I just came across another article that holds up Catholic priests as central figures in the sexual abuse of children. Do you think they are?
For a dozen years the Catholic Church has been the target of unrelenting criticism not only because of the sexual abuse exposed by the 2002 Boston Globe’s investigative series, but also because of the revelations that the hierarchy covered up the abuses. Most of the criticism is deserved. But not all.
It’s true that thousands of priests in U.S. Catholic parishes were, and are, pedophiles. It’s also true that many Bishops covered up the abuse, moved priests to other parishes—sometimes to other states and countries, bribed or threatened victims into silence, failed to report the crimes to the police, covered up and destroyed evidence. Some Bishops were, themselves, predators.
Undoubtedly, there is much more we don’t know.
But this is something I do know: The Catholic Church is not the problem.
No matter how loudly the media trumpets the ills of the church, those ills don’t absolve the real villains—the pedophiles, the predators. And the church isn’t the only place that harbors them.
Our whole society harbors them. They live among us. To focus on a single organization as being a safe haven for predators mischaracterizes the entire problem. Predators follow the prey, wherever they are. It’s not like pedophiles hang out in remote areas waiting for some unsuspecting child to wander by. Predators seek jobs and volunteer activities that put them in regular contact with children. They look for opportunities that give them positions of respect, authority over children—sometimes authority over parents, and at least some discretion and autonomy. Pedophiles can be clergy, teachers, doctors, lawyers, police, legislators, coaches, scout leaders, or any vocation or volunteer activity.
Predators also seek relationships with other predators. They form networks in order to exchange tips, access to children, photographs. Some of the online networks of these predators are huge. But they also form relationships with others in close proximity to themselves. Some of those relationships may be with people in the same organization, but for the most part the relationships are with people who share the same deviant interests. Such interests span organizational boundaries. Some networks have specialized interests in children under a certain age, or in teen boys or girls, or in children with special needs.
Predators seek relationships with us, too. Ultimately, we are the ones who grant the predators’ access to children. We grant them our trust, usually by default.
Wherever there are children, that’s where the predators gather. And where do you find the most children? In our schools. Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, has studied this issue for decades. A study she conducted in 2004 showed that 9.6 percent of students, grades 8 to 12, experienced educator sexual misconduct. Some of this would be considered grooming behavior rather than outright abuse, but it is a staggering number. According to other research she has conducted, the rate of sexual abuse by teachers is 100 time greater than the rate of abuse by the clergy.
So, why the demonization of the clergy, more specifically priests, around the issue of child sexual abuse? I think it’s because they are easy targets. We want to blame someone, and who better than a group that is reluctant to fight back?
If we blame the priests we don’t have to confront the truth that most of us encounter child sexual predators, regularly, as we go about our day to day lives and as we ignore the clear signs of their evil intent. If we blame the priests, we don’t have to accept responsibility for allowing predators the opportunity to seduce our children. If we blame the priests, we don’t have to worry as much about our children in the public schools. If we blame the priests we can excuse our willful ignorance about the nature and scope of this very complex problem.
We don’t want to think about these ugly things. They are depressing issues that cannot be sugarcoated.
It’s more comfortable to blame the clergy.