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Understanding the demographics of the predatory priest problem

While some deny a same-sex predation problem among priests, the Grand Jury Report reflects similar demographic data as the John Jay Study of nearly 15 years ago.

A woman holds this sign as members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) hold a news conference in front of the Diocese of Pittsburgh Aug. 20 several days after a Pennsylvania grand jury released a stinging report that said more than 300 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children during the course of several decades. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Faithful Catholics were still reeling from last month’s revelations of homosexual predatory behavior by former-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick when the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report released the names and the graphic allegations of sexual assault and harassment by more than 300 clergy and lay leaders in the archdiocese. For some, it seemed like the reappearance of the same scandal that started in Boston in 2002 when pedophile priest Father John J. Goeghan was convicted and sentenced to prison for sexually assaulting a ten year-old boy. To many, it seemed that we had learned nothing.

In 2002, enamored with the alliterative phrase “pedophile priest,” some media outlets—like the Boston Globe—refused to acknowledge that that scandal, like the current scandal, was primarily a scandal surrounding homosexual predation. Those of us who tried to help people understand this scandal in 2002—by pointing out the demographics of the predation—were labeled homophobic. As a member of San Diego Bishop Robert Brom’s Advisory Board on Sexual Abuse from 2002-2006, I was often invited to provide a sociological overview of the demographics of the sexual abuse scandal. In an attempt to educate a panicked public on the real data of predator priests, I published op-eds in the San Diego Union-Tribune titled “The Myth of the Pedophile Priest” and “The Postmodern Pedophile.” Many other newspapers reprinted the op-eds but it seemed that few people—including those on my own campus at the University of San Diego—wanted to see the data.

Some blamed the messenger. Following a presentation replete with PowerPoint data on the demographics of the abuse—on my own campus—a group of gay advocates from off campus followed me to my office and refused to leave until I would agree to stop “blaming gays” for the scandal. They left when I was finally able to call campus security.

While I did not stop writing about the predatory priest problem, it began to be clear to me that we were in the middle of a moral panic. And like all moral panics, this panic was promoted by those who had much to gain by keeping the panic alive. Some have called for “solutions” which most often involve radical changes to the priesthood—everything from the ordination of women to the elimination of priestly celibacy. Once seen as the foundation of spiritual commitment and sacrifice that a young seminarian makes in his quest for holiness, celibacy is viewed by progressives as a form of deviance in an age of sexual liberation—a “cause” of deviant sexual behavior.

The truth is that celibacy has nothing to do with the kind of predatory homosexual behavior we see in the current Grand Jury Report of 2018, or in the John Jay Report of 2004. The John Jay study, which was commissioned by the USCCB, found that 19 percent of the more than 4,000 victims of predatory priests were female; 81 percent of cases of clergy sexual abuse involved priests and male victims. According to the John Jay study (see page 6 for the summary of demographics) the largest group (50.9 percent) of victims were between the ages of 11-14; 27 percent were between 15-17 years old; 16 percent were between 8-10 years old; and 6 percent of all victims were under 7. According to the John Jay Report, this was not a “pedophile priest” scandal, because the vast majority of cases involved post-pubescent males; it was a scandal of same-sex predation, though few wanted to acknowledge this.

However, the culture has changed, and today more are saying what many of us tried—somewhat unsuccessfully—to say in 2002 about the homosexual culture that has emerged in our seminaries, chanceries, and parishes.

Understanding the real causes of predatory behavior

Since the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, a number of bishops have decried what Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin has called the “depravity of sinners within the Church.” Bishop Morlino stated clearly: “There has been a great deal of effort to keep separate acts which fall under the category of now-culturally-acceptable acts of homosexuality from the publicly deplorable acts of pedophilia.” Acknowledging the role that homosexuality has played in the current scandal, Bishop Morlino wrote: “It is time to be honest that the problems are both and they are more.”

While critics of the Church continue to deny a same-sex predation problem among priests, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury 2018 data reflect very similar demographic data as the John Jay Study of nearly 15 years ago.

According to this analysis of the grand jury report, 74 percent of the predator priests mentioned in the Grand Jury Report abused male victims, and 23 percent abused female victims. Of the instances of same-sex predation, 11 percent involved true pedophilia (involving a pre-pubescent child); 60 percent involved a teenage boy; and 2 percent involved an adult. In total, 189 priests abused male victims and 58 priests abused female victims.

