors"?
How many Catholic clergy are involved in misconduct? We actually have some good information on this issue, since, in the early 1990s, the Archdiocese of Chicago under took abold and thorough self-study. The survey examined every priest who had served in the archdiocese over the previous 4Oyears, some 2,200 individuals, and reopened every internal complaint ever made against these men. The standard of evidence applied was not legal proof that would stand up in a court of law, but just the consensus that a particular charge was probably justified.
By this low standard, the survey found that about 40 priests, about 1.8 percent of the whole, were probably guilty of misconduct with minors at some point in their careers.
Put another way, no evidence existed against about 98 percent of parish clergy, the overwhelming majority of the group. Since other organizations dealing with children have not undertaken such comprehensive studies, we have no idea whether the Catholic figure is better or worse than the rate for school teachers, residential-home counselors, social workers or scoutmasters.
The Chicago study also found that, of the. 2,200 priests, just one was a pedophile. Now, many people are confused about the distinction between a pedophile and a person guilty of sex with a minor. The difference is very significant. The phrase "pedophile priest" conjures up images of the worst violation of innocence, callous molesters Re Father Porter who assault children 7 years old. "Pedophilia" is a psychiatric term meaning sexual interest in children below the age of puberty.
The vast majority of clergy-misconduct cases are nothing like this. They involve instead priests who have been sexually active with a person below the age of sexual consent, often 16 or 17 years old, or even older. An act of this sort is wrong on multiple counts: It is probably criminal, and by common consent it is immoral and sinful; yet it does not have the utterly ruthless, exploitative character of child molestation. In almost all cases, too, with older teenagers, there is an element of consent.
Also, the definition of "childhood" varies enormously among societies. If an act of this sort occurred in most European countries, it would probably be legal, since the age of consent for boys is usually around 15.
To take a specific example, when newspapers review recent cases of "pedophile priests," they commonly cite a case that occurred in California's Orange County, when a priest was charged with having consensual sex with a 17-year-old boy. Whatever the moral quality of such an act, many would not apply the term "child abuse" or "pedophilia." For this reason alone, we need to be cautious when we read about scores of priests being "accused of child abuse."
The age of the young person involved is also important because perpetrators of sexual misconduct involving younger age groups require a different response and method of treatment than those involved with other age groups. If a diocese knows a man is a pedophile, for example, and ever again places him in a position where he has access to more children, that decision is simply wrong, and probably amounts to criminal neglect. But a priest who has a relationship with an older teenager is much more Rely to respond to treatment, and it would be more understandable if someday the Church placed him in a new parish, under careful supervision.
The fact that Cardinal Bernard Law's regime in Boston seems to have blundered time and again does not mean that this is standard practice for all Catholic dioceses; still less that the Church is engaged in some kind of conspiracy of silence to hide dangerous perverts.
My concern over the "pedophile priest" issue is not to defend evil clergy, or a sinful Church (I cannot be called a Catholic apologist, since I am not Catholic). But I am worried that justified anger over a few awful cases might be turned into ill-focused attacks against innocent clergy. The story of clerical misconduct is bad enough without turning it into an unjustifiable outbreak of religious bigotry against the Catholic Church.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT.---This article by Philip Jenkins appeared in the March 24, 2002 edition of "Our Sunday Visitor " Published by "Our Sunday Visitor Inc." 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington IN 46750. For subscription details write to Circulation Dept. at the address above or 1-800-348-2440.