Religious Tolerance logo

Sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy

A moral panic

horizontal rule

Sponsored link.
horizontal rule


bullet "While the moral panic of Salem's witches may be over, an equally pernicious panic continues to grow -- that of the pedophile priest." Anne Hendershott. 1

bullet "Nothing much can shock us in today's world, but in the past weeks we've seen things, heard things, and read things that we never would have dreamed of." Father Raymond Mann, St. Anthony Shrine, Boston, MA, on Palm Sunday, 2002-MAR-24. 2

horizontal rule

What is a moral panic?

"Moral panic" is a sociological term which has been defined as:

"a form of collective behavior characterized by widely circulating rumors which greatly exaggerate the threat posed by some newly identified form of deviance. In a moral panic, there is a heightened level of concern over the behavior of a certain group and a greater than normal fear about the consequences of this behavior for the rest of society. The sentiment generated by the newly identified threat is referred to by sociologists as a 'kind of fever -- characterized by heightened emotion, fear, dread, anxiety, hostility and a strong feeling of righteousness.' " 1

horizontal rule

Past moral panics:

There have been many moral panics during the past in North America. Three of the most famous were:

bullet In western Europe, starting in the late 16th century, there was a widespread fear of Satan-worshipers. They were viewed as having dedicated their lives to killing and harming others through black magick. There is no evidence that any of these "Witches" actually existed, beyond a few harmless, delusional, and mentally ill people. However the "burning times" continued for about three centuries; tens of thousands of innocent people were convicted of "Witchcraft" and executed. (Estimates of the number of victims have ranged up to ten million; however, this was based on guesswork and poor research. More recent studies place the numbers in many tens of thousands.) The moral panic also  affected some towns in New-England -- notably Salem, MA. About two dozen innocent victims were hung there because they wouldn't confess to being witches. One victim was pressed to death because he refused to enter a plea.

bullet The publishing of the book "Michelle Remembers" triggered a Satanic panic throughout North America, starting in 1980. This was a novel about Satanic Ritual Abuse. It was promoted as a documentary, as the real-life abuse experiences of a child, Michelle Smith. After reading this book, and several copy-cat works of fiction, much of the public started to believe that an underground, secret, evil cult of Satanists were kidnapping up to 60,000 infants and children a year in the U.S. Their victims were believed to have been sexually abused, ritually murdered, and sometimes even eaten. Many dozens of localized panics broke out across North America, mainly in rural areas. Some parents kept their blonde, blue-eyed children out of school to protect them. The panic was reinforced by the false memories recovered by tens of thousands of victims of Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT). Some twenty years later, the panic collapsed because of the complete lack of hard evidence of any such evil cult. By 2010, there are few traces left of the Satanic Panic and belief in RMT.

bullet During the early 1980's young children started to disclose horrendous stories of physical and sexual abuse at nursery schools, pre-schools and day-care centers across North America. These turned out to be based on false memories -- on real-feeling images of events that never happened. They were generated during  interviews with young children by child psychologists, social workers and police investigators. At the time, researchers did not know that repeatedly asked, direct questions about abuse would often result in disclosures of non-existent abuse events. Later, these descriptions of molestation became implanted in the children's minds. The moral panic dissipated in the late 1990's. Many dozens of adults, once imprisoned for committing criminal acts that never happened, have been released from prison. Meanwhile, those children who were victimized by the system have grown up and are now young adults. Many wrestle with the memories to this day, and remain partly disabled by the false memories.

Sociologists call the alleged perpetrators -- Witches, Satanists, and teachers in the three cases cited above -- "folk devils." They are seen by the public as the personification of evil.

A common thread shared by many moral panics is sexual perversion. For example:

bullet Satan-worshiping female "witches" in the Middle Ages and Renaissance were believed to engage in mass sexual orgies with each other, and with Satan and some of his demons.

bullet Modern-day, evil Satanic cultists were believed to have kidnapped, sexually abused and tortured infants and children.

bullet Teachers in the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, CA, and the Little Rascals Day Care in Edenton, NC, and dozens of similar institutions were also believed to have tortured and sexually abused young children in their care.

horizontal rule

Sponsored link:

horizontal rule

The emerging moral panic: pedophile priests:

The latest moral panic involves allegations of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic church. The folk devils in this case are some of the church's priests. The panic seems to have reached a critical point early in 2002. At this point:

bullet Many Roman Catholic dioceses had felt obligated to open their sex abuse files to the police and/or public.

bullet Many liberal individuals and groups who had advocated reforms in the church joined the chorus of accusations against the church. Some felt that the abuse problem would be eliminated or greatly attenuated if only the church would end the requirement of priestly celibacy and allow the clergy to marry. Others argued that if women were ordained as priests and consecrated as bishops, that abuse would be very much reduced.

bullet Many adults went public with their personal stories of having been abused by priests when they were children or youths.

