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Outlook: Discuss '5 myths about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal'

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David Gibson
Author and journalist
Monday, April 19, 2010; 11:00 AM

David Gibson was online Monday, April 19 at 11 a.m. ET to take your questions about his Outlook article, Five myths about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal

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Gibson is the author of "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and his Battle with the Modern World." He covers religion for PoliticsDaily.com. He joins us today from Rome, where he's covering the scandal.

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Wye River, Md.: Homosexuals are about three percent of the population yet male priests preying on boys account for eighty percent of clerical sex crimes. However, you claim that clerical sex crimes is not caused by homosexuality in the priesthood. Aren't you being dishonest? The truth is that once homosexuality is cleansed from the Roman Catholic Church, the problem of clerical sex crime will be solved.

David Gibson: For one thing, the 80 percent figure is just in the United States. Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Vatican's chief investigator on these cases, puts the incidence of male-on-male abuse at 60 percent of the cases they have received.

Moreover, the 80 percent of offenders include a significant percentage who abused both girls and boys -- so what does that make them? When it comes to male-on-male abuse between a priest and a post-pubescent boy (that is, not pedophiles) the percentage declines to about one-quarter of the cases.

That can also be explained by factors such as access, and the "prison dilemma," that of men who engage in gay sex because that's all there is. They are not necessarily homosexuals.

Do gay men abuse minors? Sadly, yes. Do straight men abuse minors? Sadly, yes. The greatest likelihood of abuse is by straight married men. If you want to lower abuse rates, ordain women...

Also notable is that while critics say gay men are entering the priesthood more than ever, and the Vatican in 2005 moved to bar gays from the seminary, the incidence of abuse has plummeted at the same time. Something doesn't add up.

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Ottawa, Canada: Thank you for your interesting article.

Regarding the second "myth" you outline, your conclusions contradict those of Dr. Fitzgibbons, who treated many pedophile priests. See: A Letter to the Catholic Bishops (from 2002) (Anglican Mainstream)

How would you account for this difference?

Thank you.

David Gibson: With due respect to Dr. Fitzgibbons, his assertions do not reflect the research and the opinions of most experts -- indeed, the fact that he refers to pedophiles means he is not talking about homosexuals.

(I'd suggest consulting Thomas Plante's "Mental Disorders of the New Millennium (2006)."

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Baltimore, Md.: I am a 52 year old woman whose three brothers were abused by two priests for many years. None of them has been able to "get it together," as we used to say: no lasting marriages or employment, etc. Needless to say, I want nothing to do with the church, other than money for my brothers to partially compensate them for what they went through. We all plan to be buried in Protestant cemeteries and are even considering disinterring our parents from the Catholic cemetery in which they are now buried. Our grandmother was born in Ireland and the news of widespread abuse in that country has made us physically ill.

David Gibson: Your story is why the media need to keep digging -- to bring these cases to light, to make sure some semblance of justice is done.

The reality is that unless the media did this job (and, above all, victims stood up) there would likely have been no changes by the church. Reliably conservative Catholics like Peggy Noonan have demanded the church leaders acknowledge the service the media has rendered to the church.

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Alexandria, Va.: You state that media bias against the church is a myth. Yet to the extent that media outlets assert that Benedict XVI IS at the center of the crisis, or that it is uniquely Catholic, or celibacy-related, to they extent that they present the myths as fact, wouldn't that be bias?

David Gibson: There is no doubt that many media commentators are out of bounds in their criticism and opinion about the pope -- just as, I would say, many papal defenders are equally out of bounds in comparing the media to, for example, Nazi leader Joseph Goebbels propaganda machine, as an Italian writer did a few days ago in the newspaper of the Italian bishops conference.

But as far as the substance of the news reports about the various cases emerging in Europe and elsewhere, and even the few cases directly tied to Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, seen on their merits they stand up.

Many papal defenders for example cited a Wisconsin priest, Father Brundage, as having debunked a NY Times story about a case that landed on Raztinger's desk in the Vatican. Brundage proved the Times was wrong and, more important, biased. Yet it turns out Brundage was wrong and has admitted all his claims were false or unfounded. Yet none of the critics that I have seen have walked back that whopper.

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Washington, D.C.: Not a question, but wanted to let you know that I really appreciated the article. With so much misinformation in the country at this time about various issues, articles such as yours that clearly state the facts and debunk popular myths are badly needed. I only wish we could see more of this style of reporting on issues such as health care reform, the tax system, etc.

David Gibson: Thank you. Misinformation is everywhere on many topics, and this kind of forum (The Five Myths) and this kind of exchange is very useful, I hope.

