This is a question that has been kicking around ever since the child sex abuse scandal involving the Catholic church came to the fore. In around 2010, loads of articles came out, citing some data, that the priesthood was broadly in line with national averages, some people claimed it was actually worse in Protestant churches/organisations, and many claiming (as a result) that this was not a Catholic problem per se, and that other denominations rate the same.
The reality could be, as Andrew Brown surmised, that the notoriety of the scandal and public perception might be skewed because of the institutional cover-up of the Catholic church. Let’s have a brief look.
The Royal Commission, an investigation started by the then Australian PM Julia Gillard into historic sex abuse, has thrown this data wide open.
The research has shown that, in Australia, 7% of priests nationally have been accused of sex abuse. In the Diocese of Sale, it is twice as many, with 15.1%, and there is a whopping 40% of the St John of God order being accused. Here are some interesting Australian stats:
Catholic Data Project Results:
- 4,444 — number of people who alleged incidents of child sexual abuse,
- 1,000 — The number of separate institutions the claims related to,
- 78 percent male, 22 percent female — gender of the person making the claim,
- 97 percent male — people who made claims of child sexual abuse received by religious orders, with only religious brother members,
- 11.5 for boys, 10.5 for girls — the average age of people who made claims of child sexual abuse at the time of the alleged abuse,
- 33 years —the average time between the alleged abuse and the date the claim was made,
- 1880 — number alleged perpetrators were identified in claims,
- 597 or 32 percent were religious brothers,
- 572 or 30 percent were priests,
- 543 or 29 percent were lay people,
- 96 or 5 percent were religious sisters,
- 90 percent male, 10 percent female — age [??] of the allege perpetrators,
- 500+ — number of unknown people were identified as alleged perpetrators.#
The relevance of this is that this is now perhaps the biggest and most comprehensive review of Catholic sex abuse.
Regardless of what the pope did or did not say, advocates for the victims of clerical sex abuse continue to argue that the church plays down the true scale of the problem. Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests, said on Sunday that BishopAccountability.org, a website that attempts to document abuse cases and apparent cover-ups, had figures suggesting that the proportion of US priests accused of abuse from 1950 until 2013 was about 5.6%.
“The real percentage of predator priests is of course much higher,” Dorris said. “And in the far larger developing world – where the power imbalance between clergy and congregants is far greater and where bishops enjoy far more status and deference – we believe the rate is higher still. No one benefits when the world’s top Catholic official mischaracterises the crisis by talking often about abuse and rarely about cover-up. No one benefits when he minimises the crisis, by low-balling estimates of child-molesting clerics.”
The Vatican insists it is not low-balling the figures and that it has made great steps in tackling the problem. Last week Francis made his strongest condemnation yet of senior church figures, including bishops, who did not “respond adequately” to allegations of abuse by priests under their control.
We can already see that this falls well below the Australian stats. Either these stats are not comparable, and there is something in the water in Australia, or the Vatican is underplaying things.
The figures for the general population vary and appear to be in the 0.5-5% mark. This is compounded by methodological and definitional issues. Margo Kaplan, who thinks it is a disorder and not a crime, states:
We’re not entirely sure, but the estimates are around one-percent of the male population, and those in the female population are assumed to be much smaller. As far as the number of people with pedophilia who do sex offend and who do not, there are a lot of assumptions but very little data, because we have very little treatment, very little information.
There is an important point here: the difference between having feelings for children, and therefore being defined as a paedophile, and being caught abusing children. Here the percentage of the male population is claimed to be 1% (though not accused of abuse), and the stats for actually accused Catholic priests is far higher.
Before the Royal Commission, the only comprehensive report on sexual abuse within any denomination was the study by the John Jay College (JCC) of Criminal Justice of American Catholic priests. No comparable report exists for any other denomination, so this makes claims difficult to analyse, especially if there are shortfalls in the JJC research. I must start by saying it was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, not that this automatically invalidates it. The research showed that 4.2% of priests had been plausibly accused of abuse. The BBC states:
The John Jay College study is not perfect, though. For some reason, 40% of the allegations referred to abuse said to have been carried out in a six-year period between 1975-1980.
It seems unlikely that cases of child abuse in the clergy would have been so heavily concentrated in one period. Furthermore, even if there was a peak in the 1970s, a lot of the perpetrators are probably no longer active in the church.
All we can confidently say is that the figures are imperfect – both for the number of active paedophiles among the Catholic clergy and the number of paedophiles in the general population and they are very difficult to compare.
The 4.2% number from the JCC research refers to abuse of adolescents as well as pre-pubescent children. Herein lies a definitional problem: what is defined by paedophilia?
The strict definition concerns pre-pubescent children and not adolescents (pederasty). This again skews the results. Many preists are ephebophiles who abuse post-pubertal 13-17 year-olds.
