I’m going to say something that will shock you: The sexual abuse of children is not centered in the Catholic Church. I’m not Catholic, but I find that I have a stake in this drama—the American media has imposed its biases on me. It is beyond creepy that a person can hold conflicting opinions about the Catholic Church, or any other subject, without realizing it, but that is the power the media has over its subscribers. I didn’t even realize I was sharing in this bias until reading David F. Pierre Jr.’s book Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church.
I have learned that the Church is not standing by and allowing abuse to happen, as the pundits claim. In the 80s medical experts discovered that the only way to protect children from pedophilia is to separate the offender from children. At that time, appropriate procedures and safeguards were put in place. They have been part of Church policy since 1983. Before that time, it was common practice both in the Church and outside the Church to treat the offender. Today the Church’s safeguards have proved effective, which explains why the cases in the Pennsylvania investigation are decades old. Current offenses are few and far between.
Clerical celibacy may be the main reason so many people accept the Catholic Church’s ownership of this problem, but there is no evidence for this connection.
…“[B]ased on the surveys and studies conducted by different denominations over the past 30 years, experts who study child abuse say they see little reason to conclude that sexual abuse is mostly a Catholic issue”;
…“Since the mid-1980s, insurance companies have offered sexual misconduct coverage as a rider on liability insurance, and their own studies indicate that Catholic churches are not higher risk than other congregations”; and
…”Insurance companies that cover all denominations…[do] not charge Catholic churches higher premiums. ‘We don’t see vast differences in the incidence rate between one denomination and another,’ says [an insurance company vice president]. ‘’It’s pretty even across the denominations.’ It’s been that way for decades.” (23)
And yet, even though surveys suggest that accusations of sexual abuse across all American churches since 1993 have averaged 70 a week, the Catholics get all the media attention. (Christian Science Monitor, 2002, as cited by Pierre)
Pierre’s book identifies another culprit in this phenomenon: financial gain. However, it should be noted that Church leaders and spokespeople don’t make excuses. They accept responsibility for the devastation caused by the behavior of priests and bishops. In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that the ‘greatest persecution of the Church comes not from her enemies without, but arises from sin within the Church…The Church thus has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness on the one hand, but also the need for justice. Forgiveness does not replace justice.’ Today, Pope Francis continues to focus on the victims.
Pierre’s focus is different. It is based on the concern that media bias has resulted in a false understanding of the entire phenomenon. I agree. I am also concerned about the Pennsylvania cases, where repeated mentions of the statute of limitations are an ominous sign for the Church.
In 2002, SNAP helped lawyers in California petition for a new law (SB1779). The goal was to lift the statute of limitations of abuse claims. Never mind that the statute of limitations only existed because of the problems involved in defending against accusations that happened so long ago, when exculpatory evidence, such as written schedules and witnesses, no longer exist. It was a barrier to suing the Church for these older offenses, so it had to go. The proponents of the bill claimed it was not designed to target the Catholic Church, but that’s exactly what it did. Attorneys Jeff Anderson and Laurence Drivon, who already had experience suing the Church, helped to craft the bill. Then they were called in as ‘technical experts’ during hearings on the legislation. The author of the bill, state senator John L. Burton, a Democrat from San Francisco, publicly stated that it was focused on ‘deep pocket defendants such as the Catholic Church, and his press secretary admitted the bill was prompted by calls from people who claimed to have been molested by Catholic priests. (116-118) Shortly after the law was passed Jeff Anderson said,
“We got a new law passed in California that opens up the statute of limitations for all victims of sexual abuse. It’s something we’ve been trying to do in several states for years. And I’m not waiting for it to click in. I’m suing the shit out of [the Catholic Church] everywhere: in Sacramento, in Santa Clara, in Santa Rose, in San Francisco, in Oakland, in L.A., and everyplace else.” (118)
Under this law, the target had to be an employer or other responsible third party who knew or should have known of the abuse and failed to take reasonable steps to prevent it. However, in practice any ‘credible’ claim of abuse, no matter how long ago, became eligible for a law suit.
The national director of SNAP is David Clohessy. He claims to have been molested by a priest from 1969 to 1973, and to have repressed the memories until he was about 32 years old. (Memory recovery therapy is another controversial part of this story.) He filed a lawsuit but the statute of limitations had expired. Nevertheless, the accused priest was removed from the diocese in 1992. The priest reportedly resigned from the priesthood and now works as a flight attendant. (81)
Under Clohessy’s leadership, SNAP refuses to acknowledge the Church’s efforts at reform. In public statements, he emphasizes that church officials failed to protect children and calls on the Church to report abuse (which it has been doing). Clohessy is the brother of a priest who was accused of child abuse in 1991. He knew about the allegations against his brother during the time he was a spokesman for SNAP, but he couldn’t bring himself to report it.
Meanwhile, child sex abuse in the society at large goes largely unreported. In 2004, Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft wrote a report for the Department of Education, Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature.(8) This report included the results of a 1994 study in which 225 educators admitted to sexual abuse of a student. None of these abusers was reported to authorities. In addition, only 1 percent of them lost their license, and 25 percent received no consequence or were reprimanded informally and off-the-record. Nearly 39 percent chose to leave the district, most with positive recommendations or even retirement packages intact.
Shakeshaft’s findings were confirmed in 1998, when Education Week published a three-week study on educator misconduct in public schools. One of the articles in the series chronicled the practice of transferring an abusive teacher from one school to another, or cutting a deal in which the school promises to keep quiet if the employee resigns.
Dr. Shakeshaft later harmonized a number of large-sample studies of the nation’s public schools and concluded, “more than 4.5 million students are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12 grade” She adds that it is likely that the findings underestimate educator sexual misconduct in schools. The most accurate data indicates that 9.6 percent of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career. There are roughly 50 million students in America’s public schools. She concluded that between the years 1991 and 2000, United States educators sexually victimized 290,000 children. By contrast, individuals who allege abuse by Catholic clergy dating back to 1950 number approximately 11,000.
Days after the study was released a Google search revealed that only four publications had mentioned it, and two of them were Catholic outlets. The other two, the Christian Science Monitor and the Indianapolis Star, published brief mentions. The study was ignored completely by the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. (16)
Three years later, the Associated Press published a three-part series on sex abuse in public schools, with similar findings concerning the practice of transferring accused molesters. It also found that between 2001 and 2005, the number of educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned was 2,570. And then there are the awful details. In one case, a teacher kidnapped “more than 20 girls, some as young as 9. Among other things, he told prosecutors that he put rags in the girls’ mouths, taped them shut and also bound their hands and feet with duct tape and rope for his own sexual stimulation.”
The major American media was silent again, including the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.(17) However, lesser-known outlets, like the Oregonian and the Seattle Times, did investigations in subsequent years. Their shocking findings can be found on pages 18-21 of Pierre’s book. It is important to note that all of the school instances are recent. Abuse and coverups are happening today on a massive scale.
And in comparison to the court’s generosity to victims of abuse by Catholic clergy, the court system opposes victims who seek damages from a school district for the harm they have suffered. Public schools have a special immunity from being sued in most abuse cases, unless the victim can prove that the school system undoubtedly knew that a teacher was a molester. Apparently it is not enough that the molester was the subject of faculty gossip. In other words, there is no monetary reward for suing a school system.