The Historical Mythology of Clergy Sexual Abuse

The Historical Mythology of Clergy Sexual Abuse April 18, 2024

Through the years, I have been much engaged studying the topic of sexual abuse by clergy – usually Catholic clergy – and have served as an expert witness in litigation. In such settings, I often encounter historical arguments and debates which raise for me some really significant questions about how we can know some important things in the past, and how far we can prove a negative. The implications run far beyond the specific issue at stake, and affect how we approach a great many historical topics and eras.

Specifically, this whole matter is a classic case study for any historians. It teaches us about the dangers of cherry picking historical sources. Moreover, we have to understand when such sources can or cannot give any kind of representative view of any topic whatever. Anyone who plans to study history has to grasp that idea of representativeness. Finally, we need to know when it might be possible or legitimate to use negative evidence to advance an argument. When can or should we argue from silence?

Finally, this case study tells us a lot about when historians studying any subject whatever should use quotes to buttress their arguments.

The Mythology

I often meet an argument that goes like this, and which I am paraphrasing from multiple sources and documents:

The Catholic Church has since early times, probably from the fourth century, known that its priests were engaged in the abuse and molestation of children. This fact is confirmed by statements that appear through history, some of which state overtly that this was a widespread problem in particular eras. The Church legislated about such matters. Therefore, the church knew that such behavior was prevalent; that clergy had a proclivity to commit such acts; and that therefore, they should in modern times have exercised special prudence in supervising their clergy to ensure that such acts did not happen again, to ensure prevention.

That four-P’s argument (prevalence, proclivity, prudence, prevention) underlies the seemingly bizarre fact that legal documents arising from instances of abuse that occurred in (say) Iowa or Oregon in the 1970s will often include lengthy historical accounts concerning medieval church councils.

I hold a somewhat different view. Radically different, in fact. In my view, there is literally no worthwhile historical evidence at all that Catholic clergy in any era had any special tendency to abuse children, as compared with any other social group. More particularly, Church authorities had no knowledge or suspicion of any particular problem. Therefore, any supposed “deep history” of clergy abuse is simply lacking. Of course, modern instances of clergy abuse have occurred and do occur, and they are extremely damaging, but the historical context is irrelevant to understanding such behaviors.

To be clear, none of this has anything to do with the question of whether Father Smith committed molestation in 1975, which he might or might not have done. The question is whether his diocesan superiors should have known, by dint of that supposed deep history, dating back a millennium or more, that priests were highly likely to do such things, and that on those grounds, they should have taken elaborate measures to prevent any such occurrence. Even to frame the argument in such terms is to expose its absurdity, and as a historian, I can show in detail why it is so totally wrong.

So why do we have the gulf of arguments here? It all has to do with how we write history. I offer a few points based on reading many, many, versions of the “deep history” argument (the four Ps) in legal proceedings, but all the lessons apply to historians of any topic, any time or place.

Make Sure Your Quotes Really Do Say What You Want Them To Say

This is going to sound very basic indeed, but it is critical. You would be amazed how often people produce quotes that purportedly refer to the historical sexual abuse of children by clergy, but which in fact say nothing of the kind. When you check out the original text (not the translations) they very often refer to adults, generally, abusing children, with no mention of clergy. Or, commonly, they use the concept of sodomy, which usually means what we would term adult homosexuality. It can include acts against minors, but when that is the case, writers will add qualifiers including crimes against pueri, boys, rather than viri, men. This is not an example of the church using some kind of sinister secret code to conceal its evil secrets.

You never can, and never should, assume that texts that generically denounce clergy as evil or lustful indicate the abuse of minors, unless this is specified. Also, you have to be very careful indeed about the genre of a particular quote, and whether it is a parti pris document – that it represents one subjective side in an ongoing argument. You might find a stern moralist reformer claiming that clergy commit massive sexual crimes, but you should never treat that sweeping polemic as some kind of sober sociological analysis. The eleventh century reformer Peter Damian is often quoted in that kind of context, and he does indeed suggest a great deal of clerical misconduct with the young. Having said that, this is part of an apocalyptic rant which primarily focuses on homosexuality in general. In modern terms, it is what we would call a homophobic rant, and a very lengthy one. Quoting him as a reliable source is rather like using QAnon as your basis for assessing Hillary Clinton.

Incidentally, you virtually never find any historical accounts, however rare or isolated, of clergy assaulting young girls, as opposed to having sexual contact with older girls and women.

Beware Cherry Picking

But let’s assume that we find twenty or fifty or a hundred historical quotes denouncing clergy molesting minors. How much weight should we attach to those texts?

