Distorted view of abuse hides the real picture


The public’s tendency to overestimate prevalence of child abuse by clergy is truly startling, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

SOME YEARS ago, a Methodist minister told me about queuing for the cinema while wearing his clerical garb and accompanied by his 10-year-old son. Others in the queue began to mutter “paedo” and “disgrace”.

The outraged commentary only ended when he told them he was a Protestant minister with his son. He told me that it gave him tremendous sympathy for the many, many Roman Catholic priests whose reputations are now blackened by the actions of the few.

A poll by Amárach Research on behalf of the Iona Institute (of which I am a patron) has found that a significant number of the public overestimate the prevalence of child abuse by clergy. The figures are startling.

Some 42 per cent put the number above 20 per cent of all priests. Of these, 27 per cent believe the number exceeds 40 per cent, and 17 per cent put it at half or more. The last figure is a notable increase on the figures found by a Royal College of Surgeons poll in 2002, where 11 per cent of the public thought that more than half of all priests are guilty of child abuse.

There are not enough studies on the prevalence of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. One of the most authoritative, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the United States, found that 4 per cent of priests in the US had one or more allegations of child abuse made against them in the period 1950 to 2002.

The 2002 Sexual Abuse and. Violence in Ireland report found that just over 3 per cent of abuse was carried out by clergy. Of course, that is not the same as saying that 3 per cent of clergy abuse, as one person may have many victims. There have been other, higher figures from other sources, but no credible source puts it as high as one in five priests, much less one in two.

It must be utterly depressing for priests to read figures like these. And yet, I suspect most people, even those who estimate one in two priests are guilty of abuse, don’t think that one in two of the priests they know are abusers.

The damage done by child abuse is incalculable – on the lives of victims, their families and on entire communities. Yet we still exist in a state of denial in many ways. For example, the Rape Crisis Network statistics for 2009 found for all first-disclosed incidents of abuse as children, that 49.9 per cent of the abuse was perpetrated by a family member.

Yet our focus continues relentlessly on clerical sexual abuse. Maybe, like my Methodist friend, clergy are easy to identify. However, it helps to create the environment where a priest such as Fr Kevin Reynolds could be accused on RTÉtelevision of fathering a child through rape, despite his offer to take a paternity test to prove his innocence.

That is not to say that clerical sexual abuse should be ignored. For example, in recent times Dr Marie Keenan has published an important work, Child Sexual Abuse And the Catholic Church – Gender, Power and Organizational Culture. It is both important and brave, because it tries to go beyond the simplistic analysis of sexual abusers as “monsters” to looking at what causes men to abuse.

It is impossible to do justice to it in a short article. To give just a flavour, Keenan is very interesting on the relationship between celibacy and sexual abuse.

There is one strand of thought that automatically blames celibacy, managing to completely ignore the fact that the vast majority of clergy do not abuse. There is another strand that says celibacy is nothing whatsoever to do with it. Keenan treads a careful path between these extremes, and says that a particular model of being a priest or religious, that of “perfect celibate clerical masculinity” is at fault.

According to Keenan, vulnerable young men, some of whom had experienced sexual abuse themselves, entered seminaries or other places of formation where an unrealistic, rigid view of human perfection and sexuality prevailed. It was impossible to discuss difficulties, “particular friendships” were discouraged and celibacy was seen as a “gift”.

The idea that celibacy might involve significant losses was not even entertained. This model only began to change, very slowly, in the 1980s and 1990s. One priest says that he entered a seminary at 18, and left at 25, still aged 18 on an emotional level.

Ironically, men who could keep some distance from this model, could allow themselves some “elbow room”, could cope with it much better. The perfectionist, rigid, rule keeper was much more likely to try and conceal any difficulties or lapses, and ironically, in some circumstances, later commit far greater crimes as a sexual offender against children.

Keenan rightly criticises the formation that these young men received, describing it as “negligent” to allow these young men to enter ministry with only the rulebook of moral theology as guidance. She is, however, careful to explain, not excuse or forgive sexual abuse.

It is not that celibacy is impossible, though for some it may be, but that the expectations were so unrealistic, the preparation so inadequate, the ongoing support so non-existent.

As Keenan says, the wonder is not that some clerical men are in trouble, but why more are not. The pity is that so many who managed to emerge humane and sane still have to deal with the public perception that so many of them are abusers.