The plague of sexual abuse is worse than you think.

Photo by Ban Yido on Unsplash

Like you, I was disgusted by the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, released on Tuesday, Aug. 14. Unlike you, perhaps, I read the whole report, mainly because my job required it—every excruciating account of sexual abuse by 301 priests across six dioceses, with more than 1,000 victims. The fact that most of these events took place more than 25 years ago, over a period of seven decades, provided little comfort. News is simply information that you haven’t heard before—it does not matter much whether it happened yesterday or a century ago.

Like you, I experienced a range of emotions—anger, sorrow, sadness. Above all, fear. There is the fear of what is to come. The grand jury report covered only six dioceses of the nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the United States. Surely the news will only get worse as more dioceses release their records. They should do so at once. Such disclosures, as the editors write in this issue, “should be anticipated and embraced, not resisted until they are imposed” by civil authorities. “One of the few remaining ways that the church can offer mercy to survivors of sexual abuse,” they continue, “is to demonstrate through such voluntary disclosures that we value the sacred dignity of the victims more than the church’s reputation and security.”

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The problem within the church is bad. The problem in our families and in our neighborhoods is even worse.

Yet as painful as that necessary process of disclosure will be, there is something that terrifies me even more, an ominous question that has kept me tossing and turning for much of the week: If things are this bad within the church, how bad is it in our homes and neighborhoods? This is not “what about-ism.” By asking this question I do not seek to deflect attention in any way from the church’s abysmal failures or the objectively evil acts of the abusers in its ranks. The problem within the church is bad. The problem in our families and in our neighborhoods is even worse.

Consider the following: Nationwide, one in five girls and one in 12 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday; 95 percent of boys and girls are abused by someone they know; 50 percent of victims between the ages of 1 and 6 and 25 percent of victims between the ages of 12 and 17 are abused by a member of their own family; 84 percent of child sexual abuse occurs in homes. In 2014, 1.8 million adolescents in the United States were the victims of a sexual assault. The overwhelming number of victims are females. The overwhelming number of perpetrators are males, more often an older child under the age of 18. And these government statistics are merely a best guess; most incidents involving the sexual abuse of a minor go unreported.

As we seek to understand the specific ways in which the sexual abuse of children was enabled and covered up within the church, we must not forget the myriad human tragedies that are still unfolding even closer to home.

As we seek to understand the specific ways in which the sexual abuse of children was enabled and covered up within the church, we must not forget the myriad human tragedies that are still unfolding even closer to home. The grand jury report details horrific acts by members of the clergy and their protectors over a period of 70 years. They were grave offenses against the most vulnerable among us. It is also true that what is happening in our homes and neighborhoods on an even greater scale is happening right now, as you read this column.

How are we to make sense of it? I am no expert. The social sciences, psychology, theology, even words themselves, all seem inadequate in the face of such horror. Yet it is also clear that some ways of talking about the problem are demonstrably unhelpful. Who among us, for example, when faced with the overwhelming evidence that sexual abuse is committed by males against females, in our families and neighborhoods, would ask whether some vague “culture of heterosexuality” causes this phenomenon? Who among us would think it reasonable to ask whether heterosexual males should be barred from parenting or teaching because statistics show that most acts of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by men who identify as such?

There is no part of human history, no part of human existence, that is untainted by this evil. The crimes within the church are real. They are horrific. The greater horror, however, lies in the terrifyingly banal fact that such crimes are common everywhere. There are, of course, important dimensions of this phenomenon that are specific to the church: various manifestations of clericalism and inadequate screening and formation of priests among them. But as we begin the work of addressing those issues, we must not yield to the temptation of thinking that the church’s problem, while having unique dimensions, is a unique phenomenon. That would be a grave disservice, not only to the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of members of the clergy, but to victims everywhere.