Understandably passions run high on this topic in particular, and the failures of the church, especially the abusive priests and the hierarchical overseers, are enormous. But I try to keep focusing on what is true in order to better formulate solutions.

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washingtonpost.com: Five myths about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal (Post, April 18)

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Arlington, Va.: David:

Please alter this question to reflect the facts, as you know them.

Why aren't recent comments by a Cardinal about putting the pedophilia blame on homosexuals condemned or rejected? I thought that the pope on the flight to United States rejected the supposed connection between pedophilia and homosexuality. Or, he said something about no connection. What did the pope say, on the plane, on this issue?

Thank You.

David Gibson: Good point. Two years ago, as he was traveling to the United States for a pastoral visit, Benedict addressed the issue of clergy abuse and said:

"I do not wish to talk at this moment about homosexuality, but about pedophilia, which is another thing."

And the Vatican spokesman even had to walk back Cardinal Bertone's assertion, saying that "Church authorities do not consider it within their competency to make general statements of a specific psychological or medical nature," but refer to studies by specialists and researchers."

Bertone is in fact the spokesman's boss! So much for the Dan Brown notion of the Vatican as a well-oiled media machine. If only...

I also covered that news here:
http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/04/13/vatican-cardinal-claims-homosexuality-associated-with-pedophilia/

And here:

http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/04/14/pope-benedict-and-the-endless-sex-abuse-scandal/

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Annapolis, Md.: I may be atypical, but I'm a Catholic who left the Church in part because of the sexual abuse scandal. As sad as it is, I no longer trust any Catholic clergy. I am much more comfortable in the Episcopal Church, which has very similar rites and beliefs without this humongous "elephant in the room" to haunt it.

David Gibson: Thanks for your observation. I often think it strange that more Catholics are not migrating to the Episcopal Church, as it has a similar liturgical sensibility and a storied tradition. Yet clearly they are not, or if they are, they are barely keeping the Episcopal Church afloat, numbers wise. The reality, too, is that while the Episcopal Church has relatively few cases comparable to the Catholic Church's, the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion is suffering many of the same deep tensions. So there are few "easy" churches for anyone, anywhere, these days.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: A quick question about some of the numbers in your article. As you state and reported elsewhere, the estimated number of Catholics in the U.S. is 68 million. In your article, you also mention that 10 percent of the U.S. population identifies itself as "former Catholics." That could be up to 30 million! Is there any duplication in these numbers? Does the 68 million include the "former Catholics" or is it possible that the number of current and former approaches 95 to almost 100 million? Those are staggering numbers!

Thanks

washingtonpost.com: Five myths about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal (Post, April 18)

David Gibson: No, in fact Catholics would make up about a third of the U.S. population if all baptized Catholics had remained, rather than the 22-24 percent of the population currently. It would be an interesting country that way, and an interesting church.

The Pew Forum's Religious Landscape Survey is superb and has all the numbers.

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Woburn, Mass.: The pope was at least a part of the problem in the past, but he can convince me even at this extremely late date by getting ahead of the problem.

Simply require removal from contact with potential new victims of any priest accused, and require reporting to the authorities any charge anywhere in the world the church exists. The reluctance to take strong measures in any areas where the scandal has not yet broken seems to be damning to me. Why hasn't the church taken this most basic of steps?

David Gibson: Good question, and I wish there were an easy answer. Part of it is that the pope, and the Vatican, do not like to make solutions under pressure or in a rush. They weren't too keen when the US bishops did it in 2002, but eventually acquiesced.

Also, there are legitimate concerns about applying a single set of policies in all countries. For example, if a bishop reported a priest who abused a minor boy in Uganda, the priest could be put to death. In other places, there may be no particular punishment. It's exceedingly complex. But certainly more could be done, and more quickly.

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washingtonpost.com: Welcome to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey

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"If you want to lower abuse rates, ordain women": David, I'm mostly with you on a lot of things. However, while I am sympathetic to the ordination of women, to do so because it is a compelling reason to lower abuse rates is flat-out wrong. Look at the Magdalene Sisters in Ireland -- some of the worst abuse that happened over the years was at the hands of women. And while men tend to be the dominant abusers in domestic situations, there are sadly more cases of bad mothers, negligent female caretakers, and other female abusers than can be named. To assert that this would cut down on abuse is a wrong-headed, knee-jerk reaction, and may just mean that there are more equal-opportunity offenders that could tarnish the good names of men (and women) who choose the clerical vocation.

David Gibson: True, but if we are talking about strictly sexual abuse, I believe the rate of female offenders is just 20 percent. Which ain't exactly reassuring. There are better solutions. Good point. Thanks.