Think that through. The Catholic Church has existed for some two thousand years, and in that time has generated an incalculably vast body of writings of all kinds – spiritual, legal, political, devotional. If you assume that all these writings were collected, how many pages would that be? Millions, I would suggest, even before the twentieth century. If you wander through all that material you cannot fail to find some kind of references to anything whatever. If somebody says there are a lot of references to clergy sex abuse, I am semi-serious in saying that I can actually find more references to cases where priests proclaimed that they were Christ and led messianic peasant revolts. That does not mean that this kind of delusional behavior was necessarily common, or that we would have a special need to look out for it today.

Well, let’s assume that the “messianic rebel” priest is actually quite a rare figure, but the example is indicative. We regularly hear a couple of dozen possible references to the clergy abuse problem from the two thousand year history of the church. Given the available volume of texts, canons, and tracts, and over a vast historical span, that is a microscopic volume of complaints. For every one reference such modern sources produce on this subject, we might equally well point to several thousand texts that (for instance) denounce women’s use of cosmetics and hair coloring, and many, many, thousands on the topic of witchcraft. That imbalance gives an excellent sense of just how very, very, unimportant the clergy abuse issue seemed in earlier centuries. Even if we just look at the authentic texts and quotes that really do denounce clergy abuse, as opposed to the straight mistranslations and misrepresentations, the number is exceedingly tiny.

“Cherry picking” means seeking out odd bits of evidence that support your case, while avoiding the vast expanses of equally convincing material that ignores your thesis, or which actively contradicts it. Understanding that key point does get to the point of why we use quotes to illustrate any topic whatever. Use quotes to provide color and texture to a narrative, sure – but don’t assume they are representative of any larger reality.

By the way, the fact that the church forbade clergy sexual abuse – as it did in its twentieth century codes of canon law – says literally nothing about any supposed prevalence of the behavior. They passed just as many laws prohibiting clerical bestiality. So what? Does that mean that this genuinely was a common clerical behavior? Do all the prohibitions and fulminations against witchcraft mean that this was a lethal social danger also? Really?

So How Would a Real Historian Actually Find The Real Nature Of The Problem?

If a serious historian wished to write a history of perceptions of clerical sex abuse, this would of necessity involve obtaining a worthwhile random sample, which would make the study reproducible and testable by subsequent scholars, and falsifiable. They would thus strive for representativeness.

In the matter in question, this would mean taking the available records of all church legislation, councils, synods, and so on, over a particular period of centuries or more, which run into the many, many, thousands. These bodies issued edicts and pronouncements on every conceivable issue, from the major to the trivial.

The historian would then sample that vast array of documents, taking perhaps every tenth or every fiftieth example, and would then see how many discussed sexual abuse by clergy. I have not undertaken such a detailed analysis myself (nor has anyone) but my impression through reading a great many such texts throughout my career is that such a truly random sample would produce very few references to such sexual behavior over a millennium or so, if any at all.

The topic simply was not much addressed.

If Your Argument Is So Strong, How Come Regular Mainstream Church Historians Know Nothing About It?

It is quite possible to read dozens or even hundreds of major books on the problems and controversies of the medieval or early modern Church without finding a single reference to the issue of clergy sexual abuse. In the rare occasions where such instances are mentioned, they are commonly dismissed as partisan propaganda, and certainly not of objective analysis. In contrast, breaches of celibacy are frequently discussed, in the context of clergy engaging in sexual relationships with adult women, and of contracting marriages. We could compile a whole bookshelf of recent case-studies of clergy scandals through the centuries – financial, political, and sexual.  Many recent books analyze sexual scandals involving clergy, monks, and nuns, and in some instances, yes, citing acts of pederasty by individual offenders. But that is quite distinct from plausibly claiming that such behaviors constituted any kind of extensive or systematic problem.

Historians are certainly not concealing clerical violations of approved teaching about sexuality, and they are very frank about ecclesiastical scandals, about corruption and abuses of political power. But even in this environment, child abuse allegations were rare to the point of invisibility. If such charges and incidents really had existed in any number, historians would be eager to explore and report them.

I cite one concrete example. In 2006, Cambridge University Press published its Cambridge History of Christianity, in nine volumes. It includes chapters by some 275 individual authors, who represent a roster of the most active and distinguished names in the field, working in multiple countries. The book represents a state of the art overview of the historical scholarship on Christianity, and on the Church, east and west. Together, the volumes constitute some three thousand pages of printed text. Still today, the collection remains the gold standard for the academic study of Christian history.

