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A Perspective on Clergy Sexual Abuse

By Thomas Plante, Ph.D., ABPP
Department of Psychology
Santa Clara University

© 2002 Thomas Plante

Dr. Thomas Plante is a Professor and Chair of Psychology at Santa Clara University as well as a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine. This article appears with his permission; a later version of this article appeared in the San Jose Mercury News, March 24, 2002 Opinion section.

Recent events regarding child sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Boston and elsewhere have yet again resulted in a tremendous amount of media attention and frenzy regarding this topic. There has been a frantic and almost hysterical reaction to the allegations, convictions, and resignations of priest sex offenders. Yet, important available information about this problem is frequently not addressed and many myths about priest sex offenders and their victims abound.

I have edited a book on this topic (Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned: Perspectives on Sexual Abuse Committed by Roman Catholic Priests), have published several professional research studies about priest sex offenders in academic journals, have evaluated about 35 priests or brothers accused of sexually abusing minors, and have consulted with a variety of religious orders and dioceses about this and related problems. I have also evaluated and treated many of the victims. It troubles me that misinformation about this problem still exists. The purpose of this article is to try to set the record straight given the best available data.

First, the available research suggests that approximately 2 to 5% of priests have had a sexual experience with a minor (i.e., anyone under the age of 18). There are approximately 60,000 active and inactive priests and brothers in the United States and thus we estimate that between 1,000 and 3,000 priests have sexually engaged with minors. That's a lot. In fact, that is 3,000 people too many. Any sexual abuse of minors whether perpetrated by priests, other clergy, parents, school teachers, boy-scout leaders or anyone else in whom we entrust our children is horrific. However, although good data is hard to acquire, it appears that this 2 to 5% figure is consistent with male clergy from other religious traditions and is lower than the general adult male population that is best estimated to be closer to 8%. Therefore, the odds that any random Catholic priest would sexually abuse a minor are not likely to be significantly higher than other males in or out of the clergy. Of course we expect better behavior from priests than from the average man on the street. While even one priest who abuses children is a major problem, we need to keep this issue in perspective and remember that the vast majority of priests do not abuse children.

Second, 80 to 90% of all priests who in fact abuse minors have sexually engaged with adolescent boys not prepubescent children. Thus, the teenager is more at risk than the young alter boy or girls of any age. Technically, the vast majority of priest sex offenders are not pedophiles at all but are ephebophiles. This may seem like an irrelevant semantic difference but the implications for prevention and treatment are enormous. Furthermore, this suggests that parents of teenage boys should be more concerned about sexual abuse by priests than parents of girls or prepubescent children of either gender.

Third, the vast majority of priests who sexually abuse minors commit their first offense about a year after ordination. Therefore, one can only assess risk factors for this behavior when evaluating potential applicants to the priesthood. These include being sexually abused themselves as a child or adolescent, social isolation and poor social skills, impulse control problems in general, psychiatric co-morbidity with disorders such as substance abuse, mood and/or personality disorders, and brain damage. However, you cannot screen out men who abuse children unless they have already committed the offense. The vast majority of clergy sex offenders have committed no crime until they complete their seminary training and are ordained.

Fourth, allowing priests to marry will not eliminate this problem. As mentioned earlier, male clergy from other religious traditions also have this problem as well as people who are not clergy at all. Many people who sexually abuse minors are married. Besides, if you could not have sex due to marital discord, the inability to find an appropriate partner, or other reasons, young children would not become the primary object of your desire. Consenting adults would.

Fifth, a high proportion of homosexual priests do not increase the risks of sexual abuse of minors by priests. Sexual orientation does not predict illegal sexual abuse of children and minors in general. Homosexual men are not more likely to engage in illegal sexual behaviors with children and adolescents than heterosexual men.

The Catholic Church has certainly had a history of acting in a highly defensive manner and circling the wagons on this topic. This has made people both inside and outside of the Catholic Church see red. In many cases, they have not treated victims and their families with understanding and compassion. This has made victims and non-victims alike also see red. Individual church leaders have not managed many of these cases very well.

