Catholic priests abuse children at about the same rate as do men in the general population, according to the John Jay Report (2004), from which you have to infer that the Archdiocese of Boston was an outlier. Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson, who led the paper’s groundbreaking investigative series in 2002, disagrees. He thinks that the massive scale of the problem that his team discovered in Boston was typical of the U.S. Church as a whole. No one has found anything special in the drinking water in Massachusetts, he points out. The difference was that independent journalists investigated the scandals there with a thoroughness to which other American dioceses had never been subjected.
The authors of the John Jay Report estimated that 4.3 percent of U.S. Catholic priests from 1950 to 2002 had been accused of sexually abusing minors. Robinson at the Globe says that the figure in the Boston archdiocese during approximately the same period was 10.75 percent. That’s 249 priests, in a diocese whose current Catholic population is about 1.9 million. The current Catholic population of the Diocese of Pittsburgh is about 800,000, and 99 of its priests, according to the grand-jury report in Pennsylvania, have been accused, although a few of the cases predate 1950. From a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, it appears that Pittsburgh priests in the second half of the 20th century abused minors at about the same, appalling rate that their Boston counterparts did.
To read the John Jay Report on the Church nationwide, and now the Pennsylvania grand-jury report on six dioceses, is to be struck by how fuzzy the information is that researchers are able to capture. Some allegations in the Pennsylvania report are more credible than others, and inappropriate touching should be weighted less heavily than rape in the sacristy, although the former may be more traumatizing than non-Catholics will appreciate if they fail to recognize how seriously the doctrine of apostolic succession shapes the imagination of traditional Christians. You don’t need to know the theology to be sensitive to the reality, which a child may feel more keenly than most adults do. Moreover, this side of Judgment Day, we’ll never know how much sexual abuse was carefully left undocumented by Church authorities or perhaps never even reported by victims. From the Pennsylvania report, you can see an outline of the scope of the abomination, but the outline is vague, not sharp. To comprehend it, you have to step back and look at it from some distance.
Step closer, though, and immerse yourself in the details of case after case in the Pennsylvania report if you want to understand the wrong as it was experienced by the victims. They were not standing aloof and regarding the scene with dispassion. No one in such circumstances would think like a sociologist. After so many pages in which a few variations on the same theme recur with dreary consistency, the reader begins to see from the perspective of the victims how the offending priest’s sexualization of his interactions with them must have appeared: sufficiently alarming if the priest was abrupt, but maybe sort of kind of plausible, do you think, at least in the beginning, if he was cunning and gradual. The younger the victim, the less able he was, of course, to communicate the offense to his parents or other adults, and the less likely they were to believe him.
Robinson, who is now in his early 70s, says that he checked the roster of all the priests who served at the parish he grew up in and was heartened to learn that, against the odds, none of them ended up in the Globe’s report. In my own childhood and adolescence, I knew about ten to 20 priests in schools and parishes, and none to my knowledge was ever accused. Most of them I admired, and I still do. All the same, the ripple effect of abuse elsewhere in the Church touched most of us, I suspect. None of us could have been more than a few degrees removed from some incident. One was rumored to have occurred at my high school. The offender was a Jesuit but not a priest. He was gone almost as soon as the parents of the targeted student complained to the principal. Give the principal an A+ for decisiveness. Some of my classmates might have been conscious of the facts of the matter. Others might have only intuited its existence. Some told raucous jokes that, in hindsight, I see as their way of voicing their apprehension.
Further discussion about commissions and investigations and who should lead them and how do we get to the bottom of the cesspool is necessary but, in the bigger picture, a footnote to the main story, which is that the Catholic priesthood in the United States, as in much of the Western world, is a debased institution whose reputation seems unlikely to recover any time soon. It could take a century. Priests who remain true to their vows and do God’s work may be the majority among their peers, but all of them now operate under the dark cloud formed by the offenders. The cloud has waxed and waned over the past 20 years but never dissipated. During this “summer of shame,” as Father Benedict Kiely calls it, it has picked up steam and now looks more like a thick, solid wall, a barrier standing between the Church and those whom it repels.
A friend with friends in seminary tells me that applicants these days are screened with maximum assiduousness for any psychosexual red flags, and the impression of most laypeople I know on the ground is that the epidemic of abuse by priests ended about ten years ago, but to repair the damage already done is a project that will leach much of the Church’s energy for generations to come. The Pennsylvania grand jurors report that they found evidence of abuse even in the past couple of years, but no one argues that it’s being committed at the rate it was last century. At this point it’s hard to know how frequent abuse was before 1960. My impression from the Pennsylvania report is that the ratio of heterosexual to homosexual misconduct was greater in the first half of the century than it was later.
A straw I’m tempted to grasp at is that sexual abuse by priests is a social and spiritual pathology primarily in the West, from which the Church has been receding anyway, as its center of gravity shifts to sub-Saharan Africa, the great hope for Catholicism’s future. There the reported incidence of abuse is slight by comparison. The key word, though, is “reported.” With respect to the willingness of victims to come forward and of chanceries to be transparent, the dioceses there may be approximately where the Church in the U.S. was in the 1980s. We don’t know.
In 1969, when the Spirit of Vatican II was still fresh, and Catholics were supposed to be optimistic about the outcome of Rome’s new plan for dialogue with the world, Joseph Ratzinger struck a contrary, prophetic note. He spoke of “the Church of tomorrow” as “a Church that has lost much”:
She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. . . . Undoubtedly she will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion.
The temptation to romanticize the “small” Church is understandable. Some Catholics already identify as a “creative minority.” At least since the liturgical reforms of last century, however, the public face of our faith has been that of a non-governmental agency: conscientious, plodding, banal, the opposite of “creative.” Now it also looks evil. Perhaps the banality and the evil are related.
Remember the New Evangelization, the Church’s program to reconvert Europe and the Americas? Ha. Church, convert thyself.