The Sex Abuse Scandal

American Catholics had what George Weigel famously called the “Long Lent” of 2002, when we were shocked by one after another revelation that perverted sexual predators were infesting the priesthood, and that a jarring number our bishops were too cowardly or incompetent to stop them. Now Europe is going through similar crises, and it looks like it’s going to get pretty bad over there, as people are left reeling from the betrayals. This also means that the sex abuse scandal is in the news over here again, and it’s lead to three people (a Catholic, a Pentecostal, and an agnostic) asking me yesterday what the heck was going on.

I’m going to try and take a serious look at it, but this means it won’t fit neatly into a single blog post. Also, the sex abuse scandal should be divided into two distinct parts: the abuse of children, and the cover-up by Church officials. Phil Lawler’s The Faithful Departed, the most helpful book to read on the subject, divides it in this way, and that seems appropriate.

Here’s the outline I’m working off of for future posts. As I complete the posts, I’ll add a hyperlink, turning this from an outline into a Table of Contents, of sorts. I’ve tried to address, head on, the major questions which people seem to have about the scandal.

A profile of the abuse.
Why did the abuse happen?
What about the role of celibacy in all this?
What role did homosexuality play?
How bad was it?
What can be done?

A profile of the cover-up.
Why did the cover-up happen?
What role does the Church’s self-identity play in all of this?
What was the pope’s role?
What can be done?

Being Catholic in the face of evil.

But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” – Jesus, Matthew 18:6.


  1. When you deal with this matter, I ask that you have last Sunday’s Gospel in mind, and deal with it in a balanced way. The press does not. It tends to report only crimes committed by Catholic priests and religious, even though the percentage is the same among ministers in protestant denominations and is much much higher in the general population. I suggest you read the latest Ignatius Insight Scoop where you will find the following:

    ‘Hofstra University researcher Charol Shakeshaft looked into the problem, and the first thing that came to her mind when Education Week reported on the study were the daily headlines about the Catholic Church.

    “[T]hink the Catholic Church has a problem?” she said. “The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”’

    According to government statistics the highest percentage of cases of child abuse in the Catholic Church will takes place in families and not in presbyteries. Recent Irish statistics suggest one in five girls and one in twelve boys suffer some form of sexual abuse. This is never reported.

    This is in no way meant to excuse the abuse by priests and religious, or to divert attention from it.
    Well that is hardly possible considering the press coverage.

    But it seems to me all to easy to analyse problems in the clerical culture that may or may not have contributed, while the vast majority of cases in families is left unmentioned. It seems as if no one cares or dares to face it. This must surely be where the greatest cover-up has occurred and still is occurring.

    This is child sexual abuse among Catholic laity, in a vastly higher degree than there has ever been among priests and religious. How about adding another chapter on your blog about this situation. There is plenty of material and statistics available. You will be the first one to do so. Help us to understand what this pathological disease is all about wherever it occurs.

  2. Father,

    That was a very thoughtful comment, and I agree with the thrust of what you’re saying: the Catholic Church’s rate of abuse is probably lower than that of public school faculty and non-Catholic clergy; as for the total number of cases, it’s true that families are, sadly, the largest threat to children’s purity.

    That was one of the things which I intend to address in the “How bad was it?” section under part I – a sort of comparison, and some of the reasons why we hear so much more about the Church’s sex abuse problems than the schools’ or families’.

    Some of the reasons: (1) the Church keeps better records than any family or most schools; (2) the Church has much deeper pockets. A combination of (1) and (2) leads to much higher reporting (and more cases of false accusations): it’s easier to prove abuse from a priest than a school teacher because of the records, and it’s more worth the effort to sue, since you can recover for upwards of millions. So more cases come forward. Add to that, (3) priest sex abuse is an especially shocking abuse of trust, so it sells papers, leading to more publicity; and (4) a number of people within the media have real “issues” with religion in general and Catholicism specifically, and love any attempt to make the Church look bad.

    Schools and Protestant denominations were also guilty of cover-ups, but there’s some sort of lurid notion of a “Vatican conspiracy” that appeals to people — from Maria Monk to the Da Vinci Code, it’s a bizarre (particularly American) obsession.

    That’s what I’d been planning on writing about — do you think I need to go in a modified direction on it?

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