Newsweek: Priests Abuse at Same Rate as Non-Priests?

Newsweek (hat tip to Hot Air) writes, “The priesthood is being cast as the refuge of pederasts. In fact, priests seem to abuse children at the same rate as everyone else.”

People have known since Peter’s days that some Catholic priests did not take their vows of celibacy seriously. Holiness wasn’t the only reason that some women got themselves to a nunnery. I recall my paternal grandfather warning me not to be an altar boy because I ran the risk of being “diddled.” He said this to me in crowd of adults who laughed knowingly at his witticism.

Yet focus over the last decade has been intense on the appalling sexual abuses by Catholic priests, as if these abuses were part of an increasing epidemic. Make no mistake: each of these men who did the deed deserves maximum punishment.

When they can be found, that is. The Church did itself great harm by covering up its crimes. Forgiveness is fine, and is the primary role of Catholicism, but washing away sins does not excuse anybody from taking their Earthly medicine. Do the crime, do the time, priest or no.

We expect that priests who have had advanced training in theoretical sanctimony should have more practical experience in it than the common man. So when a priest (or politician) strays it is a worse crime than when a civilian does. We demand more of our religious and civil leaders. They claim to be better than us, so they damn well ought to demonstrate it.

So a large chunk of the public attention on the priesthood has been fair game. But not necessarily all of it. The way you read of it in the New York Times, for example, it is as if abuse were a central tenet of the Catholic catechism. Naturally, the Times’s hostility to religion, and its miserable petulance when its reporters realize that their pleas for Catholicism to change its tenets go unheeded play a large role in its scathing coverage.

But rarely is it asked how unusual is the frequency of abuse by priests: are priests abusing at higher rates than civilians? Newsweek has asked it, and has found various “experts” who say, no, the rate among priests is same as with other men.

The “experts” is in scare quotes for good reason, as we shall see. However, there is at least one set of experts that don’t need them: insurance companies.

Since the mid-1980s, insurance companies have offered sexual misconduct coverage as a rider on liability insurance, and their own studies indicate that Catholic churches are not higher risk than other congregations. Insurance companies that cover all denominations, such as Guide One Center for Risk Management, which has more than 40,000 church clients, does not charge Catholic churches higher premiums.

Being Catholic doesn’t increase premiums, but “the more children’s programs a church has, the more expensive its insurance.” Since these companies would go belly up if they miss-estimated their probabilities, they have excellent incentive to get them right. That is, they are generally trustworthy.

How about academic studies (and the reason for scare quotes)? John Jay College—an institute that specializes in criminal justice—looked from 1950 to 1992 and found “that about 4 percent of the 110,000 priests active during those years had been accused of sexual misconduct involving children.” Abuse was defined as everything from “‘sexual talk’ to rape.”

The later is pure evil, but “talk”? Would a priest who shoved a choirboy while yelling, “Hey, kid, get your kiester outta my way!” be guilty of abuse? Anyway, that “4 percent” is probably a reasonable upper limit on the frequency of abuse.

Yet Ernie Allen, male president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, says, “a conservative estimate is one in 10.” Conservative? That’s already two-and-a-half times higher than John Jay’s number.

Margaret Leland Smith, a female researcher also at John Jay, says that “her review of the numbers indicates it’s closer to one in 5.” One in 5! But wait, there’s more. She says that even “those numbers may be low; research suggests that only a third of abuse cases are ever reported (making it the most underreported crime).”

How she pulled off the miracle of knowing it’s the “most underreported crime” without actually having complete incidence statistics is never made known to us. But either her 1 in 5—or higher!—is ridiculous or her definition of “abuse” is mighty flexible.

One in 5 would mean that, in a typical office of 20 men, there is a 99% chance that at least one abuser skulks, about an 93% chance there are two, and that on average there would be 4 such criminals.

On the basis of this damning evidence, it’s clearly time to start the witch hunts.


  1. Morgan

    “93% chance that at least one abuser skulks”

    Even worse than that, I think (I get 99%). Either way, it’s a bit late to start the witch hunts. The mob left the station years ago, pitchforks and torches in hand.

    Seriously, I find it hard to see the flame-fanning by the media on the pedophile priests issue as motivated strictly by a desire to inform.

