Facts Upset Conjecture

National Catholic
January 24, 2003

There’s an amazing fact tucked deep within The New York Times recent reporting on the priest sex abuse scandals (see story, Page 9).

In dioceses that have voluntarily reported the number of abusing priests, such as Baltimore, and those that have been forced by courts to do so, such as Boston and Manchester, N.H., the percentages of priests credibly accused of abusing children is two to four times greater than in jurisdictions that have made no such reports.

During the last 50 years, according to Baltimore church officials (who took considerable flack for posting the information on their Web site), more than 6 percent of that archdiocese’s priests were guilty of such conduct; the figure is just over 5 percent in Boston and nearly 8 percent in Manchester.

We’re assured by many observers (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger not least among them) that the scandals involve less than 1 percent of all priests, that priestly sexual abuse is a heinous aberration. A few bad apples.

To which all one can say is, well, maybe.

Because there are these facts that keep emerging -- not opinions, not conjectures, not statistics grabbed from thin air. Facts.

Is there something in the waters of Boston and Baltimore and Manchester that make these jurisdictions exceptional? Is it coincidence that dioceses with the most comprehensive reporting demonstrate the highest rates of abuse? Is it fair to anticipate that as the numbers emerge from other dioceses (as they surely will), the situation will look more like Boston and Baltimore and Manchester than not?

More than a year into this round of the priest sex abuse crisis, the chattering classes have told us so much about what we “know.” We know, for example, that the crisis is not about celibacy, or the disproportionate number of gay priests, or a secretive church culture. We know, further, that the all-male hierarchy has nothing to do with the problem and that the media has acted irresponsibly in reporting the scandal.

The bishops have appointed a lay board headed by former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating to investigate the causes of this crisis. Maybe they’ll reach some solid conclusions.

We could use some solid conclusions. Because, for a church that knows so much, we certainly have a lot to learn.


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