It seems that every month a Catholic diocese somewhere in the country releases a list of credibly accused predator priests that rivals the list originally put forth by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team. The Catholic church seems to have a near monopoly on child sexual abuse in religious settings. But looks can be deceiving, and it appears that child sexual abuse in Protestant churches is actually more common.
It is extremely hard to know the exact rates of child sexual abuse in any institution, especially since it takes survivors, on average 21 years before they start talking about their abuse*. But churches, like all other corporate entities that work with the public, have insurance, and there are only a few insurance providers who insure churches. These three companies, in 2007, said they receive about 260 reports of sexual abuse per year from Protestant churches, and about 228 from Catholic churches.
Why does abuse within the Catholic church seem to be so much more common? There are several reasons for that.
Protestantisim is not a church; it is a very broad umbrella that virtually all versions of Christianity other than Catholicism fall under. That umbrella includes huge, established denominations like Presbyterian and Methodist churches, as well as tiny “nondenominational” churches with no affiliations to a larger network, and everything in between. About 48.9% of Americans identify themselves as some version of Protestantisim, whereas 23% identify themselves as being Catholic. But no single Protestant denomination is as big as the Catholic church. If a journalist wants to write a page-turning story; investigating a huge institution will probably yield more wrongdoing than investigating a small one.
The Catholic church is a massive business, and it has been for centuries. They have had hundreds of years to develop policies and procedures for dealing with priests who engage in immoral and illegal behavior. And they have been writing it down for hundreds of years. This bureaucracy and size also facilitates one of the most notable features of the Catholic sex abuse scandal; the moving of sexually abusive priests from one church, or even diocese, to another. This feature is common in other institutional abuse scenarios; in schools it’s so common the term “trash trading” or “passing the trash” has been coined to describe it. But a school district has a limited number of schools to send a predatory teacher to; the Catholic church can theoretically relocate a priest to any Catholic church in the world. If a non denominational pastor in a church with 50 members is accused of sexually abusing a child, there is no place to send him. Whatever solution the church’s governing body comes up with will be owned by them.
A Tantalizing Story
The first stories about priests sexually abusing children started breaking in the early 1990’s, at a time when child sexual abuse was being dragged out of the shadows, but not entirely in the right way. Part of that narrative was the “satanic panic”, a narrative that conflated child sexual abuse with satanism and fueled the rise of American evangelism. Stories about Catholic priests sexually abusing kids fit into this narrative well (“look how common this is! Even Christians are doing this!”), and these same stories also fueled growing criticism of the Catholic church and other conservative religious bodies. Catholicism teaches that ordained priests are chosen by God Himself and priests are expected to remain celibate. The Church teaches that abortion, birth control and any sex outside of marriage are sinful. The hypocrisy of the same priest who condemns someone for using birth control raping a child was overwhelming.
More Than a Few Bad Priests
This is a story that has kept growing and growing. In the 1990’s the story was clusters of priests here and there who were sexually abusing children. The Boston Globe’s famous Spotlight investigation, published in 2002, revealed nearly 100 sexually abusive priests in one city and revealed the Church’s willingness to silence victims, relocate priests and sweep everything under the rug. This behavior is now infamous and has been documented in cities all across the world. Journalists are now starting to write about the Church’s willingness to use their financial and political influence to fight against legislation that would hold them accountable for their wrongdoings (for example Statute of Limitation) and their collusion with law enforcement to protect sexually abusive priests and the Church’s image.
The upside to the rash of attention that has been paid to this crisis within the Catholic church is that efforts have been made to try and improve it. After the Boston Spotlight scandal came to the world’s attention all American Catholic churches implemented some best practices that should reduce the risk of children being sexually abused by clergy. We’ve now had a generation of children who were, theoretically, protected by these best practices, so it is possible that the tide has turned.
So while it appears child sexual abuse is more common among protestant denominations than within the Catholic church, looking at the numbers we saw earlier tells us that the difference isn’t that big, even though the Catholic church is only about half the size of all Protestant churches added together. Which means it is still a significant problem.
It’s also important to mention that child sexual abuse happens in every religion in the United States. Whether this is because sexual predators turn to religion to try to control their attraction to children, for absolution after harming them, to gain further access to children or some combination thereof, we cannot know.
Most child sexual abuse is not committed in a religious setting; it is largely committed by a child’s family, and extra-familial abuse can be committed by anyone a child has any sort of relationship with. Perhaps the biggest lesson we learn by examining child sexual abuse in religious settings is that there is no title someone can hold that means they are automatically safe to be around children.
Executive Director, Stop Abuse Campaign
A survivor of incest, psychological abuse and a host of other childhood trauma, Melanie now uses her talents to prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences. Melanie has over a decade of legislative advocacy regarding children’s issues, and she has been published in newspapers, magazines and blogs all across the country.