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Sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy

What percentage of priests abuse
and whom do they victimize? Part 1

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Sexual abuse of youths and children in the U.S. by Roman Catholic priests has been quietly discussed for decades. A series of books on the topic was published starting during the 1990s, and continuing today. But it was only in early 2002 that a moral panic surfaced, alleging widespread child and youth sexual abuse by priests. The little data that is available seems to indicate that the abusers represent a very small percentage of the total priesthood. Further, very few of those priests who do abuse are actually pedophiles, as the media often reports. Rather they are ephebophiles -- adult priests with a homosexual or bisexual orientation, and who are also sexually attracted to post-pubertal males. Their victims are typically older teenage males who are under the age of 18.

It is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of priests, with a heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual orientation, do not molest or sexually abuse young people.

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What the media often reports, compared with reality:

During the first few months of 2002, revelations of pedophilia, and ephebophilia among some priests in the Roman Catholic church spread like wildfire across the U.S. The media gave the impression that:

  • Claim: Most of the abusing priests are/were pedophiles -- molesting little children.

    • Probable reality: most of the criminal acts were by ephebophiles -- adults engaging in sexual activity with post-pubertal, 13 to 17 year old teenagers.

  • Claim: A large percentage of priests abuse children.

    • Probable reality: The vast majority of Roman Catholic clergy are celibate. A few are married, having entered the Catholic priesthood after having been ordained in another Christian group. S avery few are discretely engaged in sexual behavior with other single adults. There is general agreement that only a few percentage of the clergy actually abuse children sexually. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a national study in 2004-FEB. It concluded that about 4% of all U.S. priests since 1950 have been accused of sexual abuse of children. However:

      • There are probably many victims who have remained silent and not come forward to accuse their abuser(s).

      • There are probably some adults who have come forward to accuse priests, who have false recovered memories of abuse that never happened.

      • There may be some adults who knowingly falsely accuse innocent priests of abuse in order to collect compensation.

    An accurate estimate will probably never be known.

  • Claim: A massive amount of abuse is now going on in the Roman Catholic church.

    • Probable reality: The data that appears in the media often reflects allegations of abuse which have accumulated over the past forty years. The number of cases involving allegations of recent abuse is and will continue to be a small fraction of the total that is now being reported.

  • Claim: Priests abuse at a per-capita rate that is much greater than for the general population.

    • Probable reality: This is probably true, even if for no other reason that all Roman Catholic priests are currently male, and adult males have a much higher abuse rate than females. The Roman Catholic Church, The Southern Baptist Convention, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the main Mormon denomination), and many conservative wings of Christianity and other religions have sexist policies that discriminate against female leaders.

  • Claim: The percentage of Roman Catholic priests who abuse children and youths is much greater than for other Christian and non-Christian religious leaders (gurus, imams, ministers, pastors, priests, priestesses, rabbis, etc.).

    • Probable reality: This may or may not be true. No reliable data exists that we have been able to find. Even as media articles in the first few months of 2002 highlighted abuse by priests within the Catholic Church, a former Episcopal priest was convicted of molesting a 14-year-old boy, a Baptist pastor from South Carolina was starting a 60 year prison center for molesting 23 children, another Baptist pastor was dismissed from his church in upstate New York over allegations of abuse, a pastor in DeKalb, GA, was found guilty of 25 charges of molestation of a male teen-aged church member, and an Orthodox rabbi was about to go on trial for groping two teenage girls.

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What percentage of Roman Catholic priests abuse older teens and occasionally young children?

Nobody really knows.

Nobody even knows how many adults in general sexually abuse youth and adults. A figure of 2% is often mentioned. However this is really just a guess.

bullet Frederick S. Berlin is the director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, and a widely published author on sexual disorders. He stated in an interview: "There is no good data either from the general population or from the priesthood about numbers of pedophiles or people who have a vulnerability that increases their risk to children. The issue of sexuality, particularly of people who may have unusual kinds of sexual cravings, has been one that society has tended to sweep under the carpet. Getting that data is terribly important, but as of now I know of no systematic surveys that would allow us to come to any firm conclusions." 1

bullet The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a priest and canonical lawyer said that "The bishops have resisted attempts to do studies on this, and the Vatican is death on any empirical, scientific study on the celibacy or sexuality of the priesthood." 2