In moral panics, as in wars, truth is often the first victim. There is massive speculation about the type and scope of the abuse. But there is also an almost complete lack of reliable data. Much heat is being generated, and very little light. For example:

bullet Abuse rate: Few people seem to be asking whether sexual abuse of children is more common in the Roman Catholic church than in Protestant churches or other faith groups.  Philip Jenkins, author of "Pedophiles and Priests" found no evidence that the incidence of child molestation among Roman Catholic priests was any greater than within other Christian denominations.

bullet Magnitude: Using terms like "The Sins of the Fathers," some in the media are implying that child sexual abuse by priests is extremely common throughout the U.S. church. The best estimates that we have seen indicate that only a few percent of priests abuse children. As Pope John Paul II stated, the panic casts a "dark shadow of suspicion over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty.'' 2

bullet Meaning of terms: The original meaning of the term "pedophile" was an adult who has a sexual interest in a pre-pubertal child -- whether that desire was acted upon or not. In recent decades, the term has developed a second, more sinister meaning: an adult who is not only sexually attracted to a young child, but who actually abuses them. This moral panic seems to be emphasizing the latter meaning. This will leave no word in the English language for a non-abusive adult who has a sexual attraction to children but who does not act upon the temptation. This may lead to the assumption by the public that all pedophiles are abusers.

bullet Ephebophilia: Little attention is being given to the exact nature of clergy abuse. The panic seems to be focusing on abusive pedophilia -- the sexual molestation of pre-pubertal children by priests. Yet most of the abuse appears to be by abusive ephebophphiles -- adults attracted to post-pubertal adolescents. "[In] other than isolated cases like the Boston one, the overwhelming majority of cases involve gay priests who have been sexually active with young seminarians or 16- or 17-year-old boys. While such homosexual activities with minors are criminal offenses -- and immoral -- they are certainly not examples of pedophilia or child molestation." 1 If the age of consent for homosexual activity were lowered to the age of 16, as it is in many countries, most of the criminal acts would disappear. The remaining would still represent an ethical quagmire, however. They would be a gross violation of the priest's ordination vows and would definitely be extremely harmful experiences to most of the teens.

bullet Public bias: The public may view sexual abuse by priests very differently from similar crimes by Protestant clergy. The Roman Catholic Church is generally seen as a monolithic organization with a clearly defined rigid hierarchy. Thus a case of abuse becomes a "Roman Catholic scandal" rather than a local parish problem. A similar molestation in a Protestant church would probably be viewed as a local problem isolated to a single congregation, because of the decentralized nature of most Protestant churches.

bullet Recovered memories:Some of the accusations appear to be the result of recovered memories. These are memories of abuse that occurred during childhood, were repressed at the time, and were recovered during adulthood.

bullet Some of these memories appear to have been forgotten and then triggered back into consciousness in a rush, as a result of having seen the picture of the alleged abuser or having read an article about abuse by priests. These may well be fairly accurate recollections of real abusive events.

bullet But other accusations seem to be based on memories that were pieced together gradually during therapy -- either self-administered, within a mutual-support group, or with a therapist. Previous cases involving family incest and Satanic Ritual Abuse have shown that such memories are generally not related to real events.

horizontal rule

Comparison of the current and past moral panics:

There is one novel feature involved in previous moral panics. The accusations were groundless.

bullet There were no Satan-worshiping evil witches murdering and hurting people with black magick.

bullet There were no underground Satanic cultists kidnapping, torturing, killing and eating children.

bullet There was no ritual abuse at pre-schools and day care centers.

But many of the accusation of abuse by priests appear to be grounded in fact.

If this moral panic develops like previous ones, then some of the following disasters may emerge:

bullet The vast majority of Roman Catholic priests who are ethical, dedicated, and celibate will be subjected to public suspicion.

bullet The good work of the Church will be ignored as overwhelming attention is paid to the moral panic.

bullet Abuse by non-Catholic religious leaders may be largely ignored.

bullet Victims of recovered memory therapy whose memories of abuse are unrelated to real events will be partly or completely disabled emotionally by false memories.

On the other hand, some individuals who seek change in the Roman Catholic Church may see a silver lining to these tragic events:

bullet The case for the ordination of women and married persons may be accellerated.

bullet The public will become more cautious when involving clergy in their children's lives.

bullet The moral standing of the Church will weakened in the eyes of the public. This may lessen the Church's influence in various matters relating to human sexuality.

horizontal rule


  1. Anne Hendershott, "A perfect panic," San Diego Union-Tribune, 2002-MAR-20, Page B-7. Professor Hendershott is a sociologist at the University of San Diego. She is the author of "The Politics of Deviance."
  2. Jennifer Peter, "Abuse scandal shrouds beginning of Holy Week: Catholics asked to take solace from Easter message of victory over evil," Associated Press, 2002-MAR-24. Published in Toronto Star, 2002-MAR-25, Page A2.

horizontal rule

Copyright 2001 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAR-25
Latest update: 2011-SEP-20
Author: B.A. Robinson

line.gif (538 bytes)
Sponsored link

horizontal rule

Go to the previous page, or the clergy sexual abuse  menu, or choose:


Go to home page  We would really appreciate your help

E-mail us about errors, etc.  Purchase a CD of this web site

FreeFind search, lists of new essays...  Having problems printing our essays?

Twitter link

Facebook icon

GooglePage Translator:

This page translator works on Firefox,
Opera, Chrome, and Safari browsers only

After translating, click on the "show
original" button at the top of this
page to restore page to English.