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Data errors.

The Italian journalist Vittorio Messori has made a career of interviewing popes. So it's no surprise that he was recently asked to comment on another one of Eugenio Scalfari's controversial "interviews" with Pope Francis. Once again, Scalfari has reconstructed a conversation he had with the pope without the benefit of a recording or notes. And once again the Vatican has had to offer a clarification of the pope's alleged remarks--because, according to Scalfari, Francis told him that 2 percent of the world's priests, including bishops and cardinals, are pedophiles.

That's a lot of pedophile priests--about one in fifty. If the pope really said that (and it's not clear that he did), where did he get that figure? The traditionalist Catholic blog Rorate Caeli recently translated a report claiming that about .8 percent of abuse cases handled by the Vatican involve pedophile priests.* The piece cites a couple of Vatican insiders who note that of all the abuse cases that make it to Rome only about 10 percent involve pedophilia.

About a week later the blog translated another Italian news item--this time an interview with Messori. In that conversation, the veteran Italian journalist was asked whether relaxing the celibacy rule would address the abuse crisis. His response makes you wonder whether he's been paying much attention to the scandal:

Nearly all of the cases of sexual abuse that have been investigated as having been committed by those in consecrated life were not committed on prepubescent children but on adolescents. All of these were male.

Bishop Charles Scicluna used to serve as the Vatican's chief prosecutor of abuse cases. He has said that 30 percent of the cases forwarded to Rome--and it's important to note that not all cases of accused clerics have been adjudicated by the Vatican--involved heterosexual abuse. I haven't seen it reported that every single postpubescent victim was male. In fact, there is no data on the pubescence of victims of clerical sexual abuse.

Messori continued:

This means three things: that the problem is not pedophilia but ephebophilia; this is the direct result of pederasty; therefore if we are dealing with pederasty I do not see how having a wife would have had an effect. The problem is not celibacy. The problem is that liberal spirit that reigned in the ‘80s among the clergy, and threw wide open the doors of the seminaries to more or less explicit homosexuals. The results were seen in the successive decade: scandals dealing with abuse and pedophilia. All of this has a basis in homoeroticism.

Almost none of that is true.

The only national study of clerical sexual abuse, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and published in 2004, found that in the United States 68 percent of priests with allegations of abuse were ordained between 1950 and 1979. Priests ordained after 1979 accounted for just 11 percent of allegations. That tracks with the annual totals of reported abuse incidents, which peaked in 1980 at around eight hundred, and fell precipitously soon after. Messori seems to think the 1980s were characterized by rampant clerical abuse, but as soon as 1985 the total number of allegations had dropped by half. And by 1990 the total fell by another 50 percent. There's a similar distribution when it comes to the year alleged abuse began. A large proportion of alleged abuse began between the early 1960s and the early '80s. By the mid-'80s the totals fell dramatically.

It's bizarre enough that Messori would assert that there was a "liberal spirit...among clergy" during the 1980s. John Paul II was not exactly famous for liberalizing seminaries. But it's even stranger when you consider what that would mean for his analysis: If the seminaries were bursting with gay men eagerly waiting to get into parishes to start abusing, why don't we see huge numbers of abuse allegations "in the successive decade," as Messori says? Instead, John Jay found that throughout the '90s alleged incidents of abuse didn't break the century mark. By the late '90s they totaled fewer than fifty a year.

So what gives? Did Messori say the '80s when he meant the '60s? Maybe, but even if he misspoke, his claims about the causes of the crisis still don't withstand scrutiny. The lead researcher for John Jay rejects the idea that her "Causes and Context" study, which was released in 2010, blamed the sexual-abuse crisis on the "swinging '60s."

Sounding a lot like Bill Donohue, Messori asserts that "all of this has a basis in homoeroticism." But John Jay researchers have been clear about that too: their study does not support the claim that homosexuality is a predictor of abuse. Messori might counter with Donohue's favorite fact about the scandal: 81 percent of the victims in the United States were male. But, as I've explained before, that statistic does not by itself prove that the scandal was, as Donohue frequently alleges, "a gay problem."

