Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: How common is it really?

Sensationalist headlines in the mass media, repeated ad nauseam all over social media, give fuel to anti-Catholic bigotry and encourage physical attacks, abuse and discrimination against ordinary Catholics as well as Catholic clergy and religious.

Just recently a Catholic priest, Fr. Basil Hutsko, whom it should be stressed has never been accused of any sexual crime, was attacked and beaten unconscious in the sacristy of his church in Indiana, USA. The attacker reportedly said when launching the attack, “this is for all the kids”, in reference to the lurid and unrepresentative coverage in the media.

So, actually, how common is child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church according to the official data from independent investigative reports? And how does it compare to child sexual abuse in society as a whole?

We can get a very good idea by comparing the number of victims identified in independent investigations with the length of the period under investigation and the number of Catholics who experienced their childhood years during that period. By doing so we learn the approximate percentage of Catholic children who suffer sexual abuse in an institution like a school, church or orphanage run by the Catholic Church.

The extensive 2004 John Jay College of Criminal Justice investigation, covering the entire USA, found that there were 10,667 reported cases of child sexual abuse in Catholic institutions over a 52-year period. It can reasonably be said that during that 52-year period at least half of the seventy-million-strong Catholic population of the USA went through their childhood years. In other words, the official data records that approximately 0.03% of Catholic children in the USA were victims of sexual abuse in Catholic institutions over a period of fifty-two years.

Staying in the USA, the very recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation reported that 1,000 children were recorded as victims of sexual abuse in Catholic institutions in Pennsylvania over a 70-year period. With seventy years being roughly the average length of a human lifetime it can reasonably be said that three-million, two-hundred thousand children, which is the size of the Catholic population of Pennsylvania, went through their childhood during this seventy-year period. In other words, the official data records that approximately 0.03% of Catholic children in Pennsylvania were victims of sexual abuse in Catholic institutions over a period of seventy years.

In Ireland, the extensive Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse revealed in its Final Report in 2009 that, over a thirty-four year period, 170,000 children passed through Industrial and Reformatory schools run by the Catholic Church. A total of 369 people made complaint to the Commission during its nine-year-long confidential investigation that they had suffered sexual abuse in these institutions. In other words, the official data records that 0.2% of Catholic children in Ireland were victims of sexual abuse in Catholic institutions over a period of thirty-four years.

Finally, in Australia, another extensive investigation, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, found that 4,444 claimants reported sexual abuse in Catholic institutions. This was recorded over a period of 35 years, which is approximately half a lifetime. The Catholic population of Australia is 5,440,000 and it can reasonably be said that roughly half that number of Catholics experienced childhood during the 35-year period under investigation. So, in other words, the official data records that approximately 0.16%.of Catholic children in Australia were victims of sexual abuse in Catholic institutions over a period of thirty-five years.

It’s often claimed that many victims of sexual abuse don’t report it through fear, or embarrassment, or for other reasons, so the true number of victims will be higher. Unfortunately, whilst this may well be true, we cannot know it if they are not reported and recorded. If a guess is made as to what percentage of victims do not report child sexual abuse the same rule and measurement must also apply to the officially recorded data for child sexual abuse in the rest of society.

Horrifically, the U.K.-based National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) records a study published in 2000 by Cawson et al, called ‘Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom: A Study of the Prevalence of Child Abuse and Neglect’. The extensive study records that an enormous 16% of children under sixteen-years of age suffer sexual abuse.

In the USA, Rind et al found in 1998 in a meta-analytical study compiled from 23 independent studies, that between 22% and 23% of children under eighteen-years of age suffer sexual abuse

So, the next time you come across an anti-Catholic bigot trying to whip-up hatred against Catholics and against Catholicism, using clerical sexual abuse as an excuse, be sure to make use of the facts and figures from the official data to demolish the myths and the lies that are being used in an attempt to overwhelm and undermine Catholicism. Be sure to point out that child sexual abuse is a hundred times worse, or even thousands of times worse, in so-called “normal” society than it is in institutions run by the Catholic Church.

As the famous Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton once said: “When people impute special vices to the Christian Church, they seem entirely to forget that the world (which is the only other thing there is) has these vices much more.”

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2 responses »

  1. It’s not so much the scale of abuse in the Catholic Church relative to the ‘big bad world’ that is the issue , it’s the fact that ANY abuse is particularly abhorrent in an institution that professes to be a refuge and bastion against cruelty and abuse of the weak. To stack up statistics in the way you do smacks of denial and reads as a complete failure to understand the sense of betrayal that communities have felt, not just at the hands of the ‘0.005%’ (or whatever very small percentage) of clergy who actually carried out the abuse but at the hands of the far larger percentage who were complicit by silence . Most London policemen do not ignore crimes against ethnic minorities yet the London Metropolitan Police was rightly condemned as ‘institutionally racist’ by a judicial inquiry. The fact is that all London policemen have had to work hard since to regain the trust and respect of the communities they serve. When will the Catholic Church get this?

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    • True, The betrayal of trust and the cover up are utterly evil, shocking and repugnant. But the practical fact remains that anti-Catholic bigots are winding many people up with the result that hatred against Catholics and Catholicism becomes more widespread. That needs to be addressed, The media frenzy causes physical violence to be directed against innocent Catholic priests and the vandalism of Catholic churches.

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