chicken or egg/catholic priests or child molesters

The news yesterday brought mention of another big outbreak of child molestation by priests in Catholic churches in Pennsylvania.

Why does this seem to keep happening on such a big scale in the Catholic church? Is there something about being a Catholic priest that turns men toward a life of child molestation? Or do young, pre-existing pedophiles see such an irresistible opportunity that they elect to dedicate their lives toward entering the priesthood?

Does this problem exist on a similar scale in other houses of worship? Lutheran? Protestant? Episcopalian? Jewish?

Neither. Priests abuse at the same rate as other men. There’s even a chance that they abuse at lower rates than other men. There are some studies that put the number of male sexual abusers at 1 in 5. 1 in 10 is generally the go-to number. Priest abuse has been estimated to be at around 5%. The problem is that those numbers are all very slushy so making a complete comparison is difficult. It does seem safe to say though that the numbers are ballpark similar.

Of course we think that priests abuse at higher rates due to two things, the first is that we hold them to a higher standard (and we should-simply saying you’re the same as everyone else is not OK when you’re in a position of trust. The same reason that we are more shocked by teacher abuse than say garbageman abuse.) The second is that they are part of a hierarchical organization that purports to stand for higher values and rather than fighting the abuse, they seemed to cover it up. (The same reason that Michigan State is seen as so egregious.)

The problem then isn’t really with priests - it’s with humans. And our outrage should really be directed at their superiors who should have cared more about protecting victims instead of institutional reputation. The irony of course is that by protecting their institutional reputation, they ended up hurting it far more severely in the long run. Of course though, I think that it really opened up eyes within religious organizations to these possibilities. Religious institutions across the board are much more aware of this potential for abuse and have stepped up with policies and changes to volunteerism. Most churches use the ‘two-deep’ system that other youth organizations have moved towards. Rooms in churches almost always have windows now. There are clear reporting lines and policies for suspected abuse. I think that things are getting better honestly across the board among all youth organizations. Not that such things will never happen again (or will even become exceedingly rare-I think sex abuse is always going to be a battle,) but I think that we’ll see a decrease in their frequency and that’s something anyway.

Where did you get your 5% number? I’m not doubting you - just curious. Surely reports about moral, upstanding priests won’t sell newspapers, etc, so the widespread reports of abuse aren’t surprising.

I spent 8 years in a Catholic school and I never heard about abuse, and it was a pretty big school - you’d think some rumors might have made the rounds. I have to say, tho, that I tend to be oblivious about certain things, so who knows.

On the other hand, my dad mentioned that he never became an altar boy because of the reputation of a certain priest in his parish - this would have been in the late 30s/early 40s.

I too would like to see cites about numbers. I will note that clergy have greater access to children than other groups.

Just to be clear, 5 people have posted in this thread. If all 5 were male, there’s a good chance one of us is a child sex abuser?

Yes, I realize FairyChatMom is probably not male and I don’t know about the rest.

Sorry, no, this is disingenuous in the extreme. They did not “seem” to cover it up. There are multiple proven wide-ranging generations-long intentional systematic cover-ups. The question is no longer “did there seem to be cover-ups”. The question is “Were there criminal conspiracies among cardinals and/or bishops to further organize and support the cover-ups”. I think probably there weren’t that kind of criminal conspiracies. But cover-ups? Yes, systematic, widespread, knowing, and intentional cover-ups were the norm, not the exception.

Richard Sipes who has done extensive studies runs the number at 6%. Phillip Jenkins out of Penn State puts it at 2%. (We get to the 2% number from multiple sources if we are just looking at abuse of pre-pubescent children. Most estimates put the rate of abuse of teenagers higher than the rate of abuse of pre-teens.) Really, it’s all stabs in the dark. It seems unlikely that every single priest who has abused has been outed. It also seems unlikely that every single accusation made against a priest is true.

We also run into problems with sex abuse in the general population and its prevalence. We know that it is extremely underreported. We know that it is a huge problem. Estimates say that up to a quarter of all adult women were sexually abused as children (one study even came up with a number as high as 70% - I find that hard to believe, but I find the 25% number hard to believe as well and it’s a very widely accepted number so what do I know?) We also know that about 1 in 8 men were sexually abused as children. The bottom line is that child sexual abuse numbers are horrendous. It’s an almost guarantee that you have a woman very close to you in life that was sexually abused as a child.

Anyway, here’s a Newsweek article about it.

Look up child sexual abuse on wikipedia sometime and then prepare to vomit at how absolutely insane how widespread it is.

I would say they have the same access to children as other groups, like teachers or sports coaches.



That doesn’t excuse anything, of course.


If the high end estimates are correct, then yes (assuming that this message board is a representative sample of the population.) I lean more toward the 1 in 10 number though since that is more consistently used. But, yep, the bottom line is you know a child sex abuser and you are probably in close contact with one every day without ever knowing. Enjoy your red pill for the day.