John Jay did not measure the pubescence of victims. It collected two sets of data about victims. One found that nearly 73 percent of victims were 14 or younger, and another found that 60 percent were 13 or younger. The DSM-IV defines pedophilia as the recurrent sexual desire for prepubescent children "generally aged thirteen or younger." And according to the American Pediatric Society, the onset of puberty in males usually occurs between the ages of ten and fourteen. Add to that the fact that, according to John Jay's research, just 3.4 percent of all credibly accused U.S. priests were responsible for more than one-quarter of all abuse allegations, and it becomes clear that the Catholic Church's sexual-abuse crisis cannot be easily or accurately described as "based in homoeroticism."

Messori seems to sense that such an explanation might not be welcomed by all his readers. So he adds: "That is a datum of fact, not a prejudice." Whether Messori is trafficking in prejudice, I can't say. But his comments make it clear that whatever has shaped his interpretation of the sexual-abuse crisis, it isn't terribly factual.

* This sentence has been corrected. The original version erroneously stated that the report claimed .08 percent of abuses cases handled by the Vatican involved pedophilia.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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Thanks for correcting the ignorance of folks such as Bill Donohue - not sure who is channeling who in this post.

Francis and 2% - which means what?  Is talking about a 50 year period of time; is he talking about right now?  To be honest, any percentage would be a guestimate, at best.  What the available data indicates is that abuse rates and numbers vary wildly from diocese to diocese.

For example; if you take the 25 year period of the LA Settlement, you have an average rate of close to 6% (and some ordination classes were running close to 15%).  And, of course, religious order priests, foreign priests, etc. impact these percentages.  You have some notorious dioceses and abbeys - e.g. St. Paul-Minneapolis; Boston, LA, Joliet (whose average is about 15% and whose time period goes right up until now); St. John's Abbey, Conception Abbey, etc.

Love Messori's comment about wives - he obviously has no experience in this area and when a mother suspects abuse;  the same goes for a father.  Celiibacy, in fact, removes a priest from human concerns; the feelings of fatherhood/motherhood; etc. 

Finally, citing the John Jay Study is nice but the Study is based upon results that are reported by dioceses - two significant realities make any projection from John Jay suspect:

- self reporting dioceses - just look at what is going on currently in Minneapolis/St. Paul.....the self reported numbers are not valid or are only part of the story

- even if the numbers were accurate, experts acknowledge that only about 50% of all abuse is reported.

Thus, any guestimate such as 2% is really meaningless.

What can we say? Reports of abuse dropped way off in the 80's and 90's. Maybe better psychological screening and saying good-bye to not-so-good men (Thanks, Michael Rose) helped a good bit.

We can't really say abuse increased through the 50's and 60's. JJ got a bell curve because it took a snapshot. Fewer people reported abuse from before the 60's because they weren't alive to speak up.

Abuse is quite often a crime of opportunity. All-boys' schools and altar server cadres lead to mostly males getting abused. Could have been happening even more before Vatican II, all those seminaries from grade 8 on.

Honestly? I thought 2% was a bit low.

As you indicate, the Vatican once before had to issue a clarificiation about an ealier so-called interview conducted by Eugenio Scalfari.

In light of that earlier problem, why didn't Pope Francis stipulate that Scalfari would be required to tape record the second interview and check any statements he attributed to the pope against the tape recording? Perhaps the pope could also insist on being given a copy of the tape recording.

I think that 2% is an underestimate.


Abuse is not about sex.  It's about power.  I expect that culture of clericalist power was worse in the pre-Vatican II Church.  Modern feminism and emphasis on human rights seems to have reduced it.


God Bless

There may be something to the assertion that homosexuals found it easier to enter in the 80's. Which does not contradict that some homosexuals were inclined to enter before that period.  If both are true that would mean that those who entered after the 80's were more careful not to seduce youngsters Or were closely  monitored. It seems that after the 80's gays were more open about it withing the clergy and religious communities. Though not with the public. The fact that this occurred after  JPII was elected may not be meaningful since Rome usually takes Rome a long time to see what is happening in the field. Take all the gays who seem to be in the Curia. How did that happen? Finally, we know many gay clergy and bishops left after the floods of 1968. But has there ever been a study about  how many gays left compared to heteros? My sense is that more heteros left.  



