For some five years –since the Boston Globe broke the story of the clergy sex abuse scandal– there has been no shortage of brutally unfavorable – and oftentimes patently unfair – media coverage of the Catholic Church. Some of course feel that the Church is getting a rightly deserved comeuppance for its past failures to address effectively child sexual abuse in its midst. But such schadenfreude does very little to recognize the steps that have been taken in the Catholic Church to prevent future occurrences nor does it help people recognize that the sexual abuse of teenagers and children is a society-wide problem and not just a Catholic Church or priest problem.
While one case of abuse is one too many, and priests are (and should be) held to a higher standard, the numbers of predators found in the ranks of Catholic clergy were rather small when compared to the total numbers of priests serving faithfully over the same time period. The numbers were no larger than the percentage of abusers in the general population, and the number of those abused by clergy – a terrible tragedy in itself – is only a small subset of the total number of children sexually abused by adults.
Indeed, in 2004, a U.S. Department of Education study estimated that some 290,000 students experienced some form of sexual abuse by public school employees in just one decade (1991-2000). According to this same study, nearly 10% of U.S. public school students have been targeted with unwanted sexual attention by school employees.
Similarly, the Associated Press recently reported that the three insurance companies that cover the majority of Protestant denominations in the U.S. receive each year some 260 reports of minors being abused by clergy, staff or other church members. The numbers of sexual abuse cases among Protestant denominations has been to date largely unknown – largely due to the lack of hierarchy and reporting structures. Nevertheless, their numbers appear to outpace accusations against Catholic clergy.
Other examples are readily apparent. The point is not to single out any one institution, but rather to acknowledge the societal problem and to call all institutions to act. Attacking one institution or group concomitantly serves to minimize the problem and to undermine needed efforts to help all potential victims of abuse.
Humbled by the failure of some in the Church to act earlier and more decisively against predators in its midst, the Church has paid a high price; but the U.S. Catholic Church is also leading the way today in assuring the protection of minors. Well before the Boston abuse stories broke, many Dioceses had implemented fingerprinting and background check programs for individuals working with vulnerable populations. Today, all Church employees and volunteers – and not just clergy – who work with minors are fingerprinted and their backgrounds checked. Child safety programs have been implemented in our schools and youth programs. Since 2003 some six million people – both clergy and lay – have undergone child safety training for work in parishes. During this same time frame, more than 1.6 million adults working directly with children in the Catholic Church have submitted to background checks. No other institution in American society has the protection of minors as a higher priority.
While some victims may be understandably mistrustful of the Church and its leadership on this issue, undeniable progress has been made by Catholic dioceses throughout the U.S. Philip Jenkins, the Penn State professor and expert on the sexual abuse of young people (and a non-Catholic) states: “Since definitely the late 80’s and early 90’s most Catholic dioceses really developed very stringent policies and very, very few cases are coming to light from after 1990.”
Zero tolerance adopted by the Bishops in Dallas in 2002 continues in force: those credibly accused are permanently removed from ministry. No system, however, is perfect, and we will always remain vigilant. Catholic Church leaders have honored their pledge to protect the young from the sexual abuse rampant in U.S. society. This, of course, is not just the bishops’ responsibility; it is the responsibility of each one of us.