bullet The Rev. Stephen Rossetti, is a priest and psychologist who has specialized in this area. He has suggested that the records of church counseling centers would contain a great deal of information that would help shine light on abuse by priests. Centers such as St. Luke's Institute in Silver Spring MD; St. Michael's Paraclete Center outside St. Louis, MO; St. John Vianney Center in Downingtown, PA.; the Institute of Living in Hartford, CT; and Southdown Hospital near Toronto, ON Canada treat hundreds of priests for various psychological problems. However, the church has refused to conduct such a study. 3

bullet Rev. James J. Gill is a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist who heads the Christian Institute for the Study of Human Sexuality in Chicago, IL. He said: "When the question comes up, should we do a study of priests and how many offenders have there been, what was the nature of the offense, what was their training, who were the victims, what treatment did the offenders get, what was the rate of recidivism -- it's all researchable, but the bishops fear you keep the issue alive by doing the research. They fear that the press will get hold of it and come to them and say, 'How many were there in your diocese?' They just don't want to get into that." A complicating factor is that each diocese operates independently of the rest of the Church in the U.S., and reports directly to the Vatican. 3

Some estimates on the percent of abusers:

bullet Philip Jenkins, is a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, and has written a book on the topic. 4 He estimates that 2% of priests sexually abuse youths and children. 5

bullet Richard Sipe is a psychotherapist and former priest, who has studied celibacy and sexuality in the priesthood for four decades. He has authored three books on the topic. 6 By extrapolating from his 25 years of interviews of 1,500 priests and others, he estimates that 6% of priests abuse. 4% of priests abuse teens, aged 13 to 17; 2% abuse pre-pubertal children. 5

bullet Sylvia M. Demarest, a lawyer from Texas has been tracking accusations against priests since the the mid-1990s. By 1996, she had identified 1,100 priests who had been accused of molesting children. She predicts that when she updates the list, the total will exceed 1,500 names. This represents about 2.5% of the approximately 60,000 men who have been active priests in the U.S. since 1984. It is important to realize that these are accused priests; the allegations have not been evaluated in a trial. Also, there is no way to judge what proportion of actual abusive priests are included on her list. It may include 40% or fewer; she may have found 90% or more.

bullet Conservative columnist Ann Coulter claimed, without citing references, that there are only 55 "exposed abusers" in a population of 45,000 priests. This is an abuse rate of 0.12%. 7

bullet Various news services reported that 200 Roman Catholic priests in the Philippines have been investigated for "sexual misconduct and abuses" over the past two decades. That would represent almost 3% of the total population of about 7,000 priests. However, it appears that misconduct includes many offenses, from child abuse to rape to keeping adult mistresses. 8

bullet A survey of child and youth sexual abuse within the church issued in 2004-FEB estimates that 4% of the 110,000 priests who served between 1950 and 2002 were abusive. More details.

It is important to keep one's eye on the forest and not on the trees.

  • Even if, as one researcher estimates, six percent of priests sexually abuse older teens or children, then that still leaves an average of almost 19 priests out of every 20 who are non-abusive.

  • Studies of sexual abuse of minors reveals that, over their lifetime, one adult pedophile, hebephile or ephebophile typically abuses many dozens of minors. So the number of victims is massive compared to the number of abusing priests.

  • The previous policy within the Church was to transfer abusive priests who have been accused to an unsuspecting different diocese where he has a new group of older teens and young children to groom and abuse.

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This topic continues in Part 2

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Interview with Frederick S. Berlin," United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1997-SEP-8, at:
  2. Alan Cooperman, "Abuse Problem Is Clouded by A Lack of Data: Opinion Split on Whether Molestation Is More Prevalent in Catholic Clergy," Washington Post, 2002-MAR-10, at:
  3. Barbara Walters, "Priests with AIDS: Crisis within [sic] Catholic church," 20/20, at:
  4. Philip Jenkins, "Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a contemporary crisis," Oxford University Press, (2001). Read reviews or order this book
  5. Robyn Suriano, "Pedophilia: Psychologists struggle to treat it without fully understanding its causes."  Published in the Seattle Times, 2002-APR-28.
  6. A. W. Richard Sipe, "Sex, Priests and Power: Anatomy of a Crisis," Brunner/Mazel, (1995). Read reviews or order this book
  7. Ann Coulter, "Should gay priest [sic] adopt?," at:
  8. Alan Cooperman, "Sex abuse in clergy stymies scientists Lack of data thwarts efforts to gauge depth of the problem," Washington Post, 2002-MAR-24, at:

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Copyright 2002 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAY-17
Latest update: 2011-SEP-21
Author: B.A. Robinson

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