While the data are indeed depressing, the far more disturbing pages of the Grand Jury Report are the anecdotal stories and the plaintive letters written by victims, victims’ families, or teachers who tried to report the sexual abuse they learned about. On page 187 of the Grand Jury Report, there is a letter from a former teacher who wrote to Bishop Datillo of the Harrisburg diocese to complain of an ongoing pattern of horrific homosexual abuse by Father Joseph Pease, a priest at the high school. The exasperated teacher describes the problem, claiming that the identified priest was known by students as a “known pedophile” and homosexual who had been “bailed out by the bishop.” The letter-writer claimed that the identified priest had been arrested and asked the bishop, “Don’t you people keep records on these things?” The teacher’s letter to the bishop concluded with the plaintive: “You have done enough harm to the good people of the coal regions.” The letter was co-signed by “concerned parents and grandparents of the region.” Unfortunately, the Grand Jury Reports on page 189-190 that nothing was done for many years because the chancery staff worried that the information was based on “unsubstantiated rumors.” Eventually Father Pease was identified by victims themselves and was finally removed—but that was years after the initial contacts were made.

It is likely that such a letter would not go unanswered this time; even the Grand Jury Report acknowledged that the Pennsylvania bishops were indeed making progress in preventing the kinds of abuses of the past.

Unlike in 2002, when it was just a handful of lay Catholics like myself willing to even mention the role homosexual behavior played in the scandal, whose voices were silenced and marginalized as the “rantings” of a small group of homophobes, today we have a number of bishops who have stepped forward and stated clearly that this indeed is a crisis of homosexual predation. This week at Mass at my Connecticut summer parish, a letter to the faithful from Archbishop Leonard Blair of Hartford was read; he decried the “homosexual activity” that is “abhorrent to me and to you.”

There are other signs that there will be attempts to diminish the role of homosexuality in this scandal.   The fact that the dais for the televised press conference for the Grand Jury Report featured 14 female victims of predatory priests and only three male victims was an indication of this. It is likely that prosecutors in the Pennsylvania case worried about offending the gay community. Worse, some bishops have warned against “scapegoating” the homosexual community. Bishop Barron was criticized for downplaying the importance of Catholic sexual morality in his response to the crisis. Now, Bishop Barron has always downplayed sexual morality in his writings, because he understands that sexual morality is not where evangelization needs to begin. But even Bishop Barron knows that in order to “move on,” we have to recognize the source of the problem, and it seems that this time we are actually doing that.

In a hopeful sign, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of the Archdiocese of San Francisco has said he will designate a day in his archdiocese when “together we can make an act of reparation.” We all have a lot for which to atone. I know I have been resentful at times that many Church leaders, and my campus colleagues in San Diego, did not exactly embrace my sociological analysis of the 2002 scandal. Perhaps it is time for us all to try and move beyond our anger and begin to plan our own days of penance and reparation. It is the only way we can possibly hope to rebuild the trust within our Church.


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About Anne Hendershott 85 Articles
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).

19 Comments

  1. The demographics were good. The ending request (is there a memo to Catholic writers by usccb email) that we all do reparations was another weirdo moment to digest. If we all feel guilty, we won’t join the no donations boycott…etc …I guess. Nineveh citizens all did reparations because they all sinned. Rahab was spared death in the Jericho herem because she had faith. You’ll notice Christ and the 11 did not fast and pray for Judas on the night of his betrayal. They ate the Passover supper.

    • Yup, I have many sins.
      But none involve homosexual sex with subordinates, or anyone.
      This is a homosexual bishop, homosexual priest problem.
      It is not an “all of us” problem. No way.

      • I agree with you. These priests have committed crimes. I don’t understand why someone would go to another priest, bishop to make a complaint of sexual abuse. The first place to go is the police department and let them investigate and then prosecute if warranted. Having the church investigate is like having a mommy investigate their child. That is why states and counties have chid protective services. They investigate objectively.
        It angers me that the church continues to pay for housing, food, medical care for a priest found guilty of sexual abuse. What place of employment fires someone and then pays for his ongoing living expenses! These perverts are in the wrong profession let alone a vocation. Kick them out and let them fend for themselves. Never should they sit at the same table with their victims.
        The laity doesn’t need to make reparations. The bishops, priests etc. should make reparations. They are the problem and if any of you think that this problem didn’t start at the top and don’t change that…nothing will change. We should storm a church that harbors a pervert and yank him out into the streets. The pervert needs to seek forgiveness and find a new job if he not in jail.

