The Scourge of Child Abuse is not a Catholic Phenomenom

Jack Valero, Head of the new group defending the Church in the media, Catholic Voices, has written a piece in The Times. Many columns have been written about the abuse scandals which have made it onto the front page of various newspapers. He asks the pertinent question. When will public attention turn away from the Church on this issue and onto the families and other institutions within which the majority of child abuse takes place? There is great danger of the Church being made a scapegoat of a society in which the abuse of minors is a very real, ever present danger...
'When I was growing up in the late 60’s and early 70’s sexual abuse of minors by relatives or older friends was not uncommon. But none I knew had been abused by priests; the perpetrators were teachers and relatives.

And that has been the case ever since. In all my years trying to help people with their spiritual struggles, none of those who have confided in me that they were abused as children has ever told me they had been abused by a priest.

It seems amazing that, despite moving within Catholic circles for so long, the first victim of clerical sexual abuse I ever met was when I appeared recently on the BBC Big Questions programme.

Yet the knowledge that there has been abuse by priests, and that it was, in many instances, poorly handled by bishops, is inescapable. As the gracious statement of the English and Welsh bishops yesterday makes clear, “Catholics are members of a single universal body. These terrible crimes, and the inadequate response by some church leaders, grieve us all.”

There can only be one response by Catholics to what has happened: it starts with acknowledgement of shame and fault, and leads through contrition and compensation to reparation and, eventually – with God’s help --- healing.

I shall be among those Catholics across the UK who, each Friday in May, as the bishops urge, offer their prayers that justice be done, reforms be swiftly introduced, and the Church’s house be put in order. Above all, I shall pray for the victims of abuse and their shattered trust. I shall pray that through trust in God they might again learn - if this can’t happen now - to trust and love.

But I have another feeling, which is almost as strong; namely, that sexual abuse of minors is not a “Catholic” problem, and that the blowtorch directed at the Church on this issue reveals something unhealthy about society around us. What had begun to be talked of in the 60’s has become a problem so endemic that it seems at times too big to be tackled; and rather than tackling it, we have created a surrogate – the Catholic Church – to take the flack which belongs more widely.

The statistics are scattered about, but not hard to find. Professor Charol Shakeshaft of Virginia University studied 290,000 cases of alleged abuse in the ten years between 1991 and 2000. Out of a sample of 225 teachers who admitted to sexually abusing a pupil, not a single case was reported to the authorities.

Yet the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study of 2004 – independent auditors commissioned by the US bishops -- found 10,667 people who made allegations about sexual abuse by priests and religious in the 52 years between 1950 and 2002 (roughly 200 a year compared to the 29,000 a year in public schools). The allegations were made against 4,392 priests, of whom 56 per cent were accused of only a single incident, some of which were never proved.

As a result of the Dallas norms introduced by the US Catholic Church in 2002, last year the entire Catholic Church in the US – which has 65m members – received six contemporary allegations of clerical abuse. In the UK, where the Nolan Report of 2001 led to strict guidelines, the Catholic Church is unique among institutions for making public each year the number of allegations of sexual abuse by priests. For 2007 the number of such contemporary allegations was precisely four for the whole of the UK – in a Church of about 5m.

At least in the UK and the US we can now state with confidence that the Catholic Church in the UK is one of the safest environments for children and young people.

Who else can claim this? A recent investigation by the Associated Press into sexual abuse by American teachers found that in the five years between 2001 to 2005, over 2,500 teachers were convicted of sexual abuse -- that’s 500 teachers a year, compared to six priests. AP discovered that most of the abuse never gets reported, and cases reported often end with no action. And no one – not the schools, not the courts, not the state or federal governments – has yet found a reliable way to keep abusive teachers out of classrooms.

In Sweden’s secular state schools, a recent study found that 60 per cent of girls and 40 per cent of boys have been abused. Even in Ireland at the height of the abuse scandal exposed by the Murphy Report, the number of pupils that had been sexually abuse never exceeded five per cent. Consider Britain, where the latest yearly report from the NSPCC gives a figure of 21,000 sexual abuse allegations in 2009.

Aren’t we missing something? More than 75 per cent of all sexual abuse of minors happens in the family, perpetrated by family members, mostly those who are married, and by others known to the victims. Most of it is never spoken out. Only seldom is a relative denounced.

Thanks to the media the Catholic Church has been brought to task. Its failures have been highlighted. And reforms have been put in place – above all by Pope Benedict XVI. He has been the first Pope to meet with victims, to lift the wall of silence, to fast-track the punishment of priests through laicisation. He promises action, and is delivering. Guidelines of the sort that exist in the US and the UK are being drawn up for application to the universal Church. The Church is putting its house in order.

But when it is in order, what then? Will public opinion then be able to turn to what has been going on behind closed doors – in the heart of families, under the veil of silence – in far greater numbers, and for far longer, and with far greater impunity? Who, in those places, can the media hold to account? Who there can introduce Catholic Church-style guidelines and reforms?'


Patricius said…
I can't find this in the paper. Is it just online?
It is only online, not in the newspaper itself, correct.