This Easter season, we've been bombarded by media reports about the ogre Pope Benedict and his den of iniquity -- the Catholic Church -- that preys on children. The secular bishops of our day -- our major regional newspapers -- dutifully reprint the encyclicals of their own pope, the New York Times. They breathlessly relay every rumor of priestly indiscretion.
I'm not here to defend evil, and clerical sexual abuse of children is a very grave evil indeed. I am interested, though, in why the media consistently portray the Catholic Church as having a corner on the sexual abuse market.
Sexual abuse of children and young people is an appallingly widespread phenomenon. In the United States, studies suggest that as many as 2 million children ages 2 to 17 are victimized every year. Family members likely perpetrate a quarter to a third of all abuse, though estimates range as high as 50 percent. Several studies agree that about half of offenders are friends, acquaintances or other children known to the victim. Often the culprit is a stepfather or a mother's live-in boyfriend.
In 2004, a groundbreaking report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education found that 6 to 10 percent of children in public schools have been sexually abused or harassed by teachers or school employees. Hofstra University Prof. Charol Shakeshaft, the report's author, estimated that about 290,000 students were victimized between 1991 and 2000. "So we think the Catholic Church has a problem?" Shakeshaft told Education Week. "The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests."
How did the media respond to these shocking revelations? With a giant collective yawn. News reports could be counted on one hand, according to NewsMax.com, which contrasted the media's ho-hum reaction with its "wall-to-wall" coverage of Catholic scandals.
Even if we focus on clergy abuse alone, it's clear that the problem of sexual abuse of minors extends far beyond the Catholic Church. A 2003 New York Times study found that 1.8 percent of priests ordained between 1950 and 2001 had been accused of abuse, while a study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops put the number for the period at about 4 percent. Comparable data on Protestant pastors don't exist, according to Philip Jenkins of Penn State University, because their denominations are so decentralized.
"There is no evidence that rates of abuse by Catholic clergy are any higher or lower than those for clergy of any other denomination, or for secular professionals dealing with children," says Jenkins.
The Catholic Church, he points out, is centralized and hierarchical. Bishops observe parish priests and record their behavior, preserving complaints for decades in each priest's diocesan file. As a result, "lawsuits against the Catholic Church can follow established paper trails to ensure large financial judgments against a whole diocese," Jenkins has written.
St. Paul's Jeff Anderson -- the flashy lawyer and self-promoter behind the current attacks on Benedict -- knows how lucrative this game can be. Last week, the Star Tribune showcased him in its headline story about a sexual abuse case in Roseau County involving a Catholic priest visiting from India. In 2002, Anderson estimated that he had pulled in settlements of $60 million from such lawsuits. Currently, he's angling to get his hands on Vatican resources.
Since 2002, the Catholic Church has labored mightily to clean up what Benedict has called "the filth" of priestly sexual abuse. In 2009, the U.S. Catholic bishops' annual audit included only six new allegations of clerical abuse of children younger than 18 -- in a church of some 65 million members. Abuse escalated between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s, but now seems largely to have vanished.
So why does the Catholic Church continue to get all the headlines?
The church draws the mainstream media's ire because, in a world increasingly characterized by moral relativism, it continues to teach enduring moral rules that don't shift with cultural fashions. It dares to challenge the doctrine preached by America's new priestly class -- our opinionmaking elite -- on social issues ranging from abortion and embryonic stem cell research to same-sex marriage.
The Catholic Church remains one of the last and strongest institutional voices to oppose today's fashionable catechism of political correctness. In this respect, it differs from mainline Protestant denominations, which have generally opted to play catch-up with the culture.
The media's sensationalistic crusade against clergy sexual abuse is not so much about protecting children as it is about discrediting the Catholic Church. If media pooh-bahs' one-sided outrage can hobble the church's moral authority and sap its financial base, they will have removed a major obstacle to their agenda's triumph.
Katherine Kersten is a Twin Cities writer and speaker. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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