People have known since Peter’s days that some Catholic priests did not take their vows of celibacy seriously. Holiness wasn’t the only reason that some women got themselves to a nunnery. I recall my paternal grandfather warning me not to be an altar boy because I ran the risk of being “diddled.” He said this to me in crowd of adults who laughed knowingly at his witticism.
Yet focus over the last decade has been intense on the appalling sexual abuses by Catholic priests, as if these abuses were part of an increasing epidemic. Make no mistake: each of these men who did the deed deserves maximum punishment.
When they can be found, that is. The Church did itself great harm by covering up its crimes. Forgiveness is fine, and is the primary role of Catholicism, but washing away sins does not excuse anybody from taking their Earthly medicine. Do the crime, do the time, priest or no.
We expect that priests who have had advanced training in theoretical sanctimony should have more practical experience in it than the common man. So when a priest (or politician) strays it is a worse crime than when a civilian does. We demand more of our religious and civil leaders. They claim to be better than us, so they damn well ought to demonstrate it.
So a large chunk of the public attention on the priesthood has been fair game. But not necessarily all of it. The way you read of it in the New York Times, for example, it is as if abuse were a central tenet of the Catholic catechism. Naturally, the Times’s hostility to religion, and its miserable petulance when its reporters realize that their pleas for Catholicism to change its tenets go unheeded play a large role in its scathing coverage.
But rarely is it asked how unusual is the frequency of abuse by priests: are priests abusing at higher rates than civilians? Newsweek has asked it, and has found various “experts” who say, no, the rate among priests is same as with other men.
The “experts” is in scare quotes for good reason, as we shall see. However, there is at least one set of experts that don’t need them: insurance companies.
Since the mid-1980s, insurance companies have offered sexual misconduct coverage as a rider on liability insurance, and their own studies indicate that Catholic churches are not higher risk than other congregations. Insurance companies that cover all denominations, such as Guide One Center for Risk Management, which has more than 40,000 church clients, does not charge Catholic churches higher premiums.
Being Catholic doesn’t increase premiums, but “the more children’s programs a church has, the more expensive its insurance.” Since these companies would go belly up if they miss-estimated their probabilities, they have excellent incentive to get them right. That is, they are generally trustworthy.
How about academic studies (and the reason for scare quotes)? John Jay College—an institute that specializes in criminal justice—looked from 1950 to 1992 and found “that about 4 percent of the 110,000 priests active during those years had been accused of sexual misconduct involving children.” Abuse was defined as everything from “‘sexual talk’ to rape.”
The later is pure evil, but “talk”? Would a priest who shoved a choirboy while yelling, “Hey, kid, get your kiester outta my way!” be guilty of abuse? Anyway, that “4 percent” is probably a reasonable upper limit on the frequency of abuse.
Yet Ernie Allen, male president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says, “a conservative estimate is one in 10.” Conservative? That’s already two-and-a-half times higher than John Jay’s number.
Margaret Leland Smith, a female researcher also at John Jay, says that “her review of the numbers indicates it’s closer to one in 5.” One in 5! But wait, there’s more. She says that even “those numbers may be low; research suggests that only a third of abuse cases are ever reported (making it the most underreported crime).”
How she pulled off the miracle of knowing it’s the “most underreported crime” without actually having complete incidence statistics is never made known to us. But either her 1 in 5—or higher!—is ridiculous or her definition of “abuse” is mighty flexible.
One in 5 would mean that, in a typical office of 20 men, there is a 99% chance that at least one abuser skulks, about an 93% chance there are two, and that on average there would be 4 such criminals.
On the basis of this damning evidence, it’s clearly time to start the witch hunts.