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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.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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