Five myths about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal

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By David Gibson
Sunday, April 18, 2010

VATICAN CITY -- As Benedict XVI prepares to mark the fifth anniversary of his election as pope here on Monday, he is beset by devastating reports about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests -- and about his own role in the crisis. The reports have prompted sharp condemnations of the pontiff as well as a backlash of media criticism from papal defenders in the Vatican and around the world. Amid the firestorm, myths have emerged that only complicate the search for truth, healing and accountability.

1. Pope Benedict is the primary culprit in the coverup of the abuse scandal.

Between 1981 and 2005, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope, headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's office for doctrinal orthodoxy. A few abuse cases (some from the United States) came before him, and the evidence shows that he did not move with any urgency to defrock priests. In 2001, as the number of cases coming to light worldwide increased, Ratzinger convinced Pope John Paul II to let his office have jurisdiction over all of them. Though the Vatican says church confidentiality did not preclude bishops from reporting crimes to civil authorities, some see Ratzinger's move as an attempt to keep the cases secret.

Nonetheless, there is just one case so far that can be traced directly to Ratzinger's tenure as a bishop, when he was head of the archdiocese of Munich in his native Germany. In that 1980 case, Ratzinger allowed a child abuser into his diocese for psychiatric treatment, and the priest was reassigned to a parish where he went on to abuse more children. It's unclear whether Ratzinger personally signed off on the assignment, but he seems to have acted more or less like most bishops at the time -- giving little oversight to the abuser and doing nothing to remove him from the priesthood. Alas, there is plenty of blame to go around for the church's passivity.

As pope, Benedict has blamed the media for exaggerating the scandals, yet he has moved more aggressively against abusers than John Paul II, his predecessor, who tried to stop defrocking priests altogether and who ignored evidence of the terrible abuses by the late Marcial Maciel Degollado, a well-known Mexican priest who founded the Legionaries of Christ, a secretive order that is under Vatican investigation.

During the 2000s, as Ratzinger came to realize the scope of the abuse, he expedited the defrocking of abusive priests and reopened the Maciel case, which had been closed under John Paul. "We realize that it's necessary to repent," Benedict said in a homily on Thursday. He has still has not punished bishops, however, with the same rigor with which he has targeted abusers.

2. Gay priests are to blame.

Some defenders of the Catholic Church's response to the abuse crisis say that homosexual priests are responsible for the majority of abuses, in part because more than 80 percent of the victims are male. They argue that true pedophiles -- adults who are pathologically attracted to pre-pubescent children -- constitute a small minority of offenders. Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone repeated this gay-pedophile link on Wednesday, and such reasoning was partially behind a 2005 Vatican policy barring gays from seminaries.

Such assertions have numerous flaws. For one thing, research shows that gay men are no more likely to molest children than straight men. (And celibacy doesn't seem to be a determining factor, either.) Yes, 80 percent of the victims were male, but many offenders assaulted children of both sexes. Maciel abused boys and fathered children with several women. Moreover, the abusers had access to boys; an adult male couldn't go on overnight trips with girls or take them away unchaperoned.

Finally, while critics of gay clerics fret that homosexuals dominate the priesthood and endanger children, in fact the ostensible increase in gay priests in recent years has coincided with a sharp decrease in reports of child abuse by clergy.

3. Sexual abuse is more pervasive in the Catholic Church than in other institutions.

Sexual abuse of minors is not the province of the Catholic Church alone. About 4 percent of priests committed an act of sexual abuse on a minor between 1950 and 2002, according to a study being conducted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. That is roughly consistent with data on many similar professions.

An extensive 2007 investigation by the Associated Press showed that sexual abuse of children in U.S. schools was "widespread," and most of it was never reported or punished. And in Portland, Ore., last week, a jury reached a $1.4 million verdict against the Boy Scouts of America in a trial that showed that since the 1920s, Scouts officials kept "perversion files" on suspected abusers but kept them secret.

"We don't see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else," Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told Newsweek. "I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others."

Part of the issue is that the Catholic Church is so tightly organized and keeps such meticulous records -- many of which have come to light voluntarily or through court orders -- that it can yield a fairly reliable portrait of its personnel and abuse over the decades. Other institutions, and most other religions, are more decentralized and harder to analyze or prosecute.


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