When Minimizing the Priestly Sex Scandals Boomerangs

March 2003

Over the course of 2002 we noticed that certain moderate-to-conservative organizations and periodicals with close ties to the institutional Church in the U.S. have stressed that the clerical sex scandals involve only a small percentage of priests. It’s just a few bad apples, you see.

But writing in the National Catholic Reporter (Aug. 30, 2002), Carol Meyer, beholding one such effort that claimed that “the overwhelming majority [of priests] lead exemplary celibate and chaste lives,” exclaimed: “Something in me wanted to shout, ‘On what basis do you make such a bold statement? You have no idea if priests are celibate or not.’” Touché.

The most egregious minimizing of the priestly sex scandals we’ve seen came from Tom Hoopes, Executive Editor of the National Catholic Register, in a letter he wrote to National Review (March 11, 2002). There he asserted that the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests amounts to only 0.03 percent of priests.

Well, The New York Times (Jan. 12) released a months-long study on the percentage of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors. An editorial in the Register (Jan. 26-Feb. 1) on the study, which appears to have Hoopes’s fingerprints all over it, says that the “bottom line…is that 1.8% of priests ordained from 1950 to 2001 have been accused.” If you do your math, you’ll see that 1.8 percent is 60 times as much as 0.03 percent. That’s a lot of crow to eat. The Register editorial does allow that the Times’s study is “breathtaking” (it’s only breathtaking if you’ve been living in denial). But it’s a lot more “breathtaking” than the editorial lets on. The Register does not tell us about the much higher percentages in the Time's study. But we have the Times's study, and of that 1.8 percent figure the Times says it includes “only cases in which priests were named…. The extent of the problem remains hidden. In dioceses that have divulged what they say are complete lists of abusive priests ? under court orders or voluntarily ? the percentages are higher [than 1.8 percent]. In Baltimore, an estimated 6.2 percent of priests…have been implicated in the abuse of minors. In Manchester, N.H., the percentage is 7.7, and in Boston it is 5.3.”

Obviously, when the Fat Lady finally sings — i.e., when all dioceses come clean — the nationwide percentage will be considerably higher than 1.8 percent. Moreover, none of the percentages above includes priests who have not, or have not yet, been accused. Who would those priests be? (1) Those whose victims have, for one reason or another, chosen to remain silent. (2) Those whose victims will make accusations later. Why later? The Times quotes Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea (who has helped many sex abuse victims): “You will see some kind of a bubble in 2005, when the people who were abused in the 1990’s come forward. It takes a lot of survivors until their mid-20’s, when they have accumulated enough life experience, to know they were messed up.” And none of this includes priests who have been sexually active with male or female adults.


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New Oxford Notes: March 2003

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