Jason Berry is a journalist who works on Catholic issues and clergy sexual abuse. He has recently published an article on abuse issues, in which he attacks my work. He is quite at liberty to make such a criticism, but he cannot do so on the basis of an outrageous mis-representation of what I actually said.

Berry says this:

In 1996, Philip Jenkins…  argued in Pedophiles and Priests that the earlier coverage of clergy abuse was a “putative” crisis, one “constructed” by the media and church critics. In 2002, a Boston Globe investigation of such cases ignited a chain reaction in many newsrooms about a deeply rooted culture of churchmen concealing abusers that the Vatican ignored. The “putative crisis” resembled a construction of its author.

What he suggests, then, is that (a) I had claimed that the reported instances of clergy abuse were invented or made up, and that (b) my argument was demolished by the post-2002 media exposés of the scale and severity of clergy abuse. Both statements are flat wrong. Did Berry actually read my book?

Already in the early 1990s, long before the Boston Globe exposés, stories of clergy sexual abuse were becoming very widespread in the US and Canada, usually in a Catholic context. The issue was thus becoming defined as a major social problem. In my book Pedophiles and Priests, I analyzed how the problem was being constructed, a term I defined at considerable length, but not, evidently, in a way that Berry chooses to understand. Contrary to what he implies, “constructed” is NOT synonymous with “invented.”

The term “construction” is a commonplace of social science, and is in fact the primary means of approaching and analyzing social problems. To speak of a problem being constructed makes no necessary statement about the scale of its objective reality, and it certainly does not mean that the issue at question is bogus or mythical. For a social scientist, all social problems are constructed.

As I made clear in the book, there were already by that point hundreds of alleged cases of clergy sexual abuse, most of which were clearly authentic. As I stated explicitly and repeatedly, clergy abuse really occurred, and on a substantial scale.

From Berry’s remarks, you would not guess that in Pedophiles and Priests, I estimated that the offense rate for Catholic clergy with child victims was between 1.5 and 3.5 percent. That is a little lower than the figure postulated by the very wide-ranging 2004 John Jay report (4.2 percent of all clergy), but it was definitely within the ballpark. Incidentally, mine was a far closer estimate than any rival figure offered during that decade.

At that point, though, we had not the slightest idea of the relative scale of the problem, in terms of whether Catholic priests were either more or less likely to abuse children than members of other denominations, or of non-religious professionals who dealt with children. And we still don’t.

So is abuse by secular schoolteachers a “crisis”? If so, is that “crisis” more serious than offenses by Catholic priests? How do we judge that? On what evidence? Very significantly, we still have zero such comparative information about abuse rates among various groups dealing with children. If Berry, or anyone else, has such data, I would be delighted if they would send it to me forthwith. I’ve been looking for twenty years.

By the way, “everybody knows” does not constitute evidence.

Clergy abuse happens, yes – but when does it constitute the kind of pervasive or near-universal problem that is suggested by (subjective) words like ”crisis”? Hence my use of “putative” – something that is reputed, or generally considered to be something.

Remember, in the context of social problems, “crisis” is a purely subjective term, commonly deployed by activists to indicate that the issue they are concerned about is extremely grave. (Journalists also love the term as an empty magnifier). The word has no objective definition, and no relationship with quantitative evidence. If you will pardon the circular definition, a crisis is a set of phenomena that some group believes should be defined as a crisis. If Berry has an objective or universally agreed definition of “crisis,” I’d love to hear it.

In the media, though, no such evidentiary qualms were apparent. Even then, in the 1990s, it was more or less universally agreed that this was a crisis. It was also a distinctively Catholic problem, and one to which Catholic clergy were highly prone. The only debate was which aspect of Catholicism might be responsible – was it a matter of celibacy, of clericalism, of gay clergy… what? (Please note, I am mentioning these theories without necessarily endorsing any of them). As a social theorist would say, that was how the problem was constructed, or the way in which it was contextualized. Or rather, how people came to think in terms of crisis.