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Patrick Nugent
3 months 2 weeks ago

What keeps my head spinning is the math. First, 300 priests in one state (neglecting for a moment the two excluded dioceses). Then when I read the lists, I saw how it averaged fifty priests per diocese (300 divided by 6). That was a harder number to absorb—perhaps because it is so much more local and therefore concrete. This morning, after reading this article, I’ve swung in the other direction. Fifty priests per diocese times two hundred dioceses: that’s 10,000 priests. If the average in PA is the average nationally, that’s 10,000 priests.

Isn’t there an argument here for the application of RICO? (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, designed to give Federal prosecutors the tools to prosecute the mob.)

Mary Donovan
3 months 2 weeks ago

Timing is everything and this article is poorly timed.
This is not the time to write about child abuse outside of the Church.
The message to this reader is that American Magazine doesn't want to recommend punishing these priests, but would rather draw attention elsewhere.
Sad, disappointed and declining faith in the Jesuits.

Carol Abercrombie Alston
3 months 2 weeks ago

When a child, let me rephrase that, when a person, is sexually molested by one who is supposed to provide safety, or be a safe place, the crime is reprehensible. When a person is molested by the “moral authority” of our life, never mind society, the man who represents Jesus as we are are taught from day one, by parents and In CCD, the crime is a thousand times worse. As a victim of rape as a child by a stranger, I am in neither of these scenarios. This article should have ended after the second paragraph. With that, you might have begun to walk with victims rather than with authorities.

John Mack
3 months 2 weeks ago

sadly, the last place any victim of sexual abuse should turn to for help is any member of the Catholic clergy.

Krzysztof Ciuba
3 months 2 weeks ago

A larger picture: 1P4:17@often forgot that the time of ...Church will have ....gone (1Cor 11:26),of course one must not understand it literally because even the historical Jesus was wrong with the immediate coming down of the Kingdom of God (@liberation from Romans) but too many signs that the present form of Church does not work because of ...v.poor @ rather devilish pastor-ship. of course this world is in the power of Devil (Lk4:5nn): anti- God's laws, the culture of death, and almost a new type of idiocy at...Akademia; the present "Pastor-pope"(?) is the perfect sign of it with his acts@words fooling himself and sheep (an example: Laudato Si, a scientific@therefore, the theological lie!). What to do? Stop ...pay taxes to the "Temple"(Mt17:24nn) or even take a whip to clean the Temple(J2:15). I think only Library@the religion lesson at School would be the only place where tofind the proper info (formal) on Bible@Christianity(@all religions) if properly done by proper teachers (here,again if University is also theologically dumb,i.e. not knowing the newest methods for the defence (1P3:15) based on the only now available tools like hermeneutics or math's logic (ex. G.Cantor on "inifnity", K.Godel (on "proof") or A.Tarski (on "truth')) who would prepare teachers?). I am not joking because just few weeks ago in the Cathedral of the largest N.Am city a RC celebrant on the Feast of Trinity still was fooling poor sheep about a....mystery understood as "1=3"!!!My admonition letter to the Bp is still without an answer@I will take shortly an action as our Lord (J 2:15) to give them lesson! I think since JPII's Fides et RAati,1998 (even there are some tiny mistakes,ex. St.Anselm's wrong arguments or the mentioned a "traditional" understanding of Trinity as a mystery) nothing serious comes out from the ....Headquarter

David Power
3 months 2 weeks ago

We have only hit the tip of the iceberg.Countries like Poland have still to show the incredible depths of rape that were covered up by Pope wojtyla.I lived there in 2002 and the people i worked with said it was well known that there was a massive cover up from on high.
The Church made a massive mistake in this canonisation , the truth is going to emerge of incredible sexual abuse in Poland ..this was all done via the help of a powerful arm in the vatican

K L
3 months 2 weeks ago

This article is - Deflection.

Jim Dandy
3 months 1 week ago

Your church doesn't havea pedophile problem. It has a homosexual problem.
That and a strange non undestanding of who the churches enemies are.

