Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
“I heard that one of those Catholic popes was molesting children again!” said my mother-in-law’s friend the other day, presumably referring to the news in Kansas City. One isn’t sure where to begin addressing a statement like that. As it turned out, I didn’t have to. She was so busy making comments about how awful “those Catholic popes” are that she didn’t hear any of my attempts to respond.
The conversation was an unfortunate reminder of just how powerful the unbalanced media coverage of scandals involving Catholic clergy has been. I have no objection to even-handed, fact-based news stories about abuse within the Church; the problem is that these stories are reported far more than stories of abuse within other institutions. For example:
When the Hare Krishnas in California settled the largest sex-abuse lawsuit in history, resulting from sexual abuse of children, it generated 44 stories in California over a six-month period. During the same period, Californians were treated to 17,310 stories about sex abuse in California Catholic institutions. That’s 39,341 percent more coverage than was generated by the most serious sex-abuse case in history.
Other men who work with kids are just as likely to be sex offenders as Catholic priests*, but you’d never know that from the emphasis the media places on crimes by Catholic clergy.
As a Catholic who knows many wonderful, kind priests, I find this situation upsetting. As a mother, I find it deplorable.
Last year, we sent our son to a local public school. Within the first few days of classes, my husband and I noticed some serious red flags in terms of children’s safety. The kids shared a bathroom with adults, including adults that had no affiliation with the school (I once saw a package delivery guy waiting in line with the second graders). The rules for who could enter and exit the campus were not enforced; random adults without badges were constantly wandering around the premises. Older boys, sometimes as old as 17, would escort kindergarten- and 1st grade-aged girls to the bathrooms, which were single-stall rooms that locked from the inside. And these were just a few of the problems.
When we listed these concerns to the principal, we were told not to worry about it. We offered to share some information about abuse prevention procedures from our Catholic parish, which is extremely vigilant about keeping kids safe, but were told, again, not to worry about it. We even volunteered to organize a group of parents who could raise awareness about best practices for a safe environment, and were blown off once again. We then escalated the issue to a government agency, which was similarly disinterested. All through the system, there was a distinct feeling that there was nothing to worry about, because “it couldn’t happen here.”
We basically said to the principle, the government, parents of fellow students, and anyone else who would listen:
We are concerned about the kids’ safety at a local public school. There are no prohibitions against male teachers being alone with young children (not that are enforced, anyway). I saw a UPS delivery man go into the bathroom area behind some children, with the door then closed to that narrow hallway, with no other adults around. Seventeen-year-old boys who are teacher’s aides escort even the youngest children to the restrooms, which are single-stall units that lock from the inside.
The response? Crickets chirping. Now, let’s imagine that I had raised the same concerns about a Catholic institution:
We are concerned about the kids’ safety at a local Catholic church. There are no prohibitions against Catholic priests being alone with young children (not that are enforced, anyway). I saw a priest go into the bathroom area behind some children, with the door then closed to that narrow hallway, with no other adults around. Seventeen-year-old seminarians escort even the youngest children to the restrooms, which are single-stall units that lock from the inside.
There is no doubt that my latter statement would have gotten more people’s attention than the former did. And that fact should be of grave concern to anyone who cares about preventing child abuse.
I don’t know that I would necessarily advocate for less coverage of this kind of wrongdoing within the Church. The sexual assault of a child, or any similar offense, is a grave crime against humanity that we cannot take seriously enough. But there should be much, much more discussion of these kinds of cases when they come up within other institutions. Even someone who doesn’t care about the Catholic Church (or all the good priests whose reputations have been damaged) should be concerned about the wildly unbalanced media coverage of this issue, and the impact it’s had on the mentality of the general public. Because, as any Catholic who’s lived through the scandals of recent years can tell you: There are few things more dangerous to children’s welfare than the phrase “it couldn’t happen here.”
* Some have said that the Catholic priest abuse rate is closer to five percent, which would be higher than that of, say, male schoolteachers. Even if that number is accurate, which I’m not sure it is, I don’t think the comparison is fair. If you intensely scrutinize any group of men the way our society has with Catholic priests, you would expect to uncover more abuse cases that would have otherwise gone unreported.