Some say pope’s reported claim that 2 percent of priests are pedophiles is too low


Pope Francis delivers a speech in Isernia, Italy, on July 5 as part of a one day visit in the Molise region. Last week, the pope met with several people who say they were sexually abused by priests. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images)

Another news-making Pope Francis interview, another round of unanswered questions. This time, the topic is clergy sex abuse.

In an interview published Sunday in the Italian daily La Repubblica, the pope talks with the newspaper’s founder, atheist Eugenio Scalfari, about the “leprosy” of pedophilia. The article quotes the pope as saying about 2 percent of Catholic priests are pedophiles, but it doesn’t have Francis citing a source and the figure appears to come up in a conversational way. This is the third interview between the two men since Francis took office last year.

“Many of my collaborators who fight with me (against pedophilia) reassure me with reliable statistics that say that the level of pedophilia in the Church is at about 2 percent,” Francis was quoted as saying, according to a translation by Reuters.

“This data should hearten me, but I have to tell you that it does not hearten me at all. In fact, I think that it is very grave,” he was quoted as saying.

Vatican communications officials later released statements about the article that didn’t dispute the figure and had more of a promotional tone. But they also sought — without specifics on the percentage — to raise general questions about the precision of the article.

[Read: Did Pope Francis really tell a 90-year-old atheist journalist that 1 in 50 priests are pedophiles — in an unrecorded ‘interview’?]

One e-mail to reporters, by the Rev. Thomas Rosica, who does English press for the Vatican, called the conversation “open-hearted.”

Another, from Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said: “The conversation was very cordial and most interesting. However, as it happened in a previous, similar circumstance, it is important to notice that the words that Mr. Scalfari attributes to the Pope, ‘in quotations’ come from the expert journalist Scalfari’s own memory of what the Pope said and is not an exact transcription of a recording nor a review of such a transcript by the Pope himself to whom the words are attributed.

“We should not or must not speak in any way, shape or form of an interview in the normal use of the word, as if there had been a series of questions and answers that faithfully and exactly reflect the precise thoughts of the one being interviewed.”

Requests to reach Scalfari and Lombardi for clarification were not immediately successful.

The question of the percentage of pedophiles in the priesthood is not easily answered, even in the United States, where bishops release some data on surveys and survivors have collected significant information over the years through litigation. Figures vary among church leaders and outside analysts. The question in most other parts of the world, particularly in developing countries, seems completely unanswered.

However, survivor advocates said 2 percent sounds low.

Rates of abuse in other groups that work with youth are less clear. There have been major scandals in the Boy Scouts and other faith groups.

In a 2004, a report released by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which worked with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said 4 percent of priests and deacons between 1950 and 2002 were accused of sexually abusing a minor.

Bishop-accountability.org, a Web site that publishes public information about accused priests and their cases, notes that some U.S. dioceses don’t submit regular reports to bishops on such cases. The group alleges that in dioceses where greater information was made available, either by choice or because of litigation, “the percentage of accused priests is approaching 10 percent.”

Anne Barrett Doyle of bishop-accountability.org, said the figure — however it was said — is “extremely low, it’s wrong.” She noted that Francis met last week with several European victims — his first such meeting — survivors from the developing world, including Latin America, were excluded.

“I think what this reflects is this pope’s lingering containment strategy. . . . I think he’s continuing to minimize the problem.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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