CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne
1. I am a sociologist of religion, and my area of expertise includes child abuse in religious institutions. I have written extensively on this topic. This short statement focuses on the issue of child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. The problem has been addressed in depth by Pope Benedict XVI’s recent “Letter to the Catholics of Ireland” of March 19, 2010. The starting point of the letter is that clerics who have sexually abused minors do exist. Certain cases are both unsettling and disgusting. These cases – in the United States, Ireland, Austria, Germany, and elsewhere – explain the severe words of the Pope, his request for forgiveness from the victims, and his statement that the Church “must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children”. Even if there was only one case – and unfortunately there are more than one – this would still be one too many. Nothing in my statement is intended to deny the horror of what happened in some Catholic institutions, which is a shame for the whole Church.
2. Although the Pope did not intend to propose a sociological explanation of the crisis, as a social scientist I am impressed by his analysis, which mirrors recent debates among sociologists and social historians – particularly, after the publication of Hugh McLeod’s influential The Religious Crisis of the 1960s in 2007 (Oxford: Oxford University Press) – about the silent revolution which deeply changed the moral, religious and sexual attitudes of Europeans and North Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. The Pope states that in Ireland – but the comment is just as valid elsewhere – a “rapid transformation and secularization of […] society” and a “fast-paced social change […] occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and values”, with a “weakening of faith and the loss of respect for the Church and her teachings”: “it is in this overall context that we must try to understand the disturbing problem of child sexual abuse”.
3. As the Pope states in the same letter, “the problem of child abuse is peculiar neither to Ireland nor to the Church”. The moral and sexual revolution of the 1960s affected the whole Western culture. While the Pope expressed “the shame and remorse” of the Catholic Church, the social scientist should emphasize that this is a problem of post-World War II Western society in general, not of the Catholic Church only. Comparing Catholic priests to other social categories may appear quite unpleasant. At the same time, it is a crucial exercise in order to understand the issue in its proper context. According to Philip Jenkins’ seminal work Pedophiles and Priests (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 50 and 81), if one compares the Catholic Church in the United States to other religious bodies, one discovers that convictions were higher in other denominations, at least in the time period examined by Jenkins. These data, inter alia, demonstrate that the problem is not celibacy. Most non-Catholic clerics are married. The number of gym teachers and coaches of junior sporting teams who were convicted of sexual abuse of minors in the US reached about 6,000 in 50 years (see Michael Dobie, “Violation of Trust; When Young Athletes Are Sex-Abuse Victims, Their Coaches Are Often the Culprits,” Newsday, June 9, 2002, p. C25). According to the so called Shakeshaft report, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and published in 2004, 6,7% of pupils in U.S. public primary schools are abused or molested by teachers and other personnel (C. Shakeshaft, Educator Sexual Misconduct. A Synthesis of Existing Literature. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary, p. 20).The same report also reminds us that two-thirds of sexual abuse incidents against minors do not come from strangers or educators – including priests and Protestant pastors – but from family members: stepfathers, uncles, cousins, brothers and, unfortunately, parents.
4. As far as Catholic priests and institutions are concerned few countries have data as seriously collected as the Irish report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the so called Ryan Report) or the U.S. report released in 2004 by the John Jay College of the City University of the New York. The later report examined the years between 1950 and 2002, and concluded that 4,392 American priests (of over 109,000) were accused of having sexual relations with minors, with a relatively low number of convictions. There have also been many sensational cases of priests who have been falsely accused. But does the John Jay College study tells us, as one often reads, that 4 percent of American priests are pedophiles? Not at all. According to the research, 78.2 percent of the accusations involved minors who had advanced beyond puberty. Having sexual relations with a 17-year-old is certainly not recommended for an adult, and much less so for a priest, but it is not pedophilia. Therefore, in fact 958 American priests over 52 years, were accused of pedophilia, in the technical sense of abuse of pre-pubescent children. Convictions were much rarer.
5. Let me repeat that the cases of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests, although less in numbers than some media have reported and not more widespread among priests than among other categories in frequent contact with children, are a matter of serious concern and of “shame and remorse”, as the Pope said, for the Church. No statistics can explain away this tragedy. What did the Church do? This questions needs to be addressed through a continuous reference to texts and data, whose meaning has often been misunderstood by journalists not familiar with canon law or the Catholic Church. Much maligned has been, for instance, the instruction Crimen sollicitationis which dates back to 1922. References are normally made to this instruction by mentioning the date 1962. In fact, the 1962 text of Crimen sollicitations is identical to an instruction of 1922 called Pagella, except for three very minor additions concerning members of religious institutes. The 1922 text, in turn, was not so much an innovation but a compilation of older norms, harmonized with the then recently promulgated 1917 Code of Canon Law. Many acting against Catholic dioceses only discovered Crimen sollicitationis because of its mention in John Paul II’s motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela of 2001. Some believed this to be the smoking gun, in the shape of a document shrouding the prosecution of sexual abuses by the clergy in a deep cloud of secrecy. In fact, Crimen sollicitationis requested the victims and others who knew of the abuse to report the fact to the Church authorities. That the subsequent canonical prosecution was to be kept secret was (and is) normal for trials of this nature and protected the privacy of the victim as well as of the accused, who might or might not have been guilty. It had nothing to do with hiding facts from civil authorities, a problem not even discussed in Crimen sollicitationis, Perhaps most importantly, Crimen sollicitationis had a very limited circulation, and dioceses which prosecuted cases of sexual abuses up to the first decade of the 21st century were largely unaware of its very existence (see John P. Beal, “The 1962 Instruction Crimen sollicitationis: Caught Red-Handed or Handed a Red Herring?”, Studia Canonica, 41 , pp. 199-236).