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Washington, D.C.: My law firm was suing the Catholic Church and diocese in the early 1990s for abuse cases. How can you say that it only came to light in the 2000s? There was widespread knowledge of the abuse much earlier.

Even Toyota has moved faster to address its problem. Isn't that sad that cars get more attention than your children?

David Gibson: Toyota has shareholders to answer to. So it goes.

But you are of course right about the cases coming to light earlier. Jason Berry and National Catholic reporter broke this stuff in the mid-1980s, and there was another round in the early 1990s. Which is in part why there was so much outrage when the Boston Globe's articles in 2002 showed that much had not been taken care of, and too many bishops were hardly repentant.

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Lahinch, County Clare, Ireland: I attended Easter Mass in Ireland where I live part-time and was once again shocked to hear the priest asking for forgiveness for the people who have accused the Church. No doubt he was parroting a diocesan letter, but it was no less amazing. Having committed a crime, they moved the criminal. Having moved the criminal, they denied the crime. Faced with the crime, they covered it up. With the crimes revealed, they blame the victims. The Church has refused to take corporate responsibility and until they do so, they can't recover as a business (see Toyota.)

David Gibson: True. I think the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, has been a real exception and an example in the Irish situation.

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Maryland: Thanks for your article. I would throw a sixth myth into your list, describing the scandal as "pedophilia" when most of the victims were post-pubescent. My perception is that pedophiliacs fall into a different psychological and sexual category than the type of offenders on "To Catch a Predator," although I agree about the noxiousness of both types of abuse. I'm a parent of young children and I went though a short period where I questioned whether I should let my children anywhere near a Catholic church. If my children were teenagers instead when the scandals surfaced, I might have been misled by the word "pedophilia" into believing that the abusing priests were targeting only young children. Do you see the media's treatment of the age factor as misleading?

David Gibson: It is complex, and the problem is few understand even the term pedophilia or other "paraphilias" as they are known. It's a hard story to write about clearly and succinctly. Basically, it's child abuse. I think that's the best answer.

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Washington, D.C.: Mr. Gibson,

I thought you piece was good, however I have to argue that while the coverage for the Catholic Church was indeed good during the funeral of JP II, it should not take the death of a Pope to gain good coverage once every few decades. I rarely, if ever, see good/positive coverage of good things the church does, from work for the poor to work on behalf of immigrants (ESL/citizenship/health care etc). All is see are articles about the sex scandal or stem cell. So yes, the funeral coverage was positive, however the good t things the church done are mostly ignored. I would appreciate a response to this with your thoughts. Thank you.

David Gibson: No doubt much coverage of the church involves controversy, and the church (and its leaders) do many controversial things. And they want coverage of issues like abortion and euthanasia, because that's how the word gets out.

That said, I think there is a good deal of "positive" coverage, such as the church's work with the poor, on immigration, and NYT writer Laurie Goodstein's series last year on foreign-born priests in the US.

Also, what counts as "good"? Many Catholics worked for health care reform, including the bishops until the very end. Whether the coverage was good or bad may depend on your point of view.

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Princeton, N.J.: Mr. Gibson,

Thank you for hosting this chat, and thanks for taking my comment. I really appreciated your piece, and thought that it was well-reasoned and exceedingly fair. However, I must disagree with Point 4; the NY Times has been having a field day with the scandal, and it is reminiscent of the Howell Raines 'flood the zone' coverage from the beginning of the decade. The tone among some columnists has been almost gleeful in attacking the Church; a lot of this is due to bias -- certainly because of the Church's stance on abortion, gay marriage and ordination of women. Biased media reporting seems to feed into a lot of anti-Catholicism, and helps the cause of rabid haters like Fred Phelps and his WBC ilk, which has spewed hate against the Church (and a lot of other groups) for decades; it doesn't help when he can call on a ton of press clippings to help bolster his case.

David Gibson: Ah, Fred Phelps and Westboro Batpist. He could certainly benefit from less coverage.

As I said earlier, I do think some commentary has been over the top, though not the reporting per se.

Also interesting in The NYT have been the columns of Ross Douthat, a conservative young Catholic who has praised the pope in some areas but also asked him to do an act of contrition for his role.

Thanks for the question -- I hope I answered it to some degree.

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Boca Raton, Fla.: You say that the recent increase in gay priests has contributed to a reduction in sex abuse cases but I think this is in error. Can you provide the evidence to support your assertion? After the 2004 John Jay Report showed that 80 percent of all sex abuse victims were teenage boys, it recommended, within the body of that same report, that the Church consider closing the priesthood to homosexuals . The Vatican did indeed issue a directive that closed the priesthood to homosexuals and there has been an increase in vocations to the priesthood and decline in sex abuse cases ever since.

