Homosexuality and Abuse. (the Public Square: A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life)

By Neuhaus, Richard | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, May 2002 | Go to article overview
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Homosexuality and Abuse. (the Public Square: A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life)


Neuhaus, Richard, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


A reader in Princeton, New Jersey, says we are "pandering to anti-Catholic hysteria" by even paying attention to priestly sexual scandals. "Remember the maxim that the Church thinks in terms of centuries. Ignore it and it will go away." No, I don't think it will go away anytime soon. And the questions now raised should not go away anytime soon. But one may hope that hysteria will, in time, give way to more careful deliberation. Such deliberation is offered by Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University, who has been studying issues such as child pornography and clergy abuse for many years. Jenkins, who is not a Catholic, notes that there is nothing specifically Catholic about the sexual abuse of children. Every denomination and religious group has its share of abuse cases, "and some of the worst involve non-Catholics." For many reasons, some of them related to anti-Catholicism, the Catholic Church gets the public attention.

Nor, as many allege, is celibacy the problem. "My research of cases over the past twenty years indicates no evidence whatever that Catholic or other celibate clergy are any more likely to be involved in misconduct or abuse than clergy of any other denomination--or indeed, than non-clergy. However determined news media may be to see this affair as a crisis of celibacy, the charge is just unsupported." But what is the incidence of abuse by Catholic priests? Jenkins writes, "Just to find some solid numbers, how many Catholic clergy are involved in misconduct? We actually have some good information on this issue, since in the early 1990s the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago undertook a bold and thorough self-study. The survey examined every priest who had served in the archdiocese over the previous forty years, some 2,200 individuals, and reopened every internal complaint ever made against these men. The standard of evidence applied was not legal proof that would stand up in a court of law, but just the consensus that a particular charge was probably justified. By this low standard, the survey found that about forty priests, about 1.8 percent of the whole, were probably guilty of misconduct with minors at some point in their careers. Put another way, no evidence existed against about 98 percent of parish clergy, the overwhelming majority of the group. Since other organizations dealing with children have not undertaken such comprehensive studies, we have no idea whether the Catholic figure is better or worse than the rate for schoolteachers, residential home counselors, social workers, or scout masters."

Jenkins cautions against the careless use of the word "pedophilia," which is a psychiatric term meaning sexual interest in children below the age of puberty. "But the vast majority of clergy misconduct cases are nothing like this. The vast majority of instances involve priests who have been sexually active with a person below the age of sexual consent, often sixteen or seventeen years old, or even older.

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