Its not "secularising activists"

Richard Booth
3 months 1 week ago

There may be a homosexual representation in the ranks of the priesthood, and I do not doubt there is, but this is not the cause of the pedophilic activity of abusing young people. The abusive behaviors of priests relate more to a general inability to relate to other adults, as well as an underdeveloped sense of a sexual self, than to homosexuality per se. Most perpetrators, the data show, are heterosexual men. True homosexual men are much more likely, as I have written elsewhere, to move toward other homosexual men than to children. Ignorant clerics who glibly write and give interviews that suggest homosexual persons cause the child abuse problem simply do not know what they are talking about. They should stick to theology and stop confusing everyone. Many have already demonstrated their sheer ignorance of human behavior and the psychology of human sexuality. The rest keep quiet until they learn the psychodynamic facts of the situation.

John Klein
3 months 1 week ago

Father Malone:
You are spot on that the problem is multi-faceted and widespread, both in and outside of the Church! As Catholics we should focus most of our efforts on fixing the problems in the Church. That is not to say we should ignore the abuses outside of the Church, to be sure. The time is now for the laity to stand up and speak up, or risk backsliding into a "business as usual" mentality. The laity must take control simply because the episcopacy has not. Those who are clergy need their support in changing the hierarchical paradigm that has allowed this problem to persist. Prayer alone will NOT fix the problem.

Chris Puckett
3 months 1 week ago

Considering the broad reach of Jesuit integration in high schools, prep schools & college I would image the Jesuits have a robust plan to identify predators in their order and prosecute those priests who are sexually involved with young men with whom they have daily contact.
I look forward to seeing that program rapidly implemented.
Knowing how deeply committed this order is to the vows they publicly represent.

Robert Pluth
3 months ago

Robert Pluth, Chicago
Part of the solution has to be to allow for optional priestly celibacy, as do our Eastern Right brothers ans sisters. Celibacy is a gift granted to some but not all who coudl, I beleive, effectively minister to god's people. The nature and extent of the sexual dysfunction that we continue to learn about from some ordained priests and religious suggests to me that, for some, attempts to lead a celibate life goes horribly awry. I can't accept that notion that the incidence of sexual abuse by priests and other religious are roughly commensurate with that of the population in general. One would hope that the the priesthood would attract men that adhere to a higher level of morality than that of the general population.

At the same time, my heart breaks for those many good priests who are true to their vows, are not part of the problem, but are nonetheless now treated by some with suspicion or worse.

Robert Pluth
3 months ago

Robert Pluth, Chicago
Part of the solution has to be to allow for optional priestly celibacy, as do our Eastern Right brothers ans sisters. Celibacy is a gift granted to some but not all who coudl, I beleive, effectively minister to god's people. The nature and extent of the sexual dysfunction that we continue to learn about from some ordained priests and religious suggests to me that, for some, attempts to lead a celibate life goes horribly awry. I can't accept that notion that the incidence of sexual abuse by priests and other religious are roughly commensurate with that of the population in general. One would hope that the the priesthood would attract men that adhere to a higher level of morality than that of the general population.

At the same time, my heart breaks for those many good priests who are true to their vows, are not part of the problem, but are nonetheless now treated by some with suspicion or worse.

Robert Pluth
3 months ago

Robert Pluth, Chicago
Part of the solution has to be to allow for optional priestly celibacy, as do our Eastern Right brothers ans sisters. Celibacy is a gift granted to some but not all who coudl, I beleive, effectively minister to god's people. The nature and extent of the sexual dysfunction that we continue to learn about from some ordained priests and religious suggests to me that, for some, attempts to lead a celibate life goes horribly awry. I can't accept that notion that the incidence of sexual abuse by priests and other religious are roughly commensurate with that of the population in general. One would hope that the the priesthood would attract men that adhere to a higher level of morality than that of the general population.

At the same time, my heart breaks for those many good priests who are true to their vows, are not part of the problem, but are nonetheless now treated by some with suspicion or worse.

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