Sexual Abuse & the Church

What we've learned & what we still don't know


There was a ritual quality to the February 27 release of two studies of the sexual molestation of minors by Catholic clergy. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, voiced remorse and determination to do better. Representatives of victims’ groups issued routine dismissals. Millions of Catholics felt fresh spasms of shame and indignation. All the usual headlines and newscasts. Then on to the Academy Awards. I exaggerate. Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett did a round of television appearances that conveyed at least some sense of the breadth and depth of these reports. As chairman of the research committee of the National Review Board, the twelve-member panel of lay people appointed to monitor implementation of the bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Bennett had directed one of the studies. The other was conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The huge amount of data that the John Jay study gathered from the nation’s dioceses should lay to rest any lingering tendency to minimize the sexual-abuse problem. Between 1950 and 2002, more than 4 percent of the Catholic priests and deacons in ministry were the objects of allegations of sexually abusing minors that church officials considered substantiated. While comparable data for other professions may not exist, one out of every twenty-five members of the clergy is a...

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About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.