        • Rita,
          You hit on a piece of the puzzle that actually attracts these men to the priesthood. It is almost impossible to get fired…and no one is quantifying your work record. I worked for civil service for one year out of college in Manhattan in the welfare department. One girl came in almost everyday about one to two hours late. Others from other units also did similar. Many made no home visits but wrote them up as though they went to the home. You couldn’t get fired there. Later I worked in corporate full commission only. People were getting fired every several months. Men who know they are probably going to do the criminal thing someday…are drawn to the Jurassic mercy of a Church that needs priests. Our clergy system is similar to civil service in that it is a safe place for serious sinners and no one can quantify whether you worked hard that week…and your job is safe…like a child is safe with his parents. I will bet that Trappists get no criminal types…because they do hard farm work. Merton went off the rails precisely by not being forced to work the farm hard in light of his author ability.

    • Spot on about the reparations for all critique. Hendershott used to be an accurate shot.

      I think there was another memo that went out in the 2000s to use the term ephebo… thus blowing smoke over the homosex problem.

      • Homosexual ephebophilia is an accurate clinical description of the overwhelming majority of the abuse that occurs. It’s appropriate to use that description as opposed to pedophilia which is an altogether different intrinsically disordered sexual deviancy. People who attempt to dismiss these crimes as pedophilia by referring to “children victims” are nothing but homosexual apologists.

  2. Living Bishops involved in the 2002-04 cases investigated by the Review Board must be investigated, using financial audits and law enforcement investigations, and Bishops who were negligent or criminally negligent or criminally culpable must be stripped of rank and priestly faculties.

    Anything less is pretense.

    • @Chris in Maryland, I agree with you. In fact, all bishops, provincials, and chancery officials complicit in covering up and further enabling sexual abuse and sexual harassment should resign. Basically, there was no excuse after 1993 by which time no informed cleric could pretend to not understand the nature and gravity of the problem even as businesses, government agencies, and non-profit organizations in the wider society had been by that time expected to reform their policies.

      It is not acceptable either that ALL of the resources and sacrificial giving of generations of lay faithful that have been put into their respective parishes, schools, and diocesan ministries be spent on monster-sized financial settlements to victims. It is unjust that the laity should bear all the cost of what was done by certain clerics without their knowledge or consent (or be expected to dig even deeper into their pockets now). Victims should, of course, receive what they need for treatment services PLUS compensation sums that do not exceed the resources of said institutions (taken and divvied up from a fund of the type set up for class action lawsuits). To make up for or substitute for the balance of what would have been even heftier financial claims, the decision-makers (bishops, provincials, and chancery officials) responsible for damaging the lives of the victims must resign and/or serve prison time. This is what the lay faithful should push for (hopefully with the backing of at least a few, bold courageous bishops). This is what Rome needs to hear and act on. To argue in favor of total or near total financial depletion is to side with the kind of person who goes beyond justice to demand to take the hard-earned pensions of career line workers instead of taking other assets that are fairer game PLUS the forced resignation of the CEO who authorized the unsafe product features that became the basis of a class action law suit. Such CEOs (bishops, etc.) should pay a personal price as a part of justice due rather than allow everything to be taken away from the line workers (laity) who had nothing to do with the criminal decision-making. If we do this, we will be ahead of the curve in the practice of true justice, because corporate America still protects irresponsible CEOs and even gives them golden parachutes while throwing line workers and stock-holders under the bus when legitimate grievances go to court. We can, and should, do better.

      One more thing: There needs to be a change in the language of canon law to stop referring to the defrocking of priests as laicization or as a “reduction to the lay state”. This does not respect the dignity of the laity as fellow believers & missionaries in Jesus Christ or the common priesthood. Instead, a new category should be created, perhaps called the penitential state and those rightly belonging to that group may be referred to as penitentials. If properly convicted, refusal to accept this penitential status (including reasonable and just restrictions like a felon on parole) should result in excommunication.

  3. The hierarchy needs to admit a homosexuality problem. The laity needs to admit a fornication/contraception/sterilization problem. I’m not sure either group is going to budge, so I doubt that prayer, fasting, and making reparations will work.

  4. “Will work” seems awfully mechanistic as an expression of how our acts of penance are seen by God. Grace is a mysterious thing, and His ways are high above yours and mine, so I will do the acts of reparation and offer them to Him without worrying about whether I, in my limited human knowledge, think they will “work” or not. I agree with your other two points, though, about admitting these problems.

  5. Though the letter of Bishop Montforton (Steubenville Diocese) is admirable in many respects, he too fails to mention homosexuality, or even that sexual molestation of juveniles is the principle nature of the debauchery. He refers only to “predatory actions.” This kind of vagueness excuses and provides cover for quite a lot, especially the active homosexual priest who is at the root of the problem. We are a long way from dealing truthfully with the crisis.

  6. in 1962, Fr. William McNamara wrote, “To date, the biggest hole in our educational system is the failure to convey to young students a meaningful, vital awareness of Christ. This conclusion is the result of years of experience, during which Catholic high school and college students and adults in all part of the country were examined as to their impressions and knowledge of Christ and as to the part He played in their lives. The general response was not good.” I f someone does not have an intimate relationship with Our Lord he will seek intimacy elsewhere.

