Sexual Abuse in Society and American Churches — Your Reactions

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Last Friday, I wrote a column about an Associated Press report that gives some useful, although very incomplete, data about the extent of sexual abuse in Protestant Church communities.

Since I have already written and spoken extensively in public about the horrific abuse scandal in the Catholic Church — in particular the reprehensible cover-up by some of its leaders — my intention in highlighting this new data was only to broaden the tent pegs of our understanding that sexual abuse is a plague, present in every corner of our society.

My article also pointed out that in a very sick society like our own, where sexual deviations of all kinds are accessible to any curious browser, there is no wonder that some very sick people have infiltrated the ranks of religious organizations of all denominations.

Finally, I suggested that while we must work unceasingly to establish structures to protect our children and to bring justice to perpetrators and healing to their victims, it is disingenuous, or at least naïve, to suggest good policy alone will fix the problem. The sexual abuse of minors will only increase if Western society continues to glorify sexual promiscuity and graphic pornography as part of freedom of expression and to tout personal liberty and rights, while rejecting any reference to their corresponding moral obligations.

In other words, a society that denies the existence of objective morality has nothing to back up its claims that any type of behavior is necessarily and always bad. Will we get to the point where child abuse is actually considered a personal right? I don’t think we’re far away.

Before posting and responding to your reactions to my column, I want to offer some data about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, for those who have not followed the numbers. As part of its response to the abuse scandal, the Catholic Church commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, one of the nation's top institutions in that field, to do a complete study of reported abuse. The study found that at least 10,667 people had reported plausible claims of childhood sexual abuse by 4,392 priests or deacons between 1950 and 2002. This represents 4 percent of the approximately 110,000 diocesan and religious priests who served in the United States in those years. I’ll let you decide what those numbers mean. In doing so, I suggest you keep in mind a few factors:

1) “Plausible claims” is a vague term, subject to deliberate or accidental misinterpretation
2) There were certainly many more cases of abuse that have not been reported
3) Some of the reported claims, though “plausible,” are probably false

The Catholic bishops in the United States approved sweeping procedural changes to deal with accusations made against clergy and church staff. According to these new rules, any “credible” accusation of abuse results immediate removal from all ministry, even before trial, and a report to public officials. At least 700 priests were removed from all ministry in 2002-03 as a result of the new rules or in anticipation of them — about 1.6 percent of all priests then serving. Some of these priests have no recourse to defend themselves against accusations once they have been deemed “credible” by the local bishop, because given the statute of limitations in many cases, there is no possibility of a criminal trial. Some say that’s not fair — and it’s not — but the abuse was so widespread, and the cover-up so ugly, an immediate overhaul was necessary. The lesson learned, I would suggest, is that sin and deception always have negative consequences, even for some innocent bystanders.

The Catholic Church now offers an extensive annual report of abuse claims. The 2006 report can be found here.

Now to your e-mails….

God bless, Father Jonathan

Is this your attempt at redemption for the Catholic Church by comparing yourselves to the Protestants who are even worse? I’d suggest the more appropriate response would be for both Catholics and Protestants to compare themselves to Christ, where they will both sadly fall far short. The state of the church today is sickening with respect to this issue. In no case should true love rejoice in the iniquity of others. Repentance with deep remorse is by far the more godly response. — Leroy Y. (Coburn, PA)

RESPONSE: Thanks, Leroy. I can understand your concern, and I agree with you that we should never rejoice in the iniquity of others. I’m sorry if that’s not what my article communicated to you. If a Catholic whitewashes the truth to “defend” his own, he’s not a good Catholic.

This story is horribly saddening to me. My initial reaction to your story was, “he’s just trying to show that Catholics are not the only ones,” but I see know that is not the case. I, at times, feel angry when I read stories like this. As a Christian, it is very hard to see men and women fall so badly. I know we all sin, and man is capable of great evil, but we hold those in positions of leadership to the highest standards. I believe the church has failed in many aspects, and selecting its leaders is one of them. The church is not a democracy; we do not need to approach it as such. — Adam K. (Dallas, TX)

RESPONSE: Thanks, Adam, for the note and for going beyond your first impression and reading the whole article. I think regular readers of my blog know that I say what I mean, with no hidden agenda. If I wanted to say, “See, Catholics aren’t so bad because Protestants (or anyone, for that matter) are doing the same thing” I would have said it. But instead, I said just the opposite. I wrote:

“Let’s be clear: the report of abuse in Protestant churches in no way clears guilty members of the Catholic Church — neither the predators nor those who moved them from church to church and put other young people in danger. But the report does give us better perspective. The problem of sexual abuse has no denominational boundaries.”

