CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Pedophile Priests. The Social Construction of a Moral Panic

by Massimo Introvigne


Why is there talk again of pedophile priests, based on old cases in Germany and the U.S., which drags in people who are close to the Pope and now even the Pope himself? Does sociology have something to say about this or should we leave it completely to the journalists? I believe sociology has much to say, and it must not remain silent because of a fear of displeasing some.

 The current discourse on pedophile priests – considered from a sociological perspective – represents a typical example of “moral panic”. The concept was coined in the 1970s to explain how certain problems become the subject of a “social hyper-construction”. More precisely, moral panics are defined as socially constructed problems that are characterized by a systematic amplification of (true) facts in the media or in political discourse.

Two other characteristics have been cited as typical of moral panics. First, problems that have existed for decades are reconstructed in the media and political accounts as new, or as the subject of a recent dramatic increase. Second, their incidence is exaggerated by folk statistics plucked from the air which, while not confirmed by academic studies, are repeated by the media and inspire persistent media campaigns. Historian and sociologist Philip Jenkins, of Pennsylvania State University, has emphasized the role of “moral entrepreneurs” in the creation and management of panics whose agenda is not always revealed. Moral panics may be entertaining for the media, but do not bring any good. They distort the perception of the problems and compromise the efficacy of the measures which should resolve them. After a harmful analysis inevitably there comes a harmful intervention.

Let there be no misunderstanding: at the origin of moral panics are objective and real dangers. Moral panics do not invent a problem; they exaggerate its statistical dimensions. In a series of excellent studies, Jenkins demonstrated how the issue of pedophile priests is perhaps the most typical moral panic today. Two characteristic elements exist: a real fact which serves as a starting point, and an exaggeration of this fact by moral entrepreneurs.

First of all, the fact which serves as a starting point. Pedophile priests exist. Certain cases are both unsettling and disgusting; they have resulted in convictions and the accused priests never even protested that they were innocent. These cases – in the United States, Ireland, Austria and Australia – explain the severe words of the Pope and his request for forgiveness from the victims. Even if there were only two cases – and unfortunately there are more than two – these would still be two too many.

 But asking for forgiveness –noble and appropriate as it is – is not enough. We have to ensure that this will not happen again. Thus, it is relevant whether to inquire whether there are 2, 200, or 20,000 cases. And it is relevant whether the number of cases is higher or lower among Catholic priests and consecrated persons compared to other categories of persons. Sociologists are often accused of working on cold numbers, forgetting that behind each number is a human individual. But numbers, while not sufficient of themselves, are necessary. They are essential for adequate analysis.

 To understand how from a tragically real fact one passes to a moral panic we must ask how many priests are pedophiles. The largest body of information has been collected in the United States, where in 2004 the US Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned an independent study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. This is not a Catholic university and is unanimously recognized as the most authoritative academic institution of criminology in the United States.

 This study concluded that from 1950 to 2002 4,392 American priests (of over 109,000) were accused of having sexual relations with minors. Of these, just over 100 were convicted in the courts. The low number of convictions is due to various factors. In some cases the true or alleged victims reported priests who were already dead, or for whom a statute of limitation barred the action. In others, the accusation and even the canonical sentence did not involve any violation of the law: such is the case, for example, in various American states where a priest has sexual relations with a consenting person over the age of 16.

But there have also been many sensational cases of priests who have been falsely accused. Indeed, these cases multiplied in the 1990s, when some legal firms recognized they could reap million dollar returns even on the basis of mere suspicion. Appeals for zero tolerance are justifiable, but there should also be zero tolerance for defaming innocent priests. Nor do the numbers change significantly from 2002 to 2010. The John Jay College study already noted a “significant decline” in cases in the 2000s. New investigations have been rare, and sentences extremely rare, as a result of more rigorous controls introduced by American bishops as well as the Holy See.

So, does the John Jay College study tells us then, 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 a beautiful thing, and much less so for a priest, but it is not pedophilia. Therefore, only 958 American priests were accused of true pedophilia over 52 years, 18 per year. Convictions were much rarer, between one and two per year.

The number of convictions of priests and consecrated persons in other countries is similar to that of the United States, even if no other country has available a study as comprehensive as that of the John Jay College. Often government reports in Ireland are cited which describe as “endemic” the level of abuses in boarding schools and in (male) orphanages managed by certain dioceses and religious orders. There is no doubt that there have been some very serious cases of sexual abuse involving minors in this country. A systematic perusal of these reports indicates, however, that many accusations involve the use of excessive or violent means of disciplining. The so-called Ryan Report of 2009 used very harsh language in relation to the Catholic Church. It studied 25,000 pupils in boarding schools, reformatories and orphanages in the period and found 253 accusations of sexual abuse of boys and 128 of girls. Not all of them were against priests or consecrated persons. These were of different natures and levels of seriousness, but they rarely involved prepubescent children. Convictions were even rarer, although some of them admittedly involved cases which were particularly disgusting and fully justify the harsh words of Benedict XVI.

