Andrew Brown's Blog
11 March 2010
Many Catholic priests and religious have abused children in their care. But is the church's record worse than the world's?
There seems to be no end to the scandals buffeting the Roman Catholic church about the abuse of children; most recently in Germany, where the headmaster a school associated with a choir once run by the pope's elder brother Georg Ratzinger has been exposed as an abuser. And there is no doubt that a lot of children were damaged for life by priests, and that this was mostly covered up by the hierarchy until recently. But was the Catholic church unfairly singled out? Aren't all children vulnerable to exploitation, especially when they are poor and unwanted?
These questions lead into a thicket of horror. The most detailed statistics on child abuse for the Catholic clergy that I can find come from the John Jay Institute's report drawn up for the American Catholic bishops' conference. From this it emerges that the frequency of child abuse among Catholic priests is not remarkable but its pattern is. Although there are no figures for the number of abusers in the wider population, there are figure for the number of victims. These vary wildly: the most pessimistic survey finds that 27% of American women and 16% of men had "a history of childhood sexual abuse"; while the the most optimistic had 12.8% of women and 4.3% of men. Obviously a great deal depends here on the definition of abuse; also on the definition of "childhood". In some of these surveys it runs up to 18, which is a couple of years above the age of consent in Britain.
The Catholic figures show that between about 4% of priests and deacons serving in the US between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of sexual abuse of someone under 18. In this country, the figure was a 10th of that: 0.4% But whereas the victims in the general population are overwhelmingly female, the pattern among American Catholic priests was quite different. Four out of five of their victims were male. Most were adolescents: two out of five were 14 or over; 15% were under 10.
This is vile, but whether it is more vile than the record of any other profession is not obvious. The concentration on boys makes the Catholic pattern of abuse stand out; what makes it so shocking is that parents trusted their children with priests. They stood in for the parents. But this isn't all that different from the pattern in the wider world, either, where the vast majority of abuse comes from within families. The other point that makes the Catholic abuse is that it is nowadays very widely reported. It may be the best reported crime in the world: that, too tends to skew perceptions.
There are, however, some fragments of figures from the outside world suggesting that not many professions do better. Last year, it was reported that half of the girls fostered in social democratic Sweden in the 50s and 60s had been abused; according to Camila Batmanghelidjh 550,000 children are reported to the social services in this country every year.
So why the concentration on Catholic priests and brothers? Perhaps I am unduly cynical, but I believe that all institutions attempt to cover up institutional wrongdoing although the Roman Catholic church has had a higher opinion of itself than most, and thus a greater tendency to lie about these things. Because it is an extremely authoritarian institution at least within the hierarchy, it is also one where there were few checks and balances on the misbehaviour of the powerful. The scandal has been loudest and most damaging in Ireland, because it came along just at the moment when the church was losing its power over society at large, and where it was no longer able to cover up what had happened, but still willing to try. Much the same is true in the diocese of Boston which was bankrupted by the scandal.
It doesn't seem to be true, though, that this was a problem spread by Irish priests around the world, as some traditionalists have argued. Certainly, the geographical spread across the US was fairly even, and not concentrated in areas of high Irish settlement and tradition. But in Ireland the state was happy to hand over the problem of unwanted children to the church.
Certainly the safeguards against paedophilia in the priesthood are now among the tightest in the world. That won't stop a steady trickle of scandals; but I think that objectively your child is less likely to be abused by a Catholic or Anglican priest in the west today than by the members of almost any other profession.