  7. I want to see first a public apology from McCarrick and the bishops or Cardinsls who covered up allegations as well as a USSB declaration that many of the victims were from homosexual predator priests or bishops. They should be the ones publicly acknowledging this and doing reparation as they are supposed to be our Shephards. We did not appoint them either nor vote for them. Yes, we need to repent of our sins and pray for them but they’re ignoring the elephant in the room. My sympathy is not for them but for the mostly male victims, especially seminarians.

  8. How about restoring the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel at the end of Mass, together with the threefold invocation of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Leo XIII knew what he was doing when he prescribed it after the vision he had of what was to come after him. At least this would fulfill the “prayer” part of what many are calling for.

  9. Rev. Seid makes a very good point regarding laicization of the offending priests. The term is not respectful of the dignity of the laity and should be changed.

  10. >I wish the author would have taken into account the critical analysis of the PA Grand Jury report done by Bill Donahue of the Catholic League both in the League website and on Raymond Arroyo’s The World Over Report. There is also another critical analysis of the same report which coincides with Donahue’s analysis, in ww.themediareport.com AG Shapiro is pro LGBTI. This report defames both dead and living priests and those who are living have had no opportunity to defend themselves against the accusations many of which are false and this is contrary to the fundamental right to due process and a proper defense. One priest who was born in 1892 was falsely accused in 1944 several times and he was able to clear his name. Others who are still alive and who have proved their innocence are also included in this report.
    SNAP is a wicked hate group which has done untold damages to innocent priests and has been getting its money from lawyers who have been filling their pockets thanks to the mass settlements that have been made by the bishops. The two who used to run it has resigned due to a lawsuit against them by former employees. BishopsAcountability is a similar hate group which also maintains a website with the names of innocent. Of course, what is even worse is the fact that many dioceses publish names of so-called “credible” accusations against priests which only means that they are not outrageous. This is a serious sin of defamation by the bishops against their own priests. There is a communication by the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts (which has the force of law) which permits this type of publication only in the case of the gravest offenders whose crimes have been proven in courts. No corporation or government agency publishes such lists. See the Catechism 2477 on the sin of defamation. The fact is that the vast majority of the accusations against priests are 20, 30 or 40 years old. The PA report goes back to 1930. Bill Donahue argues rightly that the bishops should refuse to hand over such information if they don’t agree to do the same with other groups such as the Public Schools, Protestant, Jewish and other schools, otherwise there is no such thing as a level playfield and the myth that sexual abuse of minors is a Catholic problem. It would appear just that only when there is a definitive sentence should such information be published. For pointing out facts similar to those mentioned by Donahue on EWTN on comment sections of the website, I have been called “a predator gay priest”s and other nasty things by so-called conservative Catholics. It seems that no reasonable dialogue or discussion can be held on this matter. Where is the clericalism considered by Pope Francis and Cardinal Cupich to be the cause of the present rage common to both liberal and conservative Catholics? I don’t see it. It is fair game for many conservative Catholics to defame Cardinal Wuerl who has been maligned by the said PA GJ report. Some are writing to the Attorney General calling for an investigation based on anti-mob laws (RICO). They seem to see the Catholic Church as a criminal enterprise. Others are talking about a “lay revolution”. I suppose that would be another “paradigm shift”, not the same as the one mentioned by Cardinal Parolin.

    • I, too, find it troubling that the names of accused people are being published and that without a trial guilt is assumed forthwith. I have the same problem with the “me, too” movement. If anyone says, “Oh, a woman would never lie about something like that!” or “Oh, a child would never lie about something like that!” he’s deluded. They would; they do. That’s why there must be an investigation and a trial.

      “Bill Donahue argues rightly that the bishops should refuse to hand over such information if they don’t agree to do the same with other groups such as the Public Schools, Protestant, Jewish and other schools”

      Not just schools; churches, hospitals, the Scouts (oh, no, wait, I forgot, we’re supposed to be delighted that the no-longer-Boy Scouts now accept homosexual troop leaders), juvenile detention homes, camps…

      In another comment, above, Rita wrote that if someone is accused of something he needs to be investigated by the police, not the Church. She’s quite right; they are the ones with the expertise and the technical equipment to investigate.

  11. Since the mainstream media rarely, if ever, criticizes homosexual behavior, the alliterative “pedophile priest” term became the go-to catch phrase for the whole sordid mess. Thus, the perpetrators could continue, since they weren’t targeting “children”.

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