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Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Clergy

by Dale O'Leary

In response to the scandal over sexual misconduct with persons under 18 by members of the Catholic clergy, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct a comprehensive study of the problem. The study The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002, was released in 2004 (JJR I)[1]. This was followed up by a Supplementary Data Analysis in 2006 (JJR II)[2].
In discussing childhood sexual abuse (CSA), it is necessary to remember that while people feel reassured when they receive a statistic to two decimal points, statistics are like snapshots, taken at a particular time in a particular place, from a particular point of view. In order to know how reliable statistics taken from a published study are, it is necessary to know how the group studied and any comparison groups were assembled, what questions were asked, and how were they asked. Can the statistics presented in a particular study be generalized or are they only relevant to that particular group at that particular place and moment time? Do the results agree with the results from a number of other well designed studies? The JJR study is well designed and provided a unique opportunity to look at the problem of CSA.
According to JJR I, 4,392 clerics were accused of CSA. This represents about 4% of clerics in active ministry during that period. While the number of alleged victims of clergy abuse in the JJR is unacceptable high (10,667 total allegations), the publicity generated by the coverage of the scandal, and the fact that the Church was offering financial settlements may have encouraged those who had not previously revealed their abuse to come forward. Some of those who did reported abuse that had occurred decades earlier. This added the fact that the Church as a hierarchical institution was able to give the researchers’ access to records, means that JJR is probably one of the more comprehensive studies of CSA.
When the JJR is compared to other studies of CSA the differences are striking, since other studies reported female victims of CSA out number males. For example in an oft referenced study by Finkelhor and associates, 27% of women and 16% of men reported childhood sexual abuse.[3] In contrast, the JJR found that 81% of the alleged victims of clergy abuse were male.
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