Inevitably, issues of sexuality and celibacy feature very commonly through multiple chapters in the Cambridge History, but issues concerning child abuse and molestation by clergy are conspicuous by their near-total absence. If in fact this topic was remotely important, then logically it should have merited a chapter or so in each volume, as the theme was explored in different eras and contexts. Obviously, we find nothing of the kind, and virtually nothing about clerical pedophilia, molestation, or abuse. That is true of all eras, with the brief exception of the emergence of the clergy abuse crisis at the very end of the twentieth century. Even whole chapters that are wholly focused on issues of clerical purity and morality in given eras fail to discuss those issues of clerical child abuse and molestation.

Scarcely less interesting than the text of the various chapters are the abundant footnotes, which indicate the resources on which the authors have drawn. The writers have used a huge range of sources, both contemporary and modern. They use and cite sermons, polemics, scholarly works, personal memoirs and autobiographies, hagiographies, canon law texts, confessors’ manuals, penitential legal tracts, the proceedings of church councils, accounts of trials and criminal cases, and contemporary chronicles and histories. Yet for all their diligence, the scholars of the Cambridge History did not report coming across instances of clergy child abuse in any number, and certainly not enough to justify discussing it as a systematic problem, or indeed enough to justify a footnote.

Let me stress the date at which this collection was published, which was 2006. The discovery of clergy sexual abuse as a social problem began in the US in 1992, and reached acute intensity in 2002. In other words, all the essays in that Cambridge History were being written or revised at a time when all the contributors had every reason to be aware of the clergy abuse issue in the modern world. Nobody can argue that the History fails to address the topic because those authors were somehow more ignorant or uncaring in that distant era in American life, that remote geological epoch, a couple of decades back.

If Your Argument Is So Strong, How Come the Best Scholars of Canon Law Know Nothing About It?

Or here is another equally telling illustration. In 2022, Cambridge University Press (again) published The Cambridge History of Medieval Canon Law, edited by Anders Winroth and John Wei. The work includes around forty separate essays and articles by scholars drawn from major academic institutions in both North America and Europe. Most of the writings are substantial, and the whole book runs to some 270,000 words of text, including extensive footnotes and references. Like the Cambridge History of Christianity, then, it represents a state of the art overview of the topic, and it is very much up to date and contemporary.

Naturally, the book deals with many issues of personal and sexual behavior. We turn immediately to the extensive index (pp 601-617) to seek out references to topics such as sexual abuse, child molestation, clerical pederasty, pedophile priests, and so on. We should feel free to use however many variants of those words and phrases as we wish, to make sure that we are missing nothing. Having searched as much as we like, however, we note an interesting fact. None of those phrases occur at all, not once. As far as I can tell, none of those concepts appear once in what is intended as a sweeping survey of the Church’s law in the whole lengthy era of the Middle Ages.

The topic was neither noticed nor addressed. So why would that be?

The Evidence Of Quotes Not Seen

A fundamental question presents itself: can you prove a negative? If we can’t do so absolutely, then we certainly can point to documents that should theoretically address our particular topic, but for whatever reason, they fail to do so. On such occasions, it is totally legitimate to make an argument from silence.

One of the earliest records we have of a church council comes from Elvira, in Spain, in the early fourth century. The Council is associated with 81 canons, although there is some scholarly difference about whether some were added later. Either way, the document gives a superb and wide-ranging account of Christian life and concerns in that era. Elvira passed strict laws against many different kinds of sexual misconduct by clergy as well as laity, and the authors of these canons seem to have been very puritanical in their approach to sexual conduct, especially by clergy. Among other minutiae, the canons order chariot racers and pantomimes to give up their immoral professions. They also condemn a man who has sex with a boy as a grave sinner. Yet the canons never once mention acts of homosexuality, pederasty, child abuse, or molestation by clergy.

In other words, a major Council could address every possible peccadillo that might be linked to clergy, but never think to mention child abuse. Is that not an enormous and telling fact? The same applies for the countless other councils and law codes through history that condemn or seek to regular clerical behavior, but in so doing, never once mention acts of sexual abuse or molestation. The silence is deafening.


Did the Catholic church through the centuries know about isolated instances of sexual abuse by clergy? Of course. Did they have the slightest reason to have any awareness or knowledge that this behavior constituted a special problem or proclivity? Obviously not.

So was there any reason for twentieth (or 21st) century church authorities to be aware of this issue, and to respond with any special measures or special prudence? Equally, of course not. Claims to the contrary have to be met with a simple request: where is your evidence?

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