The word seem means ‘to give the appearance of’ and has no bearing on the veracity of the statement. If I say, "You seem to have taken offense at the use of my using the word ‘seem.’ " I am not implying that you did not truly take offense and your outrage was a charade. I am only saying that from my perspective, it appears as though you did take offense. I use the word seem a lot because I like to couch my statements as being the subjective viewpoint of the author.

I did not mean to imply that the hierarchy was not covering things up. I only meant to say that it appeared to me as though they were. My next paragraph seemed (there I go using that word again.) to me to demonstrate that I did truly think there was a cover-up.

I think what’s happening on a big scale is cover-ups. I don’t think that back in the 1960s and 70s, if a school teacher (and yes, there were plenty of male school teachers in junior high schools, high schools, and even in elementary schools if they were private, back then) abused someone, and the student or family went to the school principal, the principal would send the teacher away with a good reference, and say “just apply for an administrative job some place.” It may have been that the police were not always contacted, but nearly always, the teacher would be fired and not given any references. Further, the school administration might contact other school systems in the area, and said “Don’t hire this person.”

The church, on the other hand, would do nothing to discipline a priest when a family said their child was being abused. They’d quietly move the priest some place else, and not tell the new place what had previously happened. Now, the first new job would probably be something with limited access to children, but eventually the priest would get moved again, and again, and because there are lots of positions that involve contact with children, the priest would end up in a position with children again.

That doesn’t mean that a fired teacher never molested again, but he never did it as a teacher. He molested the kid next door, or if his new job was managing a movie theater, he molested some kid at a matinee.

Of course it was wrong that schools, and other places which knew of an abuser didn’t go to the police, but a long time ago, they probably thought that they were limiting a person’s contact with children, and that was solving the problem. The church knew that reassigning a priest meant he would eventually get back into a position of trust with families.

I’m not trying to excuse anybody: there was a lot of wrong going on. But there was wrong on a small scale, and wrong on a big scale. The church was doing wrong on a much bigger scale (and in a much more systematic way) than the wrong going on in schools, and churches with a different kind of organization-- most other churches hire their ministers the way you hire a manager at a business, as opposed to the church higher-ups just assigning someone, which is what the Roman Catholic church does.

Anyway, I think it’s the scale of cover-up that was shocking to people. It wasn’t just an individual priest who had violated people’s trust, but the institutional church. When a teacher abused a child, the teacher violated the child’s trust, and if it was reported to the principal, or superintendent, and the administrator discouraged the family from going to the police, the child’s trust was violated at a higher level, but not so high as when the entire Roman Catholic church in the US seems to be working against you. A devout Catholic would not feel safe anywhere.

Then, there are a lot of non-Catholics in the US with some very anti-Catholic sentiments, who probably are happy to dwell on the RCC-child abuse scandal, because to them, it exemplifies what it wrong with the Catholic church.

Ah, OK, sorry, understood.

It did sound as if you were leaving space for the possibility that the cover-ups were unintentional, accidental, or due to simple neglect of duty. There is ample proof over multiple times and locations that the cover-ups were planned, systematic, and explicitly approved by the hierarchy. Sorry for overreacting.

The Catholic Church is more noteworthy for its deliberate institutional protection of molesters up to the highest levels of clergical leadership than for the numerical prevalence of serial perpetrators. There is the argument that a chaste priesthood might serve to attract people who do not fit heteronormative sexual roles but is belied by the fact that most child molesters do not identify as homosexual (or transsexual, et cetera), and there is no lack of sexual predators in positions that have unsupervised access to children outside the church. There is also ritualized non-sexual abuse in Catholic traditions, but again this is not unique to the Catholic Church except for the extent to which it is supported and protected by the church leadership. I’m morally certain you can find examples at similar rates among any large religious organization, and concealment at some level by leadership to avoid liability and image problems, but the Catholic Church has held such sway that it has been able to protect and relocate scores of serial abusers for decades despite often public knowledge of their behaviors.


From my earlier cite -

Again, not unique to the Roman Catholic church, and again, does not excuse anything.


Teachers for example? In other words I don’t accept that there is greater access.

I actually knew one of the priests named in this report pretty well and a few of the others enough to put a face on the name. Its not that its more common in the RC church but more that their command and control structure made it easier and more acceptable to cover it up and allow certain priests to abuse over decades. That kind of thing will not usually happen within other groups or classes of people; be the norm rather than the exception.

As for religion in general; some movements have had child abuse basically built in - some fundamentalist branches of the LDS church spring to mind. And now as a Lutheran I can feel good that child abuse has not been something we’re known for but serial killers (BTK Killer) are. So pointing at the Papists and feeling they are somehow unique isn’t something I am going to do. But I will say that it highlights something in their structure that always bothered me and was one of the reasons I bailed from both forms of catholicism as soon as I could.

