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The Great Myth? Big Abuse in the Catholic Church

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It has been a huge story in the news, you have probably discussed it with your friends or family and you will most likely have a strong opinion about it; Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Let me start by saying that all sexual abuse is wrong and any child abused is one too many. That said, we need to refocus on what is truly happening, our current narrative about abuse in the church is misinformed or even flat out wrong. To prove this point and dismantle the narrative we will take a look at the facts.

Myth 1; Catholic Priests Abuse Children More Than Any Other Group;
There is no empirical data on Catholic priests being more likely to abuse children. We do have a report from an American university that estimates that 4% of the priests have abused a child in the second half of the 20th century. Just to put this number in perspective, the US department of education found that 5 to 7% of public school teachers have sexually abused children within the same time frame. Another study on this issue estimated that 4% of Anglican priests in West Canada abused children. The DSM 5, from the American psychiatric organization reports that roughly 3 to 5% of all men meet the criteria for being diagnosed as a pedophile. When experts were asked to make estimates on what the rates of sexual abuse among the American male population was, the results differed between 1 in 5 and 1 in 10. When we pick data points to compare Catholic priests with other groups, we see they fall between what would be expected if you compare them to a general male population. Only public teachers seem to be more inclined to the sexual abuse of children.

Myth 2; The Vow Of Celibacy Leads To An Increase Of Abuse
As I explained above, there is no empirical data confirming that Catholic priests would be more prone to sexual abuse than other groups. There has been no research confirming that celibacy can lead to pedophilia. There have been researchers claiming that it might create challenges with normal sexual expression but even these researchers have found no link with this and pedophilia. Many anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists like to link celibacy to this unproven theory. They however simply lack any evidence on this topic to prove this. 

Myth 3; The Catholic Church Still Has A Big Abuse Problem
There are people who claim the Catholic Church actively covers up abusing priests and is not taking the problem seriously. While I will not deny unacceptable mistakes have been made and that one could find an anecdote to support this theory, the data clearly does not. Let us first take a look at the situation in America regarding this topic.   

The trend
The Trend

The trend in graph above is clear. While we definitely can acknowledge the peak at the beginning of the graph, there is an explanation for this. During that time when the Church consulted with medical specialists about these cases, advice usually was; “send the abuser to a psychologist and let us rehabilitate him.” At the time, this was a common approach even used within the criminal justice system. This gave the possibility for an abuser to keep committing acts without being stopped. This is important historical context to be aware of when viewing such data. Nowadays this would never be the advice and drastic measures would be taken. The Church currently has an entire charter about this, full of strong and proactive measurements to ensure this will & can happen again. 

Why Is This A Thing?While it is a terribly sad fact that sexual abuse does happen within the Catholic Church, it does not seem to be as disproportionately big like some in the media might want you to believe. Focusing on and exposing abuse is always a righteous activity for a journalist to engage in. However, this disproportionate attention for the abuse within the church leads to less focus on other cases of bigger more systematic abuse. What might we be missing on this topic?  To quote Hofstra University researcher, Charol Shakeshaft;

“Think the Catholic Church has a problem?” she said. “The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”

Charol Shakeshaft

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