Spin without end in abuse scandal

Issue Date:  June 16, 2006

The clergy sex abuse crisis -- some would have us believe -- is largely about priests taking advantage of or being seduced by older teenage boys. In other words, it’s a gay thing.

That’s the view of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, as articulated by the group’s president William A. Donohue.

“Too many sexually active gays have been in the priesthood, and it’s about time they were routed out,” Donohue told Fox News at the height of the scandal. The clergy sex abuse crisis is “a homosexual scandal, not a pedophilia scandal,” he said on NBC’s “Today Show.”

The op-ed page of The New York Times is an important opinion-shaping venue. So when a Catholic organization like the League, a week prior to a national meeting of the nation’s bishops, takes out an advertisement to defend the church’s handling of the clergy sex abuse crisis, it’s worthy of some consideration.

Here’s the preamble to the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights June 7 “op-ad”:

“In June 2002, U.S. bishops assembled in Dallas for their annual meeting. It was not a happy time: The sexual abuse scandal dominated the news about the Catholic church.”

So far so good.

“Next week the bishops will meet in Los Angeles, only this time few in the media are focusing on the scandal. That’s too bad because this time the news is quite different.”

What’s “quite different”?

The advertisement, citing data from a recent report commissioned by the U.S. bishops, notes that “81 percent of the victims were male, and most were not little kids -- they were post-pubescent (the identical figure was reported in cases found between 1950-2002).”

Here’s the problem with the Catholic League’s analysis: It’s simply not true. It’s spin, designed to add heat rather than light to the discussion over the greatest challenge to confront the U.S. church since its founding.

Here’s what the study, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, really found:

  • Of the 6,089 victims assaulted by a priest with multiple victims, two-thirds were age 14 or younger, 20 percent age 10 or younger;
  • Of the 1,178 boys assaulted by a priest reported to have abused one minor boy, 55 percent of the victims were age 14 or younger;
  • Of the 1,159 girls molested by a multiple-abuser priest, nearly 77 percent were age 14 or younger;
  • Of the 591 girls abused by a priest reported to have molested one girl, two-thirds of the victims were 14 or younger, nearly one-third age 10 or younger.

In the world of sociology, of data collection, these statistics can be parsed. What’s “not a little kid”? Is a 14-year-old “post-pubescent”? What about a 13-year-old? A 12-year-old? Is the crime of child rape mitigated by the age of the child? The ugly inference we are to take from this is that some (many? most?) sexually adventurous teens, largely gay, got what they were looking for.

The U.S. bishops play into this sociological-psychosexual mumbo jumbo. The department they established to deal with priest abusers is officially titled the “Office of Child and Youth Protection.” Child and youth. As if a 14-year-old, an eighth or ninth grader, is no longer a child. Amazing.

There’s more spin in the League’s ad in the Times. It claims that “it is estimated that the rate of sexual abuse of public school students is more than 100 times the abuse by priests.” The passive construction of that sentence is telling. In fact, there’s scant evidence and no reliable studies that indicate any such thing. Sexual abuse of students by teachers, coaches and school employees is an area worthy of investigation, but virtually no serious research on the topic has been carried out (NCR, June 2).

Further, the League ad notes that 21 allegations of abuse were made against priests in 2005, of which five were found to be credible, with two still under investigation. This is correct, but hardly enlightening. If we’ve learned anything about the sexual abuse of kids during the clergy crisis it’s that unempowered child victims are embarrassed and ashamed by the violence done to them. It frequently takes years for those abuse victims to come forward. It would be gratifying but surprising if the 2005 numbers cited by the League were to hold up over time.

We’ve also learned, sadly, that the self-reporting methodology is less than reliable. Remember, one bishop simply refuses to comply with any of the reporting requirements, and the rest of the conference is apparently helpless to do anything about it. Further, if recent events in Chicago and, more to the point, Philadelphia, are any indication, there can be a significant gap between what is reported and reality. And the reality is tough to get at unless there is a new scandal or a determined investigation by civil authorities as occurred in Philadelphia.

Catholics are also aware that regardless of all the information the bishops have been forced to disclose, there is much more about this scandal that we don’t know -- information about the motives, language and actions of church leaders contained in documents that will likely remain sealed.

There is no need to overstate the case. There has been enough damage and enough heartache in this scandal to make repentance and reconciliation a major work of the church for a long time to come. No quick getaway exists. At the same time, it is absurd to try to minimize what has gone on or to attempt to refashion the scandal into something it isn’t.

The League concludes that “sweeping condemnations of any group” -- including priests -- is a form of bigotry. About that, they’re right. But sweeping and wrongheaded conclusions drawn from an ideological reading of impartial data are just as dangerous.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2006