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Is there an epidemic of child abuse by Catholic clergy?

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By Marshall Connolly (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
7/8/2019 (3 months ago)
Catholic Online (

Studies show clergy abuse children at a rate far below those in other professions.

Watch the news in the U.S., and on any given week and it seems there is at least one report about Catholic clergy caught up in an abuse scandal. A viewer would understandably develop the impression that the Catholic Church is overrun with pedophile priests. Is this the impression most people have, and more importantly, is this objectively true? 


By Marshall Connolly (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
Catholic Online (
7/8/2019 (3 months ago)

Published in U.S.

Keywords: Catholic, abuse, clergy, children, statistics

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Before we delve into statistics, a word about abuse. There are no circumstances where the abuse of a child should be tolerated. Priests who abuse children and those who cover up these offenses are committing great evils which harm people and the Church as a whole. Every effort should be made to ensure justice is served and that the guilty pay. Children suffer tremendously. The Church cannot afford these scandals, from a moral or financial perspective, and those who commit these crimes must be rooted out and brought to swift justice. But it should also be noted that not all accusations are true, and each report should be investigated and when credible, brought to a fair hearing. 

That said, is there an epidemic of child abuse at the hands of the Catholic clergy? 

According to a majority the public, no. A Pew study released on June 11, found that 57 percent of Americans believe that sexual abuse of children among the Catholic clergy is equally as common among other adults who work with children. 

Among Catholics, 68 percent do not believe this is a uniquely Catholic problem. However, 79 percent of U.S. adults believe it is an ongoing problem. 

Scholarly Evidence

Research conducted by scholars contains a surprising conclusion. 

In a study of sexual abuse by clergy, this result was reported:

It should be noted that while childhood sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has received extensive media coverage, childhood sexual abuse by teachers and others is also a serious problem. Charol Shakeshaft, who has done extensive research on the problem of sexual abuse of students by teachers, recognizes the difficulty of collecting solid data on sexual abuse; but using available studies, she estimates that "the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than one hundred times the abuse by priests."(8) According to Shakeshaft's research, even when abuse was reported to school officials the offenders were not reported to the police.

This result is consistent with other research which generally finds the same. Children are more likely to be abused by their teachers and coaches than their priests. And above all, children are most likely to be abused by a close friend or family member, someone with regular access and trust. 

In other words, the clergy sexual abuse crisis, while serious and significant, is no worse than abuse across other segments of society, and is less common. This finding should not be construed as a minimization of the problem involving the Church. The Church and its clergy are called to a standard of impeccability, and while that standard is unrealistic, it is the only reasonable goal. 

Catholics must do two things. The first, is they must take all allegations seriously, even when they are made against beloved and respected clergy. They can (and should) reserve judgement until the facts are heard, but every allegation must be investigated, and they must demand diligence. The second is to bear in mind that the vast majority of clergy are not abusing anyone, and they are doing a difficult and demanding job, often with a smile. We should appreciate our clergy and support them. These two responsibilities are in no way opposed; they compliment one another perfectly, and do much to help the Church and the people who compose the Body of Christ. 


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