Dr Michael Seto, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the Royal Ottawa Healthcare group, wrote a 2008 book that looked at paedophilia in the general population. As the BBC again says of his work and that of Dr James Cantor, a psychologist and sexual behaviour scientist at the University of Toronto:
Now, with more data and better methodology, he has revised his figure down to about 1% of the population, though he makes clear this is still only an educated guess.
One problem is that the term “paedophile” means different things to different people.
“It’s very common for regular men to be attracted to 18-year-olds or 20-year-olds. It’s not unusual for a typical 16-year-old to be attractive to many men and the younger we go the fewer and fewer men are attracted to that age group,” says Cantor.
He thinks that if we say that a paedophile is someone attracted to children aged 14 or less, then he estimates that you could reach the 2% figure.
“If we use a very strict definition and say paedophilia refers only to the attraction to pre-pubescent children [then it] is probably much lower than 1%,” he says.
The term is often applied to a person who sexually abuses someone below the age of 16, but given that in some countries – and even some US states – you can marry below the age of 16 this definition would clearly not be universally accepted.
There is consensus on the clinical definition. Michael Seto and his colleagues agree that a paedophile is someone who has a sexual interest in pre-pubescent children, so typically those under the ages of 11 or 12.
But whether the prevalence using this definition is 0.5%, as James Cantor says or 1%, as Michael Seto says, you can be assured than in any large group of people – whether they be politicians, entertainers, or Catholic clergy – you are likely to find some paedophiles.
Religious Tolerance includes some other stats on Catholic clergy:
Richard Sipe is a psychotherapist and former priest, who has studied celibacy and sexuality in the priesthood for four decades. He has authored three books on the topic. 6 By extrapolating from his 25 years of interviews of 1,500 priests and others, he estimates that 6% of priests abuse. 4% of priests abuse teens, aged 13 to 17; 2% abuse pre-pubertal children. 5
Reminding you of an earlier point: one issue with comparing stats is that for the priests, these are people who have been outright accused; for the general population, this might be people who have shown interest on the internet and have had their interest flag up in surveys. Priests doing this will not have featured on the clergy results.
The Catholic church itself tries to limit damage with valiant (or disturbing) effort. This is understandable: they are in self-preservation mode. For example, see this:
1. Catholic priests are more likely to be pedophiles than other groups of men.
This is just plain false. There’s absolutely no evidence that priests are more likely to abuse children than are other groups of men. The use and abuse of children as objects for the sexual gratification of adults is epidemic in all classes, professions, religions, and ethnic communities across the globe, as figures on child pornography, incest, and child prostitution make abundantly clear. Pedophilia (the sexual abuse of a prepubescent child) among priests is extremely rare, affecting only 0.3% of the entire population of clergy. This figure, cited in the book Pedophiles and Priests by non-Catholic scholar, Philip Jenkins, is from the most comprehensive study to date, which found that only one out of 2,252 priests considered over a thirty-year period was afflicted with pedophilia. In the recent Boston scandal, only four of the more than eighty priests labeled by the media as “pedophiles” are actually guilty of molesting young children. (updated information by the editor: In a recent interview (July 2014) Pope Francis said that 2% of clergy in the Catholic Church are paedophiles, information the Pope said he received from advisors)
Pedophilia is a particular type of compulsive sexual disorder in which an adult (man or woman) abuses prepubescent children. The vast majority of the clerical sex-abuse scandals now coming to light do not involve pedophilia. Rather, they involve ephebophilia — homosexual attraction to adolescent boys. While the total number of sexual abusers in the priesthood is much higher than those guilty of pedophilia, it still amounts to less than 2 percent — comparable to the rate among married men (Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests.
In the wake of the current crisis in the Church, other religious denominations and non-religious institutions have admitted to having similar problems with both pedophilia and ephebophilia among the ranks of their clergy. There’s no evidence that Catholic prelates are more likely to be pedophiles than Protestant ministers, Jewish leaders, physicians, or any other institution in which adults are in a position of authority and power over children.
There is a bit of a bait and switch at the end in comparing priests not to the general population but to “any other institution in which adults are in a position of authority and power over children”.
The thing is, the claims look to be wrong. The Royal Commission is now clearly showing that the rate for priests is considerably higher, and this is perhaps the most robust study to date. But even a good analysis of previous data appears to show the clergy significantly higher than the general population.
The Catholic Herald, in 2010, had an article titled and taglined: “Now we have real evidence – sexual abuse is not a ‘Catholic problem’ But we still have a fight ahead: the media are out to get us”. It includes the conclusion:
That’s the bottom line. This is a problem we share with everyone, though actually we are less guilty of it than society as a whole and are doing a lot better in acknowledging such child abuse as does exist.
I’m not sure that their stats or conclusions are particularly tenable. You can see why they would want to make these claims, but it appears that they are not sustained by the data now out there.