David Gibson: I'm not sure where in the John Jay report it recommends closing seminaries to gays. Indeed, the authors of that report specifically argue that homosexuals are not the culprits here. Let me know your citation.

I did not mean to say more gay priests have led to a decline in abuse. I just think their growing presence (apparently, as no one has done such a survey) while abuse cases plummet shows they are not the prime cause.

The real cause of the decline is better screening and psych evaluation of all candidates for seminary, gay or straight.

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Bethesda, Md.: None of the myths mention celibacy... any evidence that allowing priests to marry may prevent abuse incidents?

David Gibson: No, does not appear to be a link.

In Mental Disorders, Plante writes:

No reliable research exists to conclude that Catholic priests are much more likely than male clergy from other faith traditions (or men in the general population) to sexually abuse children ... allowing priests to marry would not eliminate the inclination of some of these men to sexually victimize minors.

See Cathy Grossman's USAToday post:

http://content.usatoday.com/communities/Religion/post/2010/04/what-causes-sex-abuse-research-conflicts-with-catholic-leaders/1

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: I've read that women who were formerly sexually abused when young by priests are far less likely than men to come forward now with either allegations or lawsuits. So isn't it possible that: a) there are considerably more cases of child sexual abuse than we've heard about; and, b) there may be illegitimate children of priests from such liaisons who deserve retroactive compensation?

David Gibson: In fact my experience has been that boys/men are more reluctant because of society's generally negative views on homosexual behavior.

That said, there are certainly undiscovered cases, and many only come out later as victims deal with their childhood abuse. It's a time bomb.

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Arlington, Va.: From your research can you tell me -- what is the motivation of people insisting that this is the fault of homosexuality? Are they trying to excuse the priests, and the church cover-up, by blaming homosexuals? And let me ask you this -- I keep hearing if the priest celibacy were overturned (or whatever), this problem would be alleviated. But that flies in the face of what we know about pedophilia as well, doesn't it? And finally, one more -- why aren't we seeing more criminal charges against these pedophiles? Thank you.

David Gibson: I can't address the motivation of those who blame homosexuals, though gays have often been a convenient scapegoat -- and the temptation to find a simple, silver bullet answer is a great one.

Re charges against pedophiles, this is a problem for civil society as much as the church -- abuse victims rarely come forward until years later, and by then the statute of limitations has run out. In some cases even when bishops told police, the cops would or could do nothing. And this got dumped in the church's lap after 2002 because almost all the cases were so old. Police won't commit resources to investigating decades-old charges when they can barely deal with the caseload they have now.

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David Gibson: Thanks for all your questions, and keep them coming. I'm typing as fast as I can in hopes of answering as many as possible in the time remaining. Keep sending questions, and I'll also put a priority on answering those on topics or angles not yet discussed. Many thanks. David

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washingtonpost.com: What Causes Sex Abuse? (USA Today)

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Washington, D.C.: I saw a graph that I found interesting in the John Jay study that you cited in your article. It showed that the number of abuse cases really slowed sometime around 1992 and has stayed low since. To me that indicates that all the furor is about abuses that happened decades ago, meaning that the scandal is more about a cover-up from a time past. Since the abuses seriously decreased in the early 1990s and the news didn't break until 2002, isn't it a mistake to say the media put a stop to it?

David Gibson: You have to consider that the media started reporting this stuff in the mid-1980s, and that led to the first policies. Moreover, those policies had to be strengthened, and were no always followed, until further media investigations.

Finally, there is the question of justice -- many of those cases you mentioned were not out in the open or were not even recorded until the media reports emboldened victims (and, yes, lawyers) to come forward.

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Washington, D.C.: I am not Catholic and my knowledge of Catholicism is limited. Am I correct in my understanding that the pope is supposed to be infallible? If this is the case, then how can his decisions to not defrock priests, or reassign them, or whatever, be incorrect? If he is infallible, doesn't logic dictate God wants those priests to abuse little children? Thank you.

David Gibson: Actually, yours is a common misconception, and thanks for raising it.

In fact the pope is only infallible is a very narrow range of issues concerning dogma, and only when he is acting with the entire College of Bishops, as the hierarchy is known.

Indeed, infallibility has only been invoked twice formally, regarding the Immaculate Conception of Mary (1854 I believe) and the Assumption (1950 -- again my dates me be off).

Neither of those dogmas is likely to please non-Catholic Christians! But yes, popes make mistakes all the time. Some even admit to it.