That’s really it. It’s unsurprising that any group with access to children has abusers in their midst. If we look at Michigan State, it should not surprise us that a doctor sexually abused minors. There are likely many, many doctors who sexually abuse children. It’s likely that just today some doctor somewhere in the US is touching a minor inappropriately. That’s (unfortunately) neither surprising nor unexpected. The issue is what happens when non-abusers discover it. Michigan State’s crime was not hiring Larry Nassar, but rather not doing anything about him once they knew his crimes. The Catholic Church has the same issue. The problem is not priest’s abusing kids. (Well, yes, that’s obviously a problem, but it has so far been beyond the efforts of any society to deal with.) The real problem is not doing something about it once discovered.

The real problem is that we as a society have blinders on. If we look at Michigan State, they don’t want to admit that they have sexual abusers on staff, but the reality is that they do. Even after this scandal, they still do. Probably every university in the country does, but no one wants to say, “Yes, it’s a given that there are sexual abusers in our hospitals and among our children’s workers, but we’re trying to work on that.” We as individuals would likely see such a statement as a crazy indictment of the institution and run the other way. We need to start realizing how widespread the problem is and acknowledging that it’s everywhere instead of flying into a moral panic if a group is actually admitting the issue and trying to do something about it. Of course, that turns us into crazy over-protective parents and it also further solidifies the stereotype that a man who is comfortable around kids should be viewed as a molester. Anyway, I guess I don’t have a solution other than to say that people really, really suck.

I’ll just admit I do not believe that it’s five percent.

But that’s not true. Historically they have been held to a much, much lower standard.

The allowances that have been given to the Roman Catholic Church would never be applied to anyone else. Most child rapists have gotten away with it because their crimes never came to light; in the case of the RCC, a vast number of crimes HAVE come to light, and yet the number of accused rapists being arrested and put to trial is minimal, even when there are multiple credible accusations. There have also been remarkably few charges associated with the now-innumerable cases of obstruction of justice regarding covering up the rapes.

We have discussed the OP question in other threads before — there is a combination of elements at play. Some pedophiles in the priesthood entered opportunistically, I’m sure; others may have done so under the misguided impression that the discipline would help them resist the urges and instead found themselves not just in the middle of temptation but also enabled — and it was the institutional culture that was a huge factor, when “causing scandal” is seen as the prime thing to avoid above addressing the actual wrongdoing. This in turn took advatage of communities whose Catholicism was closely tied to their identity, especially in the USA.

The impression I get is most of these cases are not quite “new” but mostly went on for years and decades being covered up. That itself is not new either, we’ve been unearthing these sorts of cases since the late 80s at least, but it means that a lot of people wind up lacking clean hands on the enabling side. It is infuriating that nobody in the institution with power seemed to catch on that trying to stifle scandal only makes it worse when it finally blows up, but more so that noboby in the institution is willing to say, let’s cut out the rot no matter who falls.

The more decentralized nature of other churches, in some of which the pastor is an employee of each congregation, probably makes it harder to follow similar trails. In the old days when We Did Not Speak Of Such Things, a pastor caught diddling the kids may have just got fired, then be free try to find pastoral work somewhere where the news had not travelled or change careers altogether.

Aren’t all priests in the Catholic church male? And do they all take a vow of celibacy? So, they have created this illusion of male power veiled by celibacy, and then their followers’ families provide easy access to “temptation” via their own children. Truly evil. I am sure they are thinking “oh, the priest from MY church is trustworthy with my kids.”

As others have stated, this is a perfect mix of opportunity and cover-up of crime, and all the church has to say about it (repeatedly) is “I’m sorry”, without actually having to do something about the problem.

Here is a question that I have been wanting to ask: Is there something about a Catholic priest’s celibacy that makes him more prone to sexually molest people, compared to spiritual leaders of other faiths (not just men in general)?

And, other faiths allow female leaders, right?

I worked for a children’s organization in the early 2000s, and one of the things I did was keep an eye on reports of child abuse (mostly sexual) by clergy.

There was plenty of it, and against members of pretty much every religious group – Episcopalians, Lutherans, Baptists, Jews, Muslims, store front churches, you name it. For some reason, there were a disproportionately large number of Jehovah’s Witnesses, considering their very small membership.

There are a couple of things that make the Catholics stick out.

  1. There are a whole lot of them. The Pennsylvania report mentions 301 priests in six dioceses. There are more than 37,000 Roman Catholic priests in the U.S.

  2. They’re much better organized. A lot of non-Catholic churches are pretty loosely organized. A minister who’s unhappy with where he is can resign, drop out and take a “civilian” job for awhile, then dust off his collar and go to another church, with or without mentioning his previous position. By contrast, the Catholics keep pretty good records on their clergy, which means it’s relatively easy for an investigator to figure out which priest was assigned to which parish at any given time. That’s the reason why these investigations often turn into a giant row of dominos.

  3. For a long time, the Catholic hierarchy looked at pedophilia in priests as a sin to be repented and forgiven. Many pedophilic priests were sent off for counseling for a few months, then returned to the active ministry - often being sent to another parish with another group of children. And since priests were frequently reassigned for all sorts of reasons, it wouldn’t necessarily raise any red flags.

There are some other “peculiarities” but you get the general idea.