  2. Briggs


    Right, dammit. Another typo on my part (in my calculation, not in the text). I’ll fix.

  3. Myron Mesecke

    I attended a Catholic school from 1st to 8th grade and served as an alter boy for many years. Over the years there were routine rotations of Priests. I can think of four or five during that time. I never had any of these Priests approach me in an improper way. None of my fellow alter boys ever told me of any wrong doing either.
    Either we were all ugly unattractive boys or the problem isn’t as bad as some are making it out to be.

  4. dearieme

    One of my cousins attended a Roman Catholic school where they taught hatred of Protestants: no damn nonsense about hate the sin but love the sinner. I suppose that was child abuse too.

  5. Morgan


    I regularly fall foul of that mistake myself, because I let Excel do my binomial calculations, and the “cumulative= true” option works in a way that’s wildly counterintuitive (for me at least).

    By the way, I loved the line “…their pleas for Catholicism to change its tenets go unheeded…”, because it’s so true. I find it very odd – bordering on amusing – to hear people react with shock when some representative of the Church speaks out against, say, abortion. As though that stance is so 1950s, and it’s time the Church caught up with the times.

  6. Briggs


    Tit for tat, I suppose. Perhaps a hangover—the Church is slow moving—from when it was dangerous to be Catholic in England. In the States, we never learned to hate anybody. We did learn guilt real well.

  7. Ah, yes. John Jay College of Criminal Justice. [OUR MOTTO: “Teaching Liberals How To Game The System”] Taking advocacy to the next level. Just for the benefit of the vast multitude of unwashed, of course.

    Agree with Morgan.  Spewed coffee wildly when Matt said:

    …….. miserable petulance when its reporters realize that their pleas for Catholicism to change its tenets go unheeded.”

    Another example of why a daily read of this blog needs to be mandatory.  Just envisioning a NYT clay tablet edition is more than worth the price of admission.

  8. Ari

    Perhaps I’m too far removed from this discussion as a Hebrew to speak with much authority, but it seems to me that the Catholic Church pulled a Toyota: let a problem that was potentially small and manageable become a large debacle through lack of a PR strategy.

    The media loves man bites dog, but they love “man bites dog, tries to hide it, pretends it never happened, and denies it when it first surfaces” a helluva lot more. The best way to dampen the media is to come forward and give them a bunch of press releases.

    Had the Church simply come forward and made even some token gesture of firing some priests, it would have made life easier for them. The media is most excitable when they are presented with the opportunity to let the punditocracy engage in chin wagging. And if you head them off at the pass with a powerful press response, the pundits are defused– and by proxy the media is defused.

  9. Here are a couple of links you might find useful:

    2004 Summary from the Catholic League:

    The full 2002 John Jay Study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Bishops:

    Of particular note in the later is found in Part 2.3, which shows sexual abuse allegations over time. From a peak of almost 800 incidents in 1982, there has been a marked decline in incidents to less than 50 a year in the past 15 years. Since there is often delay in reporting, it may well be that the numbers are sadly a bit higher than this, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve seen an enormous decline in incidents of sexual abuse in the Church even BEFORE the U.S. bishops adopted such stringent measures as the Dallas Charter in response.

    Other data in the study suggests that the hypothesis that the ordination of active homosexuals in the 70s is the real culprit here (the overwhelming majority of these incidents having involved male clergy and teenaged boys).

    It is interesting to see that a more disciplined approach to seminary admissions occasioned during Pope John Paul II’s pontificate seems to have drastically reduced the incidence rate of abuse even though the newly-ordained seminarians might be expected to have higher rates simply on the basis of youth.

    As with all social science, one must of course be careful with conclusions.

    The inexcapable conclusion of the tracking of incidents, however, is that the Church doesn’t have anywhere near the sexual abuse problem it had a generation ago. While the after effects are still painful for Catholics and will never fully abate for the victims of these horrible men who committed these awful crimes, the good news is that the Church is a much safer place for your kids than, say, public schools, where the incidence rates are 100 times higher, where your kids stay longer and our supervised less.

    They might want to look into who is hired as a teacher, if the Catholic experience is consulted.

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