National Catholic Register

Opinion

Teacher Abuse Crisis

John Karr was a teacher.

BY John Lilly

the Editors

August 27-September 2, 2006 Issue | Posted 8/28/06 at 5:50 PM

 

If he were a priest, television, magazine and newspaper stories would be quick to connect the dots between the JonBenet Ramsey murder suspect and the clergy-abuse scandal. So why is no one connecting the dots between the man who claims he abused the 6-year-old girl and the abuse scandal in our nation’s public schools?

Teacher molestation is far more common than clergy abuse. Between 6% and 10% of public school children across the country have been sexually abused or harassed by school employees and teachers.

That’s what a draft report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education, in compliance with President Bush’s 2002 “No Child Left Behind” act found.  Charol Shakeshaft is the Hofstra University scholar who prepared the federal report. She spoke about it to Education Week when it was released. “So, we think the Catholic Church has a problem?” she said. “The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”

The report estimated that 422,000 California public school students would be victims of sexual misconduct by educators before graduation — a number dwarfing the state’s entire Catholic school enrollment of 143,000.

Not only does the Church get disproportionate blame for its smaller problem, it gets very little credit for its uniquely strict response.

The Church has cracked down on abuse with strict institutional policies and, in addition to compensating victims, has paid out huge sums of money to alleged victims and their lawyers.

There has been no comprehensive internal review of the schools like there has been of priests, reported Jon Dougherty in the 2004 NewsMax.com story that quoted Stein and Shakeshaft. Most of the data on school abuse has been generated as a byproduct of sexual harassment studies. There is no single agency tracking teacher molestation incidents.

 “None of these studies — either singly or as a group — answer all of the reasonable questions that parents, students, educators and the public ask about educator sexual misconduct,” said Shakeshaft. “And [the studies] certainly do not provide information at a level of reliability and validity appropriate to the gravity of these offenses.”

Wrote Dougherty: “What is also different about the school cases is the level of secondary media coverage it has — or, in this case, hasn’t — received.” While the media coverage of clergy abuse was nearly “wall-to-wall,” he found just four news stories that mentioned the author of the federal report about the public school problem.

Since so little attention has been paid to non-Catholic sex abuse scandals, it’s important to review what we know and what we don’t know about them.

The Church had no pedophilia scandal. Though it has become media boilerplate to refer to a “pedophile priest scandal,” the reality is quite different. When the John Jay College of Criminal Justice thoroughly researched clergy sex abuse for the U.S. bishops, it found not a pedophilia crisis but what Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, described as “homosexual predation on American Catholic youth.” McHugh called that information a “bombshell” and said, “I’m astonished that people throughout America are not talking about it, thinking about it and wondering about what the mechanisms were that set this alight.”

Permissiveness, not rules, leads to abuse. Another common misconception that arose out of the saturation coverage of clergy abuse is that rules about sexuality somehow lead to sexual disorders. But the opposite is more likely the case: The Church may have experienced a fraction of the sex-abuse allegations than public schools do because Catholic teaching is clear that sex with children is always abuse and is always wrong. That moral clarity is increasingly rare in the secular world.

For example, the April 17, 2002, issue of USA Today questioned whether molesting children is wrong at all. The article’s title was “Sex Between Adults and Children” (itself a euphemism for child abuse). Under the headline, the paper featured a ballot-like box suggesting possible opinions one might hold on the subject: “Always harmful, usually harmful, sometimes harmful, rarely harmful.”  The newspaper’s own answer: “Child’s age and maturity make for gray areas.”

Michael Tracey is the University of Colorado professor whose e-mails led authorities to seek John Karr in Thailand in connection with JonBenet’s murder. Tracey told the Register, “Her death, and the whole circus surrounding it even 10 years later, has everything to do with the culture’s desire to sexualize children.”

It was good that the media vigorously pursued the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse problem. Now, we need to find the courage to root out sexual abuse elsewhere.

We owe it to our children to protect them.