Why are folks still referencing the John Jay Study?  There are a whole host of problems with the JJS:  

  • The methodology employed has no scientific reliability or validity - that is satisticalleze for "crappy data in, crappy data out."  [For example, the hierarchs prevented any survivors from being interviewed for the study - go figure!]
  • Inferential conclusions can't be construed from the data because the methodology is so skewed [such as "celibacy had nothing to do with it"]. 
  • The hierarchs prescripted the results to conform to their own radical ideology [After all, they paid a lot of money for the study, so they should get what they paid for, right?  Remember they essentially blamed the sexual abuse and exploitation on the sex, drugs & rock'n roll culture of the 60s.]
  • There are a multitude of reasons why the JJS hasn't been published in a peer-reviewed journal.  

There are more, but so little time ... Please, let's all stipulate that the John Jay Study is nothing more than a historical footnote in the hierarchs long-term campaign to obfuscate any of their own responsibility for the greatest scandal to rock the church since the crusades and Inquisition.

I find the discussion about the "2%" weirdly funny.  The scientific literature tells us that for every one survivor who comes forward with their stories of abuse, there are six-seven more in the silent shadows.  That tells me that most of these estimates by self-serving church officials and hierarchs are woefully underestimated.  Just do the math.

The so-called wave of abuse from the 1950s into the 1980s could be more attributed to the demographic changes that rocked the Catholic priesthood from the post-WW2 period until the end of Vatican2 papacies of John23 & Paul6.  Thousands of men abandoned the priesthood for a myriad of reasons.  The publishing of Humane Vitae marks the turn over the cliff and into the abyss.  The institution of the priesthood has never recovered to where we are now witnessing its slow-motion implosion as more and more priests and bishops age and die-off.

The seemingly precipitous drop in the incidence of sexual abuse and exploitation, IMO, is more an artifact of historical confounds.  The whole cohort of priests and bishops as a class are aging and we know that criminal behavior generally decreases inversely with the age of the perpetrator.  Generally most violent criminal behavior is committed by men between the ages of 18-40, and then it drops-off precipitously - some speculate that it has something to do with testosterone levels dropping?

I assume [as do a lot of researchers, like the late Andrew Greeley] that most priests today are gay, although it is hard to determine how many are sexually active [my guess is that given the aging of the priesthood, this number is also dropping?].  I stipulate this factor because, as has already been written above, sexual abuse and exploitation is not about sexuality.  It is much more about power and domination.

The culture of the Catholic priesthood is such that it supports an all-male political hegemony over the rest of the church.  The wanton sexual abuse and exploitation of children by Catholic priests occurred mainly because of opportunity - and sadly too many clerics exploited their opportunities to assault with impunity.

What a whirlwind of contradictory and speculative statistics, and there seems to be no way of getting a reliable picture. 

Do stats really matter - isn't it just another version of talking the talk but failing to walk the walk.  And, face it, even if some were reliable, the real issue is episcopal responsibility, accountability, and actual impact if a bishop fails to protect children.

Yet--the JJS is the best data we have. Granted the methodological flaws, still, much can be learned, especially if one employs a "hermeneutic of suspicion" about possible intentional skewing of data.

E.g., the study is clear that homosexual men are no more likely to abuse than heterosexual men. The magisterial witchhunt for homosexual men would make them the perfect scapegoats if the data could be skewed to support that. 

Also, the vast differential in percentage of priests implicated in different dioceses is intriguing. Some dioceses had many multiples of the average number of priests accused. It can't be merely honesty on the part of the high-abuse dioceses, because (if memory serves,) some reported 10% or higher, a figure that could not be true across dioceses without a far greater number of lawsuits once the flood started. 

