When the Pope visited the United States last fall, the media indulged in a predictably frenzied examination of the general state of “crisis” in the American Catholic Church. Oddly, though, few reporters devoted space to what only a few years previously would have been described as the Church’s greatest crisis: the spate of cases involving the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. Though such cases continue to appear, some very serious (and often demonstrating a grievous insensitivity on the part of diocesan authorities and their lawyers), it no longer seems plausible to speak of a general collapse of clerical discipline and celibacy, or of a systematic cover-up by Catholic bishops. Clerical sex abuse is today most often seen as a lamentable but rare occurrence.
Some anticlerical Catholics had hopes that the abuse scandals might be the detonator that would bring down the whole clerical system, comparable to the sexual and financial misdeeds that led to the Protestant Reformation. But such historical parallels now seem wildly exaggerated; we are by no means standing at a new Wittenberg.
In fact, we are now sufficiently removed from the perception of an “abuse crisis” that reached its height in 1992–93 to place it in its broader context. What we find is a sobering lesson on the gap between the reality of a social problem and the ways in which it is presented in public discourse. Moreover, the main culprits in misrepresenting this issue as a specifically Catholic problem were Catholic activists themselves, generally working in what they considered to be the best interests of the Church.
It seems hard to remember now that the topic of clerical sex abuse was regarded as untouchable before about 1985 and the massive attention devoted to a Louisiana priest named Gilbert Gauthe. The Gauthe affair set the pattern for dozens of later scandals: a priest who molested children in one parish was repeatedly reassigned after his predilections became known, without warning the new parish of potential danger. The attitude of Catholic authorities to victims and parents in these cases tended to be arrogant and even hostile. Incidents of this sort multiplied over the next decade and culminated in 1992 with the exposure of a serial pedophile named James Porter, who had molested dozens of children in his southern Massachusetts parishes in the 1960s. Each new scandal fueled litigation and media reports, which in turn fueled expectations of further cases. A sense of pervasive corruption within the Church was reinforced by the appalling (and quite unfounded) charge that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago had molested a seminarian in the 1970s. The endlessly repeated orthodoxy was that Gauthe and Porter were far from isolated individuals. Perhaps 6 percent of Catholic clergy were “pedophiles,” some six thousand priests in the U.S. alone.
Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, commentators often employed the inaccurate term “pedophile priest.” “Priest” made the problem look like the preserve of Catholics, and presumably the direct consequence of celibacy, though the misbehavior was distributed across the ecclesiastical spectrum. And while “pedophiles” are men who molest prepubescent children, the vast majority of sexually erring priests were in liaisons with teenagers or young adults. While their acts were sinful and often illegal, such behavior does not typically exhibit the more extreme predatory and compulsive character of pedophilia.
As for the numbers cited in these years, most derive from the kind of urban legend that transforms a vague estimate of something into a firm statistic for something completely different. “Six percent” apparently mutated from a working guess for the number of Catholic clergy with pedophile inclinations, not practice. (Similar estimates have been proposed for noncelibate Protestant clergy.) The most solid assessment of clerical sexual problems is found in the Chicago study, commissioned by Cardinal Bernardin, that examined the personnel files of all 2,252 priests who had served in the archdiocese between 1951 and 1991. Between 1963 and 1991, fifty-seven priests had been accused of sexual abuse, in addition to two visiting clerics. The commission reviewed all charges, not by the standard of criminal cases (which insists on proof beyond a reasonable doubt), but on the less stringent civil criterion of the preponderance of evidence, including legally inadmissible hearsay. Eighteen cases were judged not to involve sexual misconduct, leaving charges against forty-one priests, or about 1.8 percent of clergy. Only one instance probably involved true “pedophilia,” the sexual molestation of small children.
Before taking even these modest figures as secure, it should be noted that admissible evidence would have permitted convictions against no more than a handful of the supposed malefactors. The number of Catholic priests convicted of criminal sexual acts is very small, and represents a minuscule proportion of the hundreds of thousands of the men who have served as priests.
If clerical sexual misbehavior is uncommon (and pedophilia extremely rare), how did Gauthe and Porter come to be regarded as typical of Catholic priests? It is tempting to blame the media, and indeed newspapers and television indulged wholeheartedly in anti-Catholic polemics. The media would not have dared to offend American Catholics, however, if the path had not been blazed by Catholic sources themselves.
The issue of clerical abuse emerged full-blown in a June 1985 issue of the National Catholic Reporter, the widely quoted source for countless later accounts and the direct origin of the phrase “pedophile priest.” Since then, the paper has been a continuing vehicle for coverage of the abuse issue and often given platforms to such reformers as Jason Berry, A. W. Richard Sipe, Eugene Kennedy, and Andrew Greeley, the group of commentators and experts who became the media’s favorite interpreters of the burgeoning crisis.
The National Catholic Reporter took up the issue so vigorously for praiseworthy reasons, seeking to expose what the paper regarded as a crying abuse of power by the Church, in which ecclesiastical self-protection took priority over the interests of victims and their families. But clerical abuse served the purpose of those for whom a general “crisis” showed the severity of problems within the Church. The exploding concern with clerical abuse in 1986 and 1987 coincided with a “Catholic civil war” in which dissidents fought the Church hierarchy over such issues as sexual ethics, academic freedom, and the role of women. Not all the commentators shared the whole reformist agenda, and Greeley remains a defender of clerical celibacy, but the centrality of the abuse theme is evident in their books and articles.
