The politics of statistics

The National Catholic Reporter's June 16 editorial, "Spin without End in Abuse Scandal," takes issue with the Catholic League's ad on the June 7 New York Times op-ed page. NCR writes:

The clergy sex abuse crisis -- some would have us believe -- is largely about priests taking advantage of or being seduced by older teenage boys. In other words, its a gay thing.

Thats the view of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, as articulated by the groups president William A. Donohue.

Too many sexually active gays have been in the priesthood, and its about time they were routed out, Donohue told Fox News at the height of the scandal. The clergy sex abuse crisis is a homosexual scandal, not a pedophilia scandal, he said on NBCs Today Show.

The line in the Catholic League's ad that NCR finds problematic is this: 81 percent of the victims were male, and most were not little kids--they were post-pubescent (the identical figure was reported in cases found between 1950-2002).

This figure has been used and abused in several quarters as proof that the sexual-abuse scandal is really a gay-priest problem. Those who cite the 81-percent figure in this way typically pair it with some version of the following (from the second link in the last sentence): Since 78 percent of the victims were adolescent (between 11 and 17), this is clearly an issue of homosexuality, not sexual abuse, strictly speaking.

Let's look at what the 2003 John Jay study actually says. From the Executive Summary:

The largest group of alleged victims (50.9%) was between the ages of 11 and 14, 27.3% were 15-17, 16% were 8-10 and nearly 6% were under age 7. Overall, 81% of victims were male and 19% female.

I'm no statistician, nor am I suggesting that homosexuality had nothing to do with any of the abuse, but it strikes me as obvious that the age breakdown as offered by John Jay--not Bill Donohue, Russell Shaw, or ur-Diogenes--complicates the claim that the sexual-abuse scandal is best characterized as a "homosexual scandal."

Do the math. Certainly it's true that 78 percent of the victims were between the ages of 11 and 17. But does it follow that these victims were, as Donohue has it, "not little kids"? If you break the numbers down as John Jay does, you see that 51 percent of victims were between 11 and 14. Is it certain that "most" of those children were postpubescent? The DSM-IV, after all, defines pedophilia as involving sexual activity by an adult with a prepubescent child--13 or younger.

Rather than conflating the groupings in the direction of postpubescence, what if we conflate downward? We get this: 73 percent of all victims were under 14 years of age. Doesn't fit so neatly into the category of "gay problem" now, does it?

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

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