Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sex Abuse: Do Catholic Priests (and Nuns) Do It More?

A recent post on a list for law professors who specialize in the law of evidence made me ponder, once more, the explosive question of the "clergy sex abuse scandal." The reporting of this scandal broke in The Boston Globe while I was a visiting professor at Harvard in the spring semester of 2002. As the reporting on the scandal unfolded, I was struck that all of the accused clergy were members of the Roman Catholic Church. I thought to myself that Protestant clergy (for example) surely also occasionally succumb to sexual temptation and engage in wrongful sexual conduct. I sent an e-mail message to this effect to a Boston Globe reporter. The second (and last) reply I got from the reporter was that there is a consensus that child sexual abuse by Protestant clergy is not a problem. This thesis seemed -- and still seems -- counter-intuitive to me. (Later -- much later -- it occurred to me that perhaps the reporter meant that homosexual sexual abuse of minors is not a serious problem among non-Catholic clergy.)
N.B. #1: I am a resolute heterosexual. So my questioning and doubting are not motivated by a personal "sexual orientation" agenda.

N.B. #2: I am not a Roman Catholic. I have always been a Lutheran and for the time being I remain one.

I think it is very unlikely that wrongful sexual conduct by members of the clergy in Protestant churches is less common than wrongful sexual conduct by Roman Catholic clergy. I find support for this guess in (i) my beliefs about human nature and human sexual activity, (ii) anecdotal evidence, (iii) some (sparse) scholarly literature, and (iv) reports such as the following:
Daniel Burke, "Study: 3 Percent of Women Victims of Clergy Sexual Advances," (September 11, 2009): More than 3 percent of adult women who attend religious services at least once a month have been victims of clergy sexual misconduct, according to researchers at Baylor University. Put another way: in a congregation of 400 people, seven adult women have been targets of sexual advances by clergy, the study says. In addition, in one of 50 cases, the religious leader was married, according to the report. Four percent of respondents said they knew of a close friend or family member who had experienced a sexual advance by a clergy member in their own congregation, the study says. Baylor researchers said their report is the largest scientific study into clergy sexual misconduct with adults in the U.S. “Because many people are familiar with some of the high-profile cases of sexual misconduct, most people assume that it is just a matter of a few charismatic leaders preying on vulnerable followers,” said Diana Garland, dean of the School of Social Work at Baylor University and lead researcher in the study. “What this research tells us, however, is that clergy sexual misconduct with adults is a widespread problem in congregations of all sizes and occurs across denominations.”

While the sexual abuse of children, particularly by Catholic priests, has received outsize attention in the media and academia, the abuse of adults has received relatively little notice, according to Baylor researchers.

“We hope these findings will prompt congregations to consider adopting policies and procedures designed to protect their members from leaders who abuse their power,” said Garland. “Many people—including the victims themselves—often label incidences of clergy sexual misconduct with adults as `affairs.’ In reality, they are an abuse of spiritual power by the religious leader.”

The research was conducted using questions included in the National Opinion Research Center’s 2008 General Social Survey of more than 3,500 American adults and followed up by interviews with respondents.

So what accounts for the focus by media outlets such as the Boston Globe on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy?

These are some possibilities:

1. One possibility is simple ignorance -- ignorance that Protestant clergy (and clerics in other kinds of religious organizations) "do it too."

But if that's part of the explanation, I am inclined to view such ignorance as wilful. The reporters at the Boston Globe, for example, were probably quite familiar with popular literature such as Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry, in which the "hero" -- a Protestant preacher -- engages in sexual misconduct of at least a sort.
2. Another possibility is that media outlets such as the Boston Globe have a degree of "homophobia."
This may explain some of the behavior of some media outlets. But it does not readily explain the behavior of the Boston Globe (which, ironically, once championed the activities of the gay "street priest" Paul Shanley [a central figure in the Boston Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal that broke 2002 A.D.] and decried the efforts of the Archdiocese of Boston to suppress Shanley's "street ministry").

However, anti-homosexual attitudes very probably play a large part in explaining the depth of the public outrage about homosexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy.

3. It is also possible that anti-Catholic bias played (and still plays) a role in the behavior of media outlets such as the Boston Globe and the New York Times.
The thesis that the Boston Globe in particular has suffered from anti-Catholic bias should not be too readily dismissed.
4. Some or much of the media focus on the Catholic clergy was probably the result of the activities of plaintiffs' lawyers who brought lawsuits on behalf of victims of clergy sex abuse. Those lawsuits have been brought almost exclusively against Catholic clergy and branches of the Roman Catholic Church.
I do not think it likely that a disproportionate number of those lawyers were either anti-Catholic or anti-gay (although I would not be astonished to find that I am wrong about this). My guess is that plaintiffs' lawyers focused on Catholic targets of lawsuits for damages because Catholic clergy and the Roman Catholic church were the most alluring targets for financial reasons: the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church made it possible -- after some tinkering was done with immunity rules pertaining to non-profits -- to bring actions for damages against entities with relatively deep pockets. (I deeply discount the hypothesis that the beneficent intentions of plaintiffs' lawyers explain why those lawyers so fervently pursued Catholic targets instead of Protestant targets. Plaintiffs' lawyers -- like many of the rest of us -- are primarily interested in money.)
Now that financially-rewarding Roman Catholic targets are drying up -- they have almost been exhausted -- we can expect to see -- and I think we are seeing -- an increasing number of sex abuse lawsuits against Protestant clergy and churches, Jewish clergy and organizations, other religious organizations and their clergy (e.g., Mormons, Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists), and -- eventually -- educators (regardless of religious persuasion) and those who employ educators (school boards, universities, and the like).


The dynamic evidence page

It's here (more or less): the law of evidence on Spindle Law. See also this post.


Anonymous said...

So what accounts for the focus by media outlets such as the Boston Globe on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy?

Here are some explanations:

1) In Catholicism, no cleric is supposed to have sex of any kind. That's obviously a very tough standard. Picture 5 priests in a rectory. One's caught masturbating, another's caught cruising gay bars, another's caught seducing congregants, another's caught viewing porn, and one's caught bringing kids to his bed room. None are apt to tell on the other. So more abuse happens and is concealed in Catholic settings.

2) When a predatory priest is moved from one spot to another, it's because of a bishop, and (history has shown) most bishops knew about predator priests yet concealed their crimes and moved them elsewhere. When a predatory Protestant pastor moves from one spot to another, it's usually because one congregation hires him from another. In the former case, there's deliberate wrongdoing. In the latter case, there's often negligence. When adults intentionally endanger kids, there's more likely to be legal action than when they endanger kids unintentionally.

3) Child predators look for jobs with access to kids. In part, because of mandatory celibacy, they know in the priesthood they'll have greater access, and face less skepticism, in the Catholic world than the Protestant world.

4) Sometimes, sexually troubled young Catholic men will turn to the priesthood, hoping and praying that if they promise to be celibate, God will give them the gift of celibacy, and help them overcome the troubling sexual urges they feel. Obviously, often that doesn't happen.

David Clohessy
National Director, SNAP
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
7234 Arsenal Street
St. Louis MO 63143
314 566 9790 cell, 314 645 5915

Unknown said...

Mr. Clohessy, thank you for your comment.

I have a question (which of course you are not compelled to answer):

I wonder if you think that homosexual predation is worse than heterosexual predation. For example, do you believe that homosexual statutory rape is worse than heterosexual statutory rape?

My question above is a serious one; it is not a rhetorical sally.

I think reasonable people might give different answers to my question. But I wonder what answer you and other people in SNAP would give.

Again, my thanks for your comment.