Of course 6 percent of priests are pedophiles, the Catholic reformers argued, and who knows how many more are involved with teenagers. What else can we expect from a Church that keeps its clergy in a lifelong state of sexual immaturity, that denies the spiritual gifts of women, that preserves an authoritarian system? The abuse issue illustrates (the indictment continued) the secretive workings of the hierarchy, the neglect of the laity, and the pernicious effect of celibacy. For feminists, epidemic clerical abuse is precisely what their theories would predict of a patriarchal institution that permits unchecked sexual exploitation.
From this perspective, the answers to abuse are obvious: the ordination of women, the end of mandatory celibacy, the democratization of traditional hierarchies, and perhaps the reform of distinctive institutions like confession (which can offer the predatory priest the opportunity to identify and seduce his victims). Nothing will suffice short of the creation of an authentically American Catholic church. As so often in the past, a sexually rooted anticlerical polemic is used to attack the Church. In the last two years, clerical abuse scandals have been employed in precisely this way to undermine the legal and political position of the Church in such strongly Catholic nations as Ireland and Austria.
Due notice should also be paid to the traditionalist and conservative groups that publicized the pedophile issue and exaggerated its severity in order to counter what they regarded as homosexual subversion of the Church. It was the traditionalists in 1989 and 1990 who organized demonstrations at national gatherings of Catholic bishops and focused media attention on the sins of the Church—hoping to discredit liberal and modernist prelates. For both the ecclesiastical left and right, pedophile charges found audiences predisposed to take up an issue that could be used to promote specific policy agendas. It was the enormous utility of clergy abuse that ensured the absence of a pro-Church reaction or even criticism of the often outrageous exaggerations of the problem.
If Catholic factional conflicts encouraged the sensationalistic treatment of priestly misdeeds, so did the Church’s organizational structure. Compared to other American denominations, the Catholic Church produced a disproportionately high level of reported scandals, for, unlike most of its Protestant counterparts, the Catholic Church is a hierarchical organization with parish clergy subordinate to episcopal authorities who observe and record their behavior. Each Catholic priest has a diocesan dossier that records official complaints—and such dossiers have ironically provided the material for many legal actions. Lawsuits against the Catholic Church can follow established paper trails to ensure large financial judgments against a whole diocese. The typically more decentralized and congregational polity of Protestant churches makes them less attractive targets. In large measure, this is why the “pedophile pastor” rarely appears in the demonology of television talk—shows and why celibacy occupies center stage in so many analyses of priestly depredations.
During the 1970s and 1980s, psychological values and assumptions permeated the religious world no less than the secular culture, often through the vehicle of self-help and recovery movements. But an intellectual chasm separates the assumptions of traditional churches from those of mainstream therapy and psychology. The medicalization of wrongdoing sharply circumscribes the areas in which clergy can appropriately exercise their professional jurisdiction, and this loss of acknowledged expertise to therapists and medical authorities at once symbolizes and accelerates a substantial decline in the professional status of priests and ministers.
And yet, not only were the clerical abuse scandals generally interpreted according to therapeutic views and policies, but the churches themselves adopted the rhetoric of the therapists. When a crisis was acknowledged in the early 1990s, most statements by the Catholic hierarchy accepted the notion of the compulsive and irreformable nature of adult sexual activity with children and admitted the radical tenet that implicated priests should never be restored to parish ministry. They agreed that child victims urgently required therapy from secular psychologists and counselors, itself a rejection of the means of healing offered by the Church. Catholic authorities accepted without qualms the expansive claims made by therapists about the massive extent and life-long consequences of sexual abuse—both ideas that are in reality open to serious challenge.
The clerical abuse scandal wrought great damage upon American churches, and above all upon the Catholic Church, which suffered blows to its morale and prestige far more serious than its large pecuniary losses. Can anything positive be drawn from this whole mess? Chances of avoiding repetition seem slight: it is probably too much to ask that the news media will in future exercise caution before making wild generalizations indulging ancient religious stereotypes. Meanwhile, the relationship between clergy and laity has been severely tested, and it will be many years before priests are able to associate with young people on anything like the free and easy terms that provided opportunities for abuse. Father Porter casts a long shadow.
Yet other more favorable images emerge from the crisis, including the juries who were able to acquit some falsely accused priests and to reject demands for large financial damages. But two individuals particularly deserve commemoration. One was Stephen Cook, the former seminarian who reported his falsely “recovered” memories of sexual violation by Cardinal Bernardin. His charges were instantly and widely cited by the media, which face no restrictions on quoting the most extravagant allegations once they have been lodged in a civil lawsuit. While many plaintiffs would have pressed their charges ruthlessly in the hope of gaining some compromise settlement, Cook came to realize the falsity of his supposed recollections and publicly withdrew the allegations. Bernardin, who had reacted with astonishing dignity and courage, made a heroic effort to reconcile with Cook and spoke eloquently on the occasion of Cook’s death in 1995. Suffering, manipulation, slander, and injustice thus gave rise to charity, strength, forgiveness, and love: a lesson that the oddly matched images of Bernardin and Cook should epitomize many years after the memory of the abusive clergy has passed into oblivion.
Philip Jenkins was Professor of Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is now the Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and Co-director for Baylor's program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion. He is also the author of Pedophiles and Priests (Oxford University Press).