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New York, N.Y.: You wrote: 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.

Assuming that's true, I think it an a priori case of media bias that virtually all the sexual abuses cases in the media concern the Catholic Church.

Do you care to comment?

David Gibson: I wouldn't agree for three reasons: One, the church has made itself a champion of sexual morality and the abuse cases showed the leaders weren't practicing what they preached. You set yourself up for criticism and investigation when you do that. Besides, these are men of God, not accountants.

Also, while the rate of abusers may be similar, too many of those abusers were allowed to become serial molesters because of lax oversight. That's particularly heinous.

Finally, the church has records, and responsibility, because of its hierarchical structure. The chain of command is clear, and the records can be accessed in a way they can't in other organizations.

But does the story need to move on to other professions, and hopefully will.

Justice in the media is rough justice indeed, but there it is.

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Are you a Catholic?: Because you seem harshly critical of the Vatican. If you are, are you a practicing Catholic? And does your role as a journalist conflict at all?

David Gibson: I am indeed a practicing Catholic (and I keep hoping to get good at it!) and in fact I converted after having worked at the Vatican and covering it. The Vatican is a wonderful and often confounding place, and sometimes even holy. (That's a joke.) But the "Vatican" is not my faith. Christ is. The pope and bishops are all part of this family -- which is dysfunctional enough to include me as a member.

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Rockville, Md.: Your response to Annapolis, Md., shows your bias and true intent -- to diminish the numbers of the Catholic church. You obviously don't know a thing about the Catholic church its founding, history and truly what it is. Most of us are not looking for a "similar "liturgical experience, but the true thing -- the church that gave us the Bible that follows Christ's words to eat of his flesh... (yes, that is in John 6 and repeated 6 times and no, when some leave he doesn't call them back!) We have the church fathers who wrote of the original church in the earliest centuries-sounds just like today's. Are there problems? absolutely, the church is perfect but its members are human and are not.

David Gibson: Dear Rockville: I'm not advocating a migration to the Episcopal Church by Catholics, just noting that many find a home there, understandably. Many do not, also understandably. It is what it is.

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Rockville, Md.: David With the re-emergence of the abuse scandal, the disciplining of numerous U.S. orders of nuns for breaking with the bishops on health- care reform along with so many Catholics simply disagreeing with the church's teachings on everything from birth control to ordination of women to married clergy to same-sex marriage, do you see the potential for a new American Catholic church emerging? I know that would be complicated , but millions of us are fed up, hence the extraordinary number of "former Catholics in the US.

David Gibson: I don't see an "American Catholic Church" emerging. That's a tough thing to do -- Catholics believe in the church in communion with the pope and the tradition, and they want to be connected to the wider universal church. Breakaway churches also rarely survive these days. It takes a lot of work to create a church, and frankly, not that many people care enough or have enough time and energy. Many will just walk away, others will just wait out the church's crisis. It's all happened before.

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Reston, Va.: When dealing with offending priests, did Catholic church use any kind of psychological consultation? In other words, were they able to access professionals who could have warned them of the high recidivism rate for pedophiles? Or did the Church act at a point in time when people believed you could "cure" pedophilia with electro-shock therapy and ice baths?

David Gibson: The church was largely acting at a time when pedophilia and other abuses were not well understood, and they arguably got bad advice at times. (Criminal authorities and the laws weren't up to speed either.) But too many bishops also heard what they wanted to hear from psychiatrists and counselors, or fudged on how much they disclosed about the priests' background.

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Confession: Given what I understand (and it's not much) about the sacrament of confession, are priests who confess to criminal activity "forgiven" in some way that permits this lax attitude toward abuse and their ability to continue without secular accountability?

David Gibson: In fact, anyone can confess their sins in confession but they are not automatically granted absolution. A confessor would likely tell them they have to answer for their crimes to be formally forgiven. Not that is always happened that way.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm confused by people saying that the abuse scandals didn't hit until the late 90s/early 2000s. While I realize that there has been much more coverage about the issue of sexually deviant priests, this has been an open secret in the Catholic Church for years. I remember my dad telling me about pedophile priests from when he went to Catholic school in the 50s.

David Gibson: There are accounts of this problem/scourge from the earliest centuries of the church. Of course, such abuse wasn't necessarily considered abuse in the non-Christian world at the time.

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David Gibson: Dear readers and commenters: I must sign off here -- it is 6pm in Rome and I have other deadlines looming.

Thanks for all your questions, and apologies for those I did not get to. Feel free to continue to comment in the spaces at the end of the Five Myths story itself.

Pax,

David

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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