I always appreciate your point of view, and compassion. With regard to the child abuse issue, I think you are being somewhat disingenuous. I do believe that you are correct in saying that the Catholic Church is taking more heat on this subject because the blame can go all the way to Rome. However, first, the straight comparison of numbers is misleading without also discussing the relative numbers of clergy or of congregations; an "abuses per minister" number, for example. […]

Your primary point, of course, is well taken; any abuse is too much, and the report of abuse in Protestant churches is as abominable as that in the Roman Catholic Church. — Lincoln H. (Church of Later Day Saints, Los Angeles, CA)

RESPONSE: Lincoln, you are right to point out that the statistics of abuse in Protestant churches reported by the Associated Press article cannot be compared perfectly to the statistics the same articles provides about the Catholic Church. There are just too many variables. The imperfect comparison, keep in mind, was made by the author of the AP article, not by me. When I made reference to the AP numbers I made sure you, the reader, knew the incomplete nature of the report. You obviously picked up on that. Unfortunately, those are the best numbers we have for the Protestant church community, at the present time, so I have no other reference point to use. Protestants can’t be lumped into one group. There are thousands of Christian denominations that have developed since the Reformation. Let me know if you find more useful stats.

Thank you for your recent article concerning sex scandals in Protestant Churches (and other areas of society); Of course, I don't like hearing that this crime is happening anywhere ... and that the lives of young children are being destroyed by these vicious sex predators. But I am SICK AND tired of hearing about sex scandals in the Catholic Church! It's as if the media is trying to give the impression that the Catholic Church is the only place these crimes occur! And this is simply not true! According to researchers for the book, "Catholicism for Dummies," only 2.5 percent of abuse has taken place at the hands of Catholic Clergy. 76 percent of abuse takes places at the hands of parents; and another 12 percent at the hands of "other family."

I have a sister who has LONG been fallen away from the practice of our faith.. and she constantly uses the "sex scandal" thing as her weapon of choice in her arguments against the Church. She is so going to read your article. Thanks again, Father. Keep up the GOOD work! God bless. — Teresa B. (Marietta, GA)

RESPONSE: Teresa, when you talk to your sister, I suggest you do so in a humble way and try to understand where she is coming from. All abuse is terrible, but it’s much, much worse when it is committed by people who work in the name of God. We can’t forget that. When there is anger and resentment against a church, usually the reasons are more personal than doctrinal.

Why don’t you just tell the truth; the Catholic Church has pedophilia problems because priests can’t get married. Or are you afraid to admit it? — Anonymous

RESPONSE: Hmmm ... I think that’s a bit of a jump. Healthy people, married or single, don’t ever abuse children. You have to be very, very sick in the head to do that. Psychologists are the first ones to say that getting married doesn’t solve this psychological disorder. The biggest abusers of children today are actually parents and stepparents. The challenge for churches is to make sure disjointed and unhealthy people don’t get into the ranks of the clergy, or anywhere near children, for that matter. The Catholic bishops have recently concluded a national review of all seminaries to make sure candidate selection is up to par and includes the good use of professional psychologists. The selection of candidates was obviously a problem in the past. It is the responsibility of every diocese and every church to make sure unbalanced and unhealthy people don’t hide behind a clerical collar.

Hello. This is a wake up call for all of us Protestants who have been feeling good that it is Catholic priests instead of us that are doing these things. We should have known better. Incidentally, in dealing with this reality, the church I am a member of and serve in requires a criminal background check be performed on anyone who is interested in serving, in particular if the ministry they are going to be in puts them in contact with children. […]

People will not change themselves. I doubt if very many sex offenders are proud of what they do, but they do it anyway. I believe that only God can change people. Sometimes quickly, other times it takes a lifetime. What we need in our society, in our churches, in our families, in our government, and in our lives is God. There is no substitute. — Mike

RESPONSE: Yes, Mike, the criminal history check is also part of the “charter” (new rules) approved by the Catholic bishops. I see all of this as “good coming from evil.” As bad as the past has been, perhaps it will serve to protect children in the future.