I then did what social scientists customarily do in such circumstances, which is to trace the interest groups responsible for representing or constructing the issue in that particular way. I sought to determine the forces that had caused the creation and development of an abuse problem – a “crisis” – in the mid-1980s. Several factors could be identified easily, chiefly the changes in law and litigation that made it possible and profitable to sue churches. Changes in the psychiatric and psychological profession also mattered immensely, and the creation of new interpretations of abuse, its prevalence and effects. And then there were new patterns in the media, a new willingness to go after the once untouchable Catholic church.

I once had a singularly dumb reviewer (not Berry) claim that, aha, Jenkins is blaming clergy abuse on lawyers, journalists and therapists, placing blame everywhere except on the clergy who should really be attacked! Nope, not in the slightest. What I was talking about, very clearly, is not who was committing the abuse, but the new forces that made the perception of crisis possible, and soon, inevitable.

In terms of changing media perceptions, two movements immediately became apparent, both within the Catholic Church itself. Both, in their very different ways, presented the abuse issue as extremely widespread, and heavily stressed and overstressed the relative role of Catholic clergy and institutions. On the one side, I found the church’s liberal and feminist reformists, who had a vested interest in discrediting the traditional structures of priesthood, and celibacy. At the other extreme, ultra-conservative activists emphasized the rampant nature of clergy abuse as a sign of what happened when the church lost discipline, and tolerated homosexuality.

In the decade or so after 1984, both Left- and Right-leaning Catholic publications disagreed with each other about virtually everything, but they concurred absolutely in the belief that clergy abuse was sweeping, systematic, very widespread, and in fact, a crisis. That Catholic writing then emboldened secular media to investigate church abuses. That is how the clergy abuse problem was constructed.

What a pity, though, that I did not pay attention to the enormous upsurge of new investigations of clergy abuse in 2002-2003, and take account of what they might mean for my argument …

Oh wait! I actually did that, again at some length, in my 2003 book The New Anti-Catholicism, which Berry seems never to have heard of. The new information substantially expanded the range of examples on which I could draw, but caused me to make no adjustments to my basic argument or thesis.

Allowing for some points of detail, and more firmly grounded statistics, I stand entirely by what I wrote in 1996.

I have no objection for being denounced for what I said. Don’t target me for things I never said, thought, or wrote.



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  • hockeydog

    Shouldn’t the catholic church be a textbook on how to do anything, anything at all, is the most, absolute wrong way. Im surprised if this organization could clean up a bowl of spilt milk. Seriously. Just look at their track record.
    This is a result of ‘allowing’ the vatican as their own little ‘disneyland’ of a country to exist. This corporation is completely detached, and 100% delusional.
    I think what we are witnessing is the beginning of the end of the catholic church.
    It’s a concrete mixer truck, with no brakes, accelerator pressed to the floor, going down a steep, curvy, mountain road. I, personally, am enjoying the crash of this global, criminal organization. This show is better than any world cup, Super Bowl, World series, or Stanley Cup final!
    Enjoy the show and cheer for the right team…Humanity!

  • PetrusRomanus1

    Back at Christmastide 2010, Jason Berry cut loose the following paragraph from his article “George Weigel: Whitewashing History” in the National Catholic Reporter online:
    “The issue of whether the priesthood had a greater proportion of child molesters than other denominations or professions had no consensus at the time. Nor does one exist today. Weigel’s “evidence” source was Philip Jenkins’ Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis, a 1996 book based on secondary sources rather than church files unearthed by discovery subpoenas. Jenkins argued that the 1990s scandals were a construction of the media, abetted by liberal Catholics, notably Dominican Fr. Tom Doyle, who became an advocate for victims of clergy sex abuse, and Greeley. Jenkins’ theory collapsed in the 2002 media coverage that revealed bishops had concealed child molesters in many dioceses. Jenkins works as an expert witness for dioceses facing abuse cases; according to his own sworn testimony, he charges $450 per hour.”
    That was then, three and a half years ago. Those months and years have not been kind to Mr Weigel or Mr Jenkins, not to mention the US Catholic bishops or the USCCB. Attorneys for victims, the secular media, and whistleblowers like Jennifer Haselberger keep on chipping away at the once formidable rock of Catholic credibility and hierarchical integrity. And it is no longer premature to suggest that Mr Jenkins and similar apologists have a lot of explaining to do, which will never get done.

