Pope John Paul II has done the right thing in making sexual abuse by priests an offense whose gravity requires Vatican intervention. The outrage we naturally feel at abusive priests was best expressed by Christ himself, who chose harsh and violent words to register his disapproval.
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble,” he said in Matthew 18:6, “it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
There is, and can be, no excuse for abuse of children. The public is right to be scandalized and revolted by it.
At the same time, the tendency in the media to widely publicize cases of Catholic priests’ abuse has given Americans a very distorted picture, as Phillip Jenkins points out in his Oxford University Press book on the subject, published last year.
True pedophilia is extremely rare in the priesthood, he points out. The best estimate is that 0.3% of priests are guilty. The most extensive study, which considered 2,252 priests over a 30-year period, found only one case of pedophilia — and in that case, the abuse happened apart from the perpetrator's role as a priest in the parish; he abused members of his extended family.
Pedophilia is no more common in the Catholic priesthood than it is among other clergy or other trades.
So why is the perception so exaggerated?
For one reason, the Church's hierarchical structure means that Catholic clergy are more attractive targets for lawsuits than other denominations. You needn't sue just a parish; you can sue the entire archdiocese.
There are also a lot of disaffected Catholics who want to make it seem that Church rules cause problems. They say that, if priests married, they wouldn't have the same temptations — but may not realize that pedophilia is as bad or worse among married clergy of other denominations.
But perhaps the most significant reason the perception of the priest-pedophilia problem is overblown, let's face it, is that the very idea of such abuse — even if is extremely rare — is so repugnant and strange that it sticks in one's mind. In the end, even if there is no “crisis” of pedophilia in terms of numbers, even one instance has the feel of a crisis.
Now that cases like Boston's are making headlines, the Church should take the opportunity to re-emphasize a doctrinal principles.
Sexual sins are serious and have serious consequences. There has been a tendency by many Catholics over the past 30 years to de-emphasize sexual sins. It was thought that the Church had too many hang-ups about sex. The truth is, sex is sacred and powerful — and when it is misused, it causes destruction.
The perpetrator priest in Boston said that he was “experimenting” at a time when the culture at large was also “experimenting with sex.” This should be a warning to Catholic colleges and seminaries that fail to teach the whole truth about sex, or who imply that the “experiments” of the culture are alright. The consequences can be disastrous.
Hearing about pedophilia and the priesthood is uncomfortable. But, in the end, bringing these cases to the light can only strengthen the Church.
Such situations only serve to remind us of the perennial wisdom of Catholic doctrine, which teaches respect, chastity and love.