I agree with what you said, Father Jonathan, "Sexual predators are in our schools, hospitals, and foster families. It hurts to say it, but because our society is so sick, sexual predators are everywhere."

The problem is the Catholic Church hid this sickness, not our society. By saying others are worse than us (Protestants) or society is to blame does not give one much hope in divinity. I am a high school teacher and I enjoy reading what you have to say. — John

RESPONSE: By saying society is sick, I don’t mean people are free from personal responsibility. As long as we have free will, we can decide to do the right thing. But our culture does affect who we are and the decisions we make. Would anyone doubt that it is more difficult today to raise kids than it was 50 years ago? Regarding your second point, I agree with you that the mishandling of the situation by those in authority was scandalous and perhaps, just as bad as the abuse itself if that’s possible, I hope we are now on the right path.

All do fall short. As a church leader in a Baptist Church, I wish to tell you about the problems the Catholic Church has caused in our small denomination church. Our liability insurance has gone through the roof; we were mandated to have background checks on all those who have ongoing contact with children, and we have had to incorporate our church for liability purposes. All these extra expenditures when they could be used to advance the Gospel. […] — Dave

RESPONSE: Dave, yes, it is such a shame that money has to be spent on all of this. What can I say?

I appreciate your article relative to sexual abuse in the protestant community. As stated, no one wants to point the fingers at other Christian faiths. However, it must be pointed out the Catholic Church does not have ownership with such a terrible sin. It is widespread across the USA. I have been involved in public education my whole life. I have been an educator for over 21 years. I can tell you categorically our schools have suffered from sexual abuse from as far back as I can remember. […] For whatever reason, it was just common knowledge and no one did anything about it. And yet, the media and liberal elites continue to attack the Catholic Church as if it has the market on perversion. Yet, all the priests I ever knew were such great ministers for the Lord. The best education I ever received was from the nuns who taught me in elementary school. It’s just too bad they do not get the credit they deserve. — L.

RESPONSE. I remember once in 2002, at the height of the sex abuse scandal in Boston, I was walking down the street near Brown University with my little sister. A young woman looked at me, and spat right in my face. Who knows what was going through her mind? We can get mad and spend our lives complaining about being victims of prejudice or we can spend our time and energy trying to do something positive. I prefer the latter, even though I’m sometimes tempted to fight back.

Thanks for your perceptive blog posting on "Sexual abuse of minors in Protestant Churches." I absolutely agree ... that the AP article about the insurance data should have been front-page news all across the country. I was quoted in that AP article, and I struggle daily to understand why clergy abuse in the nation's largest Protestant denomination — Southern Baptists — has been able to stay under the radar for so long.

My understanding is that Catholic canon law requires record-keeping on abuse. So, when the John Jay study was commissioned, there was actually some data available by which it was possible to begin to get some understanding of the extent of the Catholic problem. By contrast, in Southern Baptist circles, there is still no one who is even keeping any records, much less making any determination of whether a victim's allegation is "credible."

In my role as Baptist coordinator for SNAP, I hear daily from people who were sexually abused by Baptist clergy. Strangely, they often express envy of Catholic victims. Why? Because when they read news accounts of abuse committed by Catholic priests, what a Baptist victim will sometimes focus on is some tiny bit in the article about how the diocese provided counseling to the victim. Or perhaps they will notice some reference to a review board. Southern Baptists have not yet even stepped up to the level of what Catholics started doing back in 2002.

Thanks for helping to shine light on the problem. — Christa B.

RESPONSE: Christa, thanks for the note. Shedding light on abuse and cover-up is a very good thing. My only suggestion to victim support groups would be to always balance your good work. Some groups, in my opinion, have lost credibility on account of the methods they have chosen to attain their objectives. Jumping to conclusions about guilt before a case has been proven in court, is unprofessional and irresponsible. The Duke lacrosse case depicted this point.

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