  • philipjenkins

    And Mr Berry has a good deal of explaining to do about criticizing books he has not read, or at least not begun to understand.

  • philipjenkins

    Or, to quote Mark Twain from a century ago, “In this world we have seen the Roman Catholic power dying… for many centuries. Many a time we have gotten all ready for the funeral and found it postponed again, on account of the weather or something…. Apparently one of the most uncertain things in the world is the funeral of a religion.” See you at the graveside?

  • hockeydog

    Thats very good. I love Mark Twain.
    Samuel Clemens didn’t have the internet though.

  • philipjenkins

    The quote is from his FOLLOWING THE EQUATOR, one of his least known and, to my mind, most interesting books.

  • DPierre

    Jason Berry is no different from any of the cranks at the anti-Catholic group SNAP.

    Berry is also a hypocrite, writing a letter of support for a doctor arrested with over 100 images of kiddie porn on his computer.

    Berry’s hypocrisy is astounding.

    The time is long overdue for people to call out Jason Berry.

  • DPierre

    And Tom Doyle is an “expert witness” for Church-suing contingency lawyers.

    So …?

  • Michael Skiendzielewski

    Individual personalities, viewpoints and “slants” aside, the facts, evidence, correspondence, depositions, etc. presented over the past several years re sexual abuse by certain clergy in the USA Catholic Church along with the failure of leadership to protect the children is overwhelming, significant and substantial.

  • Jim Dailey

    Why is the Shakeshaft study for the Department of Education dismissed as a reliable estimate of the abuse rate in US public schools?

  • philipjenkins

    Good question. I have great respect for Shakeshaft. One problem is that, however good her work, it is much less systematic than something like the John Jay studies of the clergy.

  • Jim Dailey

    Sorry but I am not familiar with the significance of terms like “systematic” (I know generally what it means but it sounds like you are using it in a specific way).
    If the study is valid enough to be published by the US Dep. of Education, why is it generally dismissed? Does it have to be peer-reviewed to make it to DOE?
    It would seem to support your premise that the assignation of “crisis” by the media is arbitrary.

  • philipjenkins

    What I mean is that this is one study, albeit of excellent quality. The John Jay is on a much larger and more sweeping scale, using much larger samples, with results that are more likely to be generally accepted. But yes, you are exactly right, Shakeshaft’s work does indeed suggest that we should be speaking of a “crisis” of sexual abuse in public schools. The fact that we don’t is due to the particular construction, or lack of construction, of that problem.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “So is abuse by secular schoolteachers a “crisis”? If so, is that “crisis” more serious than offenses by Catholic priests?”

    i ) If there was ever any nation-wide uncovering of public school administrators covering up misdeeds and then “moving problem teachers” around to other school districts . . then yes, you can guarantee the media would describe it as a crisis.

    ii) “Rates” of abuse are beside the point. The scandal was the cover-up by Church higher-ups much moreso than that it actually happened. If the Church had had a policy of immediately defrocking priests found guilty of abuse after internal investigations and reported them to the authorities, this “perception of crisis” would have not occurred.

    iii) For an institution that claims to be divinely ordained by Jesus and that which the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against, I think the higher expectations placed on the RCC is not just residual WASP anti-Catholicism.

  • philipjenkins

    See, that’s the problem. There is abundant evidence of just that sort of systematic coverup in the public schools, moving offending teachers around (it’s called “passing the trash”), and with the exception of a couple of major exposés you can find easily enough, the media do not pick it up.