6. With the above mentioned motu proprio Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela of 2001 and the corresponding rules included in the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s 2001 letter De delictis gravioribus, the Church reformed its canonical prosecution of certain crimes, including clerical sexual abuse. These rules are in themselves evidence of how seriously the Catholic Church considers sexual abuse of minors by clerics, included among the “delicta graviora”, the “most grave crimes” which are to be reported by the dioceses to the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in Rome. Contrary to some media reports, the new rules do not remove the local bishop’s responsibility. In fact, the Congregation studies the documents submitted by the local bishop and in many cases authorizes a procedure to go on in the local diocese. In this case the trial is conducted in the diocese, and the Congregation acts as an advisor and as a court of appeal. Note that the Promoter of Justice of the Congregation may also appeal a decision by the diocese where the accused has been found not guilty. In other cases, the Congregation and the bishop may impose administrative sanctions such as the exclusion of the cleric from any further public exercise of his ministry. From the very beginning of the procedure it is recommended that the local bishop takes “precautionary measures to safeguard the community, including the victims”. Vatican guidelines, known as “Guide to Understanding Basic CDF Procedures concerning Sexual Abuse Allegations”, also state that “civil law concerning reporting of crimes to the appropriate authorities should always be followed”.
7. It is quite important to note that the procedure of the Congregation regards as a “most grave crime” the sexual abuse of minors, but this “does not mean only physical contact or direct abuse, but includes indirect abuse also […]. Included also is the possession of, or downloading from the internet of, pedophilic pornography. This type of behaviour is also a civil crime in some nations. While “browsing” may be involuntary, it is difficult to see how “downloading” could be considered so, since not only does it involve making a choice or choosing a specific option, but often involves payment by credit card and the furnishing of personal information by the purchaser which can be traced back to him. […] According to the praxis of the CDF such behaviour is considered a delictum gravius” (Mgr. Charles J. Scicluna, Promoter of Justice, “The Procedure and Praxis of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding Graviora Delicta”, available from the Web site of the Holy See).
8. Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela and the Vatican guidelines were accompanied by national charters and guidelines at the level of Bishops’ Conferences, such as the Dallas Charter in the U.S. in 2002, the 2002 “Guidelines on How to Proceed in Cases of Sexual Abuse by Clerics Within the Sphere of Influence of the German Bishops’ Conference” (Leitlinien zum Vorgehen bei sexuellem Missbrauch Minderjähriger durch Geistliche im Bereich der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz); and similar documents in Ireland, United Kingdom, and elsewhere.
9. The John Jay report of 2004 concluded that a “significant decline” of actual incidents – as opposed to earlier incidents which were reported several years later – occurred in the U.S. Catholic Church in the first part of the decade 2000-2009. It is expected that a further report by the John Jay College, to be published later this year, will confirm this trend. This confirms that the measures taken by the Catholic Church in the late 1990s and early 2000s have been reasonably effective. It is also important to note that canon law never condoned the mismanagement and cover-ups by some bishops. To the bishops of Ireland Benedict XVI wrote: “Some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse”. Yes, there were grievous failures. But these were failures to apply canon law, not failures condoned by canon law. Of course, canon law is a human enterprise and it is always perfectible.
10. The Catholic Church also believes that at the deep root of this tragedy is sin. Although this may be more difficult to understand for non-believers, the Pope in his letter stated that the problems among priests derived in a significant part from the fact that “the sacramental and devotional practices that sustain faith and enable it to grow, such as frequent confession, daily prayer and annual retreats, were neglected”, and recommended a return to them. On the other hand, the measures taken have been comparatively effective, and may warrant a serious study of them by institutions other than the Catholic Church which are currently plagued by the same problems. Nobody deserves more credit for a new and more strict approach to this tragedy than Joseph cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. For this reason, both as a Catholic and a scholar, I deeply resent the assault on the Holy Father’s person and teaching. I am persuaded that a study of the matter based on data and documents, rather than emotions and press clippings, would confirm the appropriateness of the “shame and remorse” called for by the Pope, and vindicate his role as an advocate both for the victims and for that large majority of Catholic priests, who have nothing to do with the abuses and silently offer their daily work for the love of God and for the common good of our suffering humanity.