One glaring statistical point is missing: if something like 4% of US priests were credibly accused of abuse, how does this compare to men generally? (Comparing to people generally, a tack often taken in the press, is apples to oranges--sex abuse is overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, a man's crime.) When people say "priests are no worse than everybody else," where's the data? We can't say if they are or are not. An answer to that question would have important ramifications for priestly formation, istm. 

42% of abusers were "generalists," not exclusively attracted to young or older minors, a statistic that serves no ideological camp as far as I can tell. SInce true pedophilia is clinically different from attraction to older children, what are we to make of the fact that this many abusers would attack whoever they could get their hands on? For example, men who abuse only teens are often treatable--are the generalist abusers treatable? Is there data? This is important: when normal non-pedophiles experience sexual hunger to a degree that they misbehave, they don't somehow start being attracted to little kids. Porn, prostitutes (of either sex), even teens who are available, yes, but generally not little kids. Are generalist abusers more like pedophiles or more like ephebophiles? 

The shift to a strongly post-pubescent male victim demographic over time also needs unpacking. Since homosexuality itself is not correlated with abuse, what's a better explanation? I can think of a number of possibilities, including, e.g., greater willingness of boys abused as teens to call it abuse instead of a flaw in themselves in recent decades compared to further back.

So, sure, better data is needed, and truly independent data. Know any bishops who are really ready to call for opening the files all across the US? Not just to say "my diocese is an open book," but "all dioceses should provide full access to their records"? Nope. Didn't think so. 

Know any bishops who are really ready to call for opening the files all across the US?

Unless the powers that be are willing to exempt them and their dioceses from lawsuits, they never will be willingly forthcoming with their data.  Ironically, the risk of re-opening closed windows of statutes of limitations makes it less likely that they will share even records of incidents that are older than the legal limits.  






Why are folks still referencing the John Jay Study?

I wonder that, too.  

Because it's the best available. And without any data, folks will say: "What a whirlwind of contradictory and speculative statistics, and there seems to be no way of getting a reliable picture." 

And many, (though not J. O'L, I presume,) will use that as grounds to say "See, everything's fine and we don't need to address anything about the way priests are selected and trained," etc. etc. 

What a whirlwind of contradictory and speculative statistics, and there seems to be no way of getting a reliable picture


Oh dear....said with all the sincerity of Phil Hartman's "unfrozen caveman lawyer"

@ Lisa Fullam: The JJS is not "the best available." It would be really intellectually dishonest and scientifically lazy if Catholics use the JJS study as their touchstone, even if this is just blog-talk.

You're correct in the sense that there is generally a dearth of scientific investigation in this whole area of child sexual abuse and exploitation. Research in this area, especially for atypical sexual behaviors, is really in its infancy.

IMO, the most cogent researcher to come along so far is Martin Kafka, a psychiatrist at Harvard. He was the only American on a panel commissioned by the Catholic Church to prepare a report on sexual abuse cases among Catholic priests. He was featured in the PBS Frontline investigation, Secrets of the Vatican.

Kafka appears to be on the right track, and he is also doing some interesting research in the treatment of hypersexuality that may ultimately give us alternatives to just the incarceration of perpetrators.

Of course, Kafka must have set the teeth of the Vatican hierarchs on edge with statements like this: "Catholic clerical education and socialization could be associated with an increased risk of expressing or experimenting with socially immature but aberrant sexual behaviors." That is a dagger pointed directly at the clerical culture within and the clerical political hegemony over the Catholic Church.

Hi Jim,

Do you have links or references? Would love to read Kafka on this. (Interested in his sources, too--did he have access to diocesan files, or is his material more clinical, like Sipes'?) I saw "Secrets of the Vatican," but want to read his  own material. If not, I'll Google-scholar him, but thought I'd start where you point me if there's a particularly useful piece. 


I think overly fixating on statistics is a blind alley and leads to analysis paralysis. I think that by now we can safely assume that incidents of sexual abuse/misconduct are significantly higher in the Catholic church than anywhere else. I suspect this is what the pope was getting at and tossed out a number which speaks to the significance of the issue.

And Jim is right that clear data is going to be difficult. Much of the information is case based analysis but that is not all bad either. Afterall, that was what Freud did! And it is a legitimate way to proceed. At the same time, that does not mean the church needs to be paralyzed from action.

