Posted by: L. E. Barnes | April 9, 2010

Not Just a Catholic Problem

Popular perceptions of the Church’s sex abuse scandal provide an excellent example of why it is important to look beyond media headlines or sound bites. Digging deeper into the facts often reveals that things are not as simple as they at first seemed. For instance, a recent Newsweek article points out that the evidence reveals the Catholic Church does not have a higher incidence of sexual abuse of children than do other institutions or segments of society:

The Catholic sex-abuse stories emerging every day suggest that Catholics have a much bigger problem with child molestation than other denominations and the general population. Many point to peculiarities of the Catholic Church (its celibacy rules for priests, its insular hierarchy, its exclusion of women) to infer that there’s something particularly pernicious about Catholic clerics that predisposes them to these horrific acts. It’s no wonder that, back in 2002–when the last Catholic sex-abuse scandal was making headlines–a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that 64 percent of those queried thought Catholic priests “frequently” abused children.

Yet experts say there’s simply no data to support the claim at all. No formal comparative study has ever broken down child sexual abuse by denomination, and only the Catholic Church has released detailed data about its own. But based on the surveys and studies conducted by different denominations over the past 30 years, experts who study child abuse say they see little reason to conclude that sexual abuse is mostly a Catholic issue. “We don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else,” said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others…(Read the full article here.)

Nor does the evidence support the idea that priestly celibacy is a contributing factor to the sex abuse scandal:

Sexual abuse is indeed horrible, but there is no empirical evidence that it is a uniquely, predominantly, or even strikingly Catholic problem. The sexual abuse of the young is a global plague. In the United States, some 40 to 60 percent of such abuse takes place within families—often at the hands of live-in boyfriends or the second (or third, or fourth) husband of a child’s mother; those cases have nothing to do with celibacy. The case of a married Wilmington, Dela., pediatrician charged with 471 counts of sexual abuse in February has nothing to do with celibacy. Neither did the 290,000 cases of sexual abuse in American public schools between 1991 and 2000, estimated by Charol Shakeshaft of Virginia Commonwealth University. And given the significant level of abuse problems in Christian denominations with married clergy, it’s hard to accept the notion that marriage is somehow a barrier against sexually abusive clergy. (Indeed, the idea of reducing marriage to an abuse-prevention program ought to be repulsive.) Sexual abusers throughout the world are overwhelmingly noncelibates.

(Read the full article here.)

Yes, the sex abuse scandal is a tragedy. And yes, there was a failure on the part of Church leaders to deal with the problem appropriately. But once again, Catholic Church has become a popular whipping boy by the media.



  1. I am glad you wrote this. I am an incest survivor. I was sexually abused for years by my father. I have told people over and over that child sexual abuse is not a Catholic problem. It is a societal problem, and the Catholic Church is part of society, period. While I am upset about these continued sex abuse scandals and the continued cover-up by church officials, (didn’t they learn anything from all that happened in 2002?) – I am also upset by the media’s careless and erroneous reporting of child sexual abuse in the church and making it seem like a Catholic problem. If we stop child sexual abuse in society, we stop it everywhere. Churches of all kinds, families of all kinds, schools of all kinds, societies of all kinds. Only the Truth can set us free! God bless!

  2. I agree. There needs to be greater awareness of the problem. I admit the Church apparently still has quite a bit of house cleaning to do, but the public needs to realize that this is indeed a societal problem. It’s been pointed out that there’s as much if not more of this going on in our school system, yet you won’t hear that from the media. I’m so sorry to hear you were the victim of incest. How anyone can abuse children is beyond me!

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. […] gave the example of how the media have been covering the sex abuse scandal in the Church. (See my earlier post about how this problem is not confined to the Catholic […]

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