The controversies in recent weeks involving Germany and Austria demonstrate a typical characteristic of moral panics: “new” facts going back many years, in some cases over 30 years, in part already known, are suddenly “discovered”. Events of the 1980s -- especially from the Pope's own region of Bavaria -- appear on the front pages of newspapers as if they had occurred yesterday. Wild controversies spring up, in a concerted attack which announces sensational new “discoveries” every day. This is how moral panics are promoted by moral entrepreneurs in an organized and systematic manner.

The fact that, headlines say, “involves the Pope” is in its own way a textbook case. It refers to a priest from the Diocese of Essen with a history of abuses, accepted in the Archdiocese of Munich in Bavaria and Freising, where the Pope was the Archbishop, in 1980, where he abused again. The case emerged in 1985 and was settled by a German court in 1986, which decided among other things that the decision to assign the priest in question to pastoral duties in the Archdiocese had not been taken by Cardinal Ratzinger. He did not even know about it, which is not at all strange in a large diocese with a complex bureaucracy. Why a German daily newspaper would decide to exhume this case and plaster it over the front page 24 years after the conviction should be the real question.

Now we come to an unpleasant question – because the simple raising of it appears defensive, and does not console victims – but it is an important one. Is being a Catholic priest a condition which involves a risk of becoming a pedophile and sexually abusing minors which is higher than the rest of the population? As we have seen the two things, being a pedophile and having a sexual relation with a minor, are not the same since having sex with a 16-year-old is not pedophilia. Answering this question is fundamental to discovering the cause of the phenomenon and thus preventing it.

 According to studies by Jenkins (see his Pedophiles and Priests, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 50 and 81) and others, if one compares the Catholic Church in the United States to the major Protestant denominations, one discovers that convictions of pedophiles – depending on the denominations – are higher for Protestant pastors compared to Catholic priests. The question is important because it demonstrates that the problem is not celibacy. Most of the Protestant pastors are married.

In the same period in which about 100 American priests were convicted for sexually abusing minors, the number of gym teachers and coaches of junior sporting teams – also mainly married – who were convicted of the same crimes in the US reached about 6,000 (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). The examples could continue, not only in the US. And above all, according to regular US government reports, two-thirds of sexual abuse against minors does not come from strangers or educators – including priests and Protestant pastors – but from family members: stepfathers, uncles, cousins, brothers and, unfortunately, even parents. Similar facts exist for numerous other countries.

 While it may hardly be politically correct to say so, there is a fact that is much more important: more than 70% percent of pedophiles are males who abuse other males. And over 90 percent of Catholic priests convicted for sexually abusing minors abused males. If a problem has sprung up in the Catholic Church, it is not due to celibacy but to a certain tolerance of homosexuality in seminaries, particularly in the 1970s, when most of the priests later convicted for the abuses were ordained. This is a problem that Benedict XVI is vigorously correcting. More generally, a return to moral principles, to ascetical discipline, to meditating on the true greatness of the priesthood are the antidotes to the real tragedy of pedophilia. The Year for Priests can also help.

Compared to 2006, when the BBC broadcast a trash-documentary produced by the Irish parliamentarian and gay activist Colm O'Gorman, and to 2007, when the Italian media personality Santoro broadcast the Italian version on his program Annozero, there is little new -- except for increased severity and vigilance in the Church. The “newly discovered” cases have not been invented, but they go back 20 or even 30 years.

Or, perhaps, there is something new. Why are old and very often well-known cases being exhumed in 2010 on a daily basis, always attacking the Pope? This is paradoxical if one considers the great severity of then Cardinal Ratzinger and of Benedict XVI on this very theme. The moral entrepreneurs who organize the panic have an agenda which is increasingly clear and which is not essentially the protection of children. This is a time when political, juridical and even electoral decisions in Europe and elsewhere are being made about the abortion pill RU-486, euthanasia, the recognition of same sex unions. Almost only the voice of the Pope and the Church is being raised to defend life and the family. The reading of certain articles in the media shows that very powerful lobby groups are seeking to silence this voice with the worst possible defamation -- and unfortunately an easy one to make -- that of favoring or tolerating pedophilia.

These lobby groups, which may or may not be Masonic, show the sinister power of technocracy which was mentioned by Benedict XVI himself in his encyclical Caritas in veritate and in the denunciation of John Paul II, in his Message for the World Day of Peace of 1985. John Paul II warned of “hidden aims” – alongside others which are “openly promoted” which are “directed at subjecting all populations to regimes in which God does not count”.

This is truly a dark hour. It takes one back to the prediction of a great Italian Catholic thinker of the 19th century, Emiliano Avogadro della Motta (1798-1865). He predicted that after the devastation caused by secular ideologies an authentic “demonolatry” would spring up which would attack the family and the true concept of marriage. Reestablishing the sociological truth about moral panics over priests and pedophilia will not of itself resolve the problems and will not stop the lobby groups. But it is a small and proper tribute to the greatness of this Pope and to a Church which is wounded and defamed because it will not be silent on the issues of life and the family.