Priests Are Not the Only Abusers
Report Should Be Wake-up Call for All of Society

By Thomas G. Plante
San Jose Mercury News [San Jose CA]
February 26, 2004
Downloaded March 1, 2004

On Friday, the John Jay Report on clergy sexual abuse in the American Catholic Church will be released to the public. It is an independent audit conducted by John Jay College in New York of all of the cases of clergy sexual misconduct of minors in the approximately 200 Roman Catholic dioceses throughout the United States. The report does not include priests or religious brothers who are members of the various religious orders such as the Jesuits, Dominicans, or Franciscans.

While we do not yet know exactly what the study will conclude, many of us who have long been closely involved with research and clinical practice in this area believe that the project will conclude that approximately 5,000 priests (about 4 percent of the priests who served during the past 52 years) have sexually victimized approximately 20,000 minors (with an average of about four victims per abusive priest) during that time.

Findings from the report will likely not come as a surprise.

What will likely be missed by the media are some of the important and well-established facts regarding child sexual abuse in America that can help us keep the problem of clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in perspective. Research from a variety of reliable sources suggest that about 20 percent of American women and about 15 percent of American men claim that they were sexually abused as children. This means that about 45 million of the 281 million Americans have (or will be) sexually victimized as children. About 80 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members. Available research also suggests that other groups who have access to and unsupervised power over children (e.g., school teachers, Scout leaders, coaches and male clergy from other religious tradition) victimize children at percentages similar to those of Catholic priests during the same 52-year time period.

The frequency of sexual abuse by others does not excuse priests or anyone from this horrific and immoral behavior; it underscores that sexual victimization of children is tragically not a rare occurrence. This has been true in the past and is sadly true today. That about 4 percent of priests have engaged in this behavior underscores that some moral and religious leaders (as well as some of their religious superiors) are not immune from very bad behavior.

Nothing can be done to erase the abuse of the past, but the clergy abuse crisis in the Catholic Church presents an opportunity for the church to do what is needed in order to minimize the odds of child sexual victimization both now and in the future. The crisis requires the church, as well as all those who identify with the Christian tradition, to focus on the wisdom of the Gospels and the example of Jesus to behave in a compassionate, loving and ethical manner. The crisis also provides an opportunity for all groups who have trusted access to children to better evaluate their policies and procedures to ensure that they are not victimized in this way. The John Jay study should now be conducted with other groups.

The media have put a spotlight on a very dark and disturbing area of the Catholic Church that is also shared, sadly, by other groups. Hopefully, this spotlight will shine in a way to minimize the sexual victimization of children by not only Catholic priests but by everyone.

THOMAS G. PLANTE is a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and editor of "Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned: Perspectives on Sexual Abuse Committed by Roman Catholic Priests" (Greenwood, 1999) and "Sin against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church" (Greenwood, 2004). He wrote this for the Mercury News.


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