One of the main reasons why this problem has plagued the church is because, unlike most other religious traditions, the checks and balances of having a powerful, influential, and large board of directors who hire, fire, and frequently evaluate clergy performance and behavior has often nipped this problem in the bud. Catholic priests, on the other hand, answer to one religious superior such as a bishop and if that one superior does not manage these issues well (as in the case in Boston) then the virus of sexual abuse can spread resulting in numerous victims. This is what happened in Boston and in most of the cases that have dominated the press. Thus, while there may be the same sexual offending clergy in the various religious traditions, Catholic priests may generate more victims than other clergy.

Most of the cases coming to light today are cases from 20, 30, and even 40 years ago. We did not know much about pedophilia and sexual abuse in general back then. In fact, the vast majority of the research on sexual abuse of minors didn't emerge until the early 1980's. So, it appeared reasonable at the time to treat these men and then return them to their priestly duties. In hindsight, this was a tragic mistake. It has been estimated that 30 years ago about 23% of male psychotherapists have been sexually involved with their clients. Of course this is no longer true today. Thirty years ago we thought that autism was caused by cold and withholding mothers referred to as the "ice box mother." We can't take what we know in 2002 and apply it to problems and decisions made in the 1960's and 1970's.

Furthermore, 30 years ago, most priests entered seminary during high school, did not participate in a comprehensive psychological evaluation prior to admission, and had no training in sexuality, maintaining professional boundaries, and impulse control. Advice regarding dealing with sexual impulses included cold showers and prayer. Today, most applicants to the priesthood are much older (generally in their late 20's or 30's). They often have had satisfying and appropriate intimate relationships before entering the seminary. They have completed a psychological evaluation that specifically examines risk factors for sexual problems. They now get good training in sexuality and issues related to managing sexual impulses. It is not surprising that the majority of the sex-offending priests that we hear about in the press are older. In fact, our research indicates that the average age of these men are 53.

May I suggest that we do as Jesus instructs in the Gospel of Matthew (5:48). "Be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate." The victims most especially need compassion and assistance. They have experienced what no person should have to experience. The priests who have committed these terrible acts must answer to legal and other authorities and be prevented from victimizing additional people. However, these men are ill. About 70% have been sexually abused as children too. Therefore, the majority of clergy sex offenders are also victims of sexual abuse too. Almost all have serious psychiatric disorders such as substance abuse, personality disorders, or mood disorders. Many are indeed horrified by their own behavior. This does not excuse their behavior or make their crime less horrific. However, they need treatment and compassion as well. Finally, the Church has handled these issues very poorly in some areas of the country and very well in other areas of the country. This 2000 year old organization is like a large ship on the sea. It is not nimble and cannot change directions quickly and easily. It is an imperfect system run by imperfect men. I am reminded of Jesus' last words while on the cross according to the Gospel of Luke (23:34), "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Sadly, there is nothing that can erase the pain caused to victims and their loved ones. However, there are clear directions that can help to minimize this problem. First, all applicants to priesthood can participate in a comprehensive psychological evaluation prior to admission to seminary. Sexual abuse risk factors can be examined closely. Second, anyone accused of sexual misbehavior can be immediately put on administrative leave and evaluated by a trained mental health professional. If illegal behavior has occurred then legal authorities should be contacted. Clergy found to have been sexually involved with minors should get treatment and not be allowed to work with children and families again without very close supervision and successful treatment that helps them control (but not likely cure) their impulses. Victims should be treated with respect and compassion and helped to receive appropriate treatment and support. Most religious orders and dioceses do in fact follow these procedures. Sadly, not all do at this time.

The morale among Catholic clergy and laypersons is very low due to this issue. Many rank and file Catholics, priests and family members of priests are terribly distraught. This issue has shaken their trust in the Church as well as their faith. We must avoid the hysteria of the moment and let reason and the best available data prevail and guide us.

Thomas Plante is a Professor and Chair of Psychology at Santa Clara University as well as a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Books by Dr. Plante:

Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned
Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned

Faith and Health
Faith and Health

Contemporary Clinical Psychology
Contemporary Clinical Psychology

Getting Together and Staying Together
Getting Together and Staying Together : The Stanford University Course on Intimate Relationships

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