Priests aren't the problem

Analyzing media coverage of sexual abuse is tricky. Any appeals to fairness in how the topic is covered can be interpreted as a defense of the indefensible. Watching media coverage unfold, it's a bit easier for me to understand how hysteria built around the supposed Some aspects of the recent media coverage of the supposed epidemic of Satanic sexual abuse in day care centers in the 1980s. I don't think many people would disagree that the Roman Catholic Church has had a problem both with sexual abuse and the response to priests who are charged with sexual abuse, but many would disagree that the recent coverage has been fair.

We've seen a lot of stories that err not so much in what they say as what they don't say. Sometimes we don't hear all the details about a specific case. Sometimes we don't learn about the efforts the Vatican has successfully made to change how it responds to sexual abuse. And I've seen very little media coverage that places the problems in the Catholic church in context of other religious groups' problems or society's larger problem with child sexual abuse.

I remember reading this AP report that three children a day are inappropriately touched by public school teachers. And yet we don't seem to see commensurate media coverage. Partly that's because it's more difficult to pin a "conspiracy" charge on the public school system. Partly that's because we hold clergy to higher standards. I'm sure there are many other reasons.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see this Newsweek story headlined "Mean Men: The priesthood is being cast as the refuge of pederasts. In fact, priests seem to abuse children at the same rate as everyone else." Reporter Pat Wingert begins:

The Catholic sex-abuse stories emerging every day suggest that Catholics have a much bigger problem with child molestation than other denominations and the general population. Many point to peculiarities of the Catholic Church (its celibacy rules for priests, its insular hierarchy, its exclusion of women) to infer that there's something particularly pernicious about Catholic clerics that predisposes them to these horrific acts. It's no wonder that, back in 2002--when the last Catholic sex-abuse scandal was making headlines--a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found that 64 percent of those queried thought Catholic priests "frequently'' abused children.

Yet experts say there's simply no data to support the claim at all. No formal comparative study has ever broken down child sexual abuse by denomination, and only the Catholic Church has released detailed data about its own. But based on the surveys and studies conducted by different denominations over the past 30 years, experts who study child abuse say they see little reason to conclude that sexual abuse is mostly a Catholic issue. "We don't see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else," said Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others."

The story includes some helpful data points. Insurance companies that offer a sexual misconduct rider on liability insurance say their own studies indicate that Catholic churches are not at higher risk than other denominations.

What was really shocking from the article was this paragraph:

Experts disagree on the rate of sexual abuse among the general American male population, but Allen says a conservative estimate is one in 10. Margaret Leland Smith, a researcher at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says her review of the numbers indicates it's closer to one in 5. But in either case, the rate of abuse by Catholic priests is not higher than these national estimates. The public also doesn't realize how "profoundly prevalent" child sexual abuse is, adds Smith. Even those numbers may be low; research suggests that only a third of abuse cases are ever reported (making it the most underreported crime). "However you slice it, it's a very common experience," Smith says.

Ugh. This kind of information makes me angry. I don't know if these numbers are inflated -- I'm willing to believe the problem is prevalent but this seems like it could be overstating the issue -- but now that I'm a mother, it makes me concerned.

The article also lays out the commonality between most abusers -- they have a relationship of some kind with their victims. Almost all childhood abuse involves adults who are known by the children, not strangers. And not just known but within what the article terms a "circle of trust."

The article explains why the public perceives priests to have a special problem with this issue. Media coverage comes in waves, for instance. And the church's failure to deal promptly with some cases meant that 149 priests were responsible for more than 25,000 cases of abuse in a 52-year period studied. Anyway, it's a helpful article. The article does err by claiming that Islam is one denomination, rather than a religion with several groups.

Another article providing some context ran in the Commercial Appeal this week.

Articles such as these do not mean that coverage of church problems shouldn't continue. It should. And the coverage should be sure to include helpful context. But if we have a collective desire to protect children, articles such as these can serve best by helping inform us as we work to fight abuse of children. And that's a much-needed public service.

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