    That’s not just prejudice on their part. Largely, it’s a function of the legal system. At present, it is difficult and unprofitable to sue public schools, and so you don’t have the constant diet of new cases to report, and escalating scandals. Hence it remains an unconstructed problem.

    And rates of abuse are very, very much to the point.

  • Cestius

    In the UK it’s now becoming abundantly clear that the BBC, the NHS and even the government all have their own abuse “crises”. And in fact that by concentrating on the Catholic Church many journalists completely missed what was going on elsewhere in society, some of it under their very noses.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “See, that’s the problem. There is abundant evidence of just that sort of
    systematic coverup in the public schools, moving offending teachers

    Sorry, I fail to see any hard evidence of any :systematic coverup” in public schools for this issue . .for starters you are talking of less cases nationwide than those against priests, despite the fact that millions more children attend public school. I know conservative media has tried to claim the NEA have a policy to protect child molesters, but it hasn’t gotten national attention because it’s fanciful bull.

    How does the rate of abuse affect the larger issue of organizational malaise at best and intended distortion at worst among the Catholic hierarchy? Why would the question of whether priests abuse more than teachers or camp counselors matter at all? The point is that an institution claiming holy mandates covered up and protected child rapists for decades (and really longer than that).That is the story. As a Catholic I find the apologetic angles many have tried to spin the scandal as mere reflections of “Catholic bashing” to frankly be revolting. Yes, sure, anti Catholics used the scandal to peacock around and say “I told you so” but that is beside the point. The Church has no-one to blame but itself.

  • Jim Dailey

    I do not suppose you address why there are no reliable studies of public schools that have been performed in your books?
    Wait – never mind – I will look for your books to find out!

  • $97155992

    For the Catholic Church founded on the holy Apostles and holy Prophets to operate on the same standard as secular institutions is in itself a scandal.
    Our God is holy and we are called to be holy. not to be as good as the next secular set-up.
    Still will the hierarchy learn?

  • Sven2547

    So is abuse by secular schoolteachers a “crisis”? If so, is that “crisis” more serious than offenses by Catholic priests? How do we judge that?

    Perhaps if the Department of Education flatly told investigators that they refused to release relevant files pertaining to child abuse, the way the Vatican recently has.


    Also, I’ve yet to hear a public school system declare itself the ultimate arbiter of morality on Earth. But oh! How unfair that you’re JUDGED by a higher standard of morality! If anything, authorities have been more lenient on the R.C. Church than other organizations who might attempt similar stunts.

  • Andrew Dowling

    The whole “well look at XYZ . . they are as bad or worse” is the argument people resort to out of desperation when they have no other defense. It’s like someone questioning Pinochet about his human rights abuses in the 1970s and him saying “but look at Pol Pot . . he’s much worse, and he’s not getting the attention I’m GETTING!”

    For an institution which literally claims it possesses the keys to eternal life or suffering in an eternal hell to be judged to a higher standard . . .Jesus Christ (literally!).
    It’s this insular victimization complex and belief in an inherent God-given elevation above other institutions that is why reform is has practically non-existent on this issue beyond platitudes. The internal report that basically placed the blame on the sexual revolution and “gays becoming priests” was the last straw for many.

  • domy

    About the abuses in the schools read this article:
    There are millions of children who are and were abused in schools. But this does not seem to create any ‘moral panic’ as for the Catholic Church.
    When I’ll see the American government set up a committee to which all those who have been victimized at school (even fifty years ago, even by teachers now dead) can make a complaint (which is what the CC had done) then I would think that they want really address the problem.

    And to reply to some previous comments: no, the Catholic Church has never claimed to be formed by perfect men; the Church is holy but men are sinners and in fact it is well known the Latin motto “santa et peccatrix ecclesia” (the Church is holy and at the same time sinner).