Counterpoint: Clergy sex abuse is serious, but the church is also a target

  • Article by: KATHERINE KERSTEN
  • Updated: May 23, 2014 - 6:07 PM

Secular schadenfreude explains a zeroing in that doesn’t accurately reflect the problem in society.

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The sexual abuse of children is profoundly evil. Over the years, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has mismanaged clergy sexual abuse in a way that has led to grievous suffering.

News reports and commentary about the problem may lead some Minnesotans to conclude not just that we’ve seen a grave and reprehensible failure of leadership by a handful of church officials, but that there is an unprecedented epidemic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church (“How could this happen? A window into the culture that protected pedophile priests,” April 23).

There’s an untold story behind this barrage of headlines.

Sexual abuse of children is an appallingly widespread phenomenon. Studies suggest that as many as 2 million American children ages 2 to 17 are victimized every year. Sexual abuse is indeed rampant, but where is it occurring?

A substantial share of abuse — estimates range as high as 60 percent — takes place in the family setting, with stepfathers and a mother’s live-in boyfriend frequently responsible. Children in foster care are at special risk. Studies suggest they may be four times more likely to be sexually abused than other children.

Sexual abuse is also widespread in our public schools. In 2004, a U.S. Department of Education study found that millions of schoolchildren are subjected to sexual abuse or misconduct by a school employee between kindergarten and 12th grade.

Far too often, the institutions responsible for children’s welfare fail to protect them. This problem has hardly been limited to the Catholic Church. Over the years, government child welfare agencies in at least 22 states have been ruled inadequate by courts and have been required to operate under judicial supervision.

A 2010 report about abuse in schools by the U.S. Government Accountability Office described a practice that’s been called “passing the trash,” whereby school officials allow abusive teachers “to resign rather than face disciplinary action, often providing subsequent employers with positive references.”

In St. Paul, a longtime school custodian was recently charged with sexual misconduct involving six students. He continued in his position for years, despite repeated student complaints to school authorities about his behavior.

There is “no credible evidence” that Catholic clergy abuse young people any more often than do clergy of any other denomination or members of secular professions who deal with children, according to Philip Jenkins of Baylor University, a national authority on clergy sexual abuse.

In 2004, a comprehensive study of abuse by priests by New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that about 4 percent of American priests between 1950 and 2002 had at least one allegation of misconduct against them.

When weighing children’s safety, however, it’s important to note that more than 80 percent of incidents took place between 1965 and 1985, and fully 94 percent before 1990. As the report notes, during these years, American society saw a rapid breakdown in social and sexual mores, and some priests — along with many other Americans — proved vulnerable. At the time, there was confidence that therapy could rehabilitate most abusers, confidence that experience has shown to have been misplaced.

In 2013, there were 10 substantiated reports of Catholic clergy abuse in the entire nation involving minor children, according to CARA, a Georgetown University-affiliated research center. This in a church with 65 million adherents.

If sexual abuse — and failure to protect children from it — are widespread societal problems, why does almost every case we hear about seem to involve a Catholic priest? After all, there is strong evidence that the church today is a safer place for children than our public schools.

One reason is that the Catholic Church’s unique institutional structure makes it an attractive target for headline-grabbing lawsuits. The Catholic Church is centralized, maintains detailed records stretching back decades and has “deep pockets.” In these ways, it differs greatly from other denominations, such as Baptist or Presbyterian.

In Minnesota, clergy abuse is making headlines today because in 2013, the Minnesota Legislature lifted the statute of limitations on such abuse, following the contentious battle over same-sex marriage. That opened the way for attorney Jeff Anderson to dig into diocesan files of priests going back to the 1960s.

The lifting of the statute of limitations was critical, because the vast majority of incidents at issue occurred decades ago and involved priests who are retired, no longer in ministry or dead. Anderson donated $25,000 to the Senate DFL Caucus in October 2012, months before the statute was lifted. Years ago he estimated that he had won total recoveries of $60 million from such suits nationwide.

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