I think that Kafka is on to something. I, personally, lean to cultural and psycho-educational factors. There really needs to be some critical, self-examination. I agreed with Benedict and those who say that we are shaped by liturgy and participation in it which is why I am troubled by the increasing return to Tridentine forms of worship along with translations that reinforce unhealthy and innacurate clericalism (e.g. my sacrifice and yours). You mean that there are two qualitatively different types of sacrifice? I thought Jesus was the high priest.

"Because it's the best available."

I guess the most shocking thing about the Report is that the John Jay College of Criminal Justice agreed to go along with it.  

If one of their doctoral candidates submitted a dissertation like it, would s/he get be awarded a degree?


I only know of Martin Kafka from his published works - never been able to catch him at any symposia.  I don't think he has published any books intended for the general public - I could be wrong about that. Here is a limited selected bibliography that I'm aware of.  I'm sure there must be more.  Pretty clinical stuff:


  • Kafka MP (1991). Successful antidepressant treatment of nonparaphilic sexual addictions and paraphilias in men. Clin Psychiatry 1991 Feb;52(2):60-5.
  • Kafka MP, Prentky RA (1992). Fluoxetine treatment of nonparaphilic sexual addictions and paraphilias in men. J Clin Psychiatry 1992 Oct;53(10):351-8.
  • Kafka MP, Prentky RA (1992). A comparative study of nonparaphilic sexual addictions and paraphilias in men. J Clin Psychiatry 1992 Oct;53(10):345-50.
  • Kafka MP, Prentky RA (1994). Sertraline pharmacotherapy for paraphilias and paraphilia-related disorders: an open trial. Ann Clin Psychiatry 1994 Sep;6(3):189-95.
  • Kafka MP, Prentky RA (1994). Preliminary observations of DSM-III-R axis I comorbidity in men with paraphilias and paraphilia-related disorders. J Clin Psychiatry 1994 Nov;55(11):481-7.
  • Kafka MP (1997). A Monoamine Hypothesis for the Pathophysiology of Paraphilic Disorders. Archives of Sexual Behavior Volume 26, Number 4, August 1997, pp. 343–358(16).
  • Kafka MP (1997). Hypersexual desire in males: an operational definition and clinical implications for males with paraphilias and paraphilia-related disorders. Archives of Sexual Behavior 1997 Oct;26(5):505-26.
  • Kafka MP, Prentky RA (1998). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in males with paraphilias and paraphilia-related disorders: a comorbidity study. J Clin Psychiatry. 1998 Jul;59(7):388-96; quiz 397.
  • Kafka MP, Hennen J (2002). A DSM-IV Axis I comorbidity study of males (n= 120) with paraphilias and paraphilia-related disorders. Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment. Volume 14, Number 4, October 2002, pp. 349–366(18).


I think it is very interesting that the Vatican selected Kafka to be on this elite scientific panel back somewhere about 2004 from what I can tell.  But, the hierarchy seems to be very shy about promoting his contributions to the panel.  Why?

Why have we never heard from or about the entire panel?  What were the conclusions of this panel?  What was their provenance?  Why is the Vatican being so mum about the recommendations of the panel? 

I found out about this panel and its work by reading Frank Bruni in the NYTimes when I still chaired the SF review board.  Like what the hierarchs do whenever they don't like the conclusions or recommendations of any of their consultors, they must have just buried it hoping that no one would notice.

The first time I actually saw Martin Kafka and heard him speak was on the Frontline Secrets of the Vatican.  Anyone who appeared in that documentary I'm sure was banned from the Vatican Christmas card list.

My experience tells me that anything that the hierarchs find assaultive to their dominant ideology about the supremacy of the clergy in the Catholic Church is to be opposed and surpressed.

Unsurprisingly, Jim Jenkins acclaims as the most cogent researcher on pedophilies someone who seems to reliy entirely on drugs. I noticed utter rage against Freud and Lacan from Bill de Haas. In short an antihumanist materialist positivism seems to be their answer to human problems.

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