Newsweek’s Implausible Defense of Catholic Priests

The evidence Newsweek presents to back up the heading of a recent Web article–“Priests Commit No More Abuse Than Other Males” (4/8/10)–is remarkably unpersuasive.

Here’s the main argument offered by reporter Pat Wingert:

The only hard data that has been made public by any denomination comes from John Jay College’s study of Catholic priests, which was authorized and is being paid for by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops following the public outcry over the 2002 scandals. Limiting their study to plausible accusations made between 1950 and 1992, John Jay researchers reported that about 4 percent of the 110,000 priests active during those years had been accused of sexual misconduct involving children. Specifically, 4,392 complaints (ranging from “sexual talk” to rape) were made against priests by 10,667 victims….

Experts disagree on the rate of sexual abuse among the general American male population, but [National Center for Missing and Exploited Children president Ernie] 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…. Even those numbers may be low; research suggests that only a third of abuse cases are ever reported (making it the most underreported crime).

So a study funded by the Catholic bishops found that there had been “plausible accusations” against 4 percent of priests active between 1950 and 1992. That end date is convenient: Wingert notes later, by way of trying to explain why priests seem to molest more kids than they actually do, that two-thirds of complaints against priests have been made since 1992. So a study that included all “plausible accusations” against priests since 1950 would likely produce a figure closer to 12 percent than 4 percent.

Wingert then compares this to estimates–including one by the person who did the bishop-funded study, though the reporter doesn’t note this–that 10 to 20 percent of all U.S. males have sexually abused children. Regardless of how credible these figures seem, they’re clearly not directly comparable to the John Jay number; there certainly have not been “plausible accusations” of pedophilia against 12 million to 24 million living American men. (Though Wingert seems to think that there might have been, writing that the 20 percent figure “may be low” because “only a third of abuse cases are ever reported.” So 60 percent of U.S. males may be secretly engaging in child sex abuse?)

For a more comparable figure, there were 60,749 perpetrators of child sexual abuse identified by the federal National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System in 2008; assuming these were all adult males, that works out to a rate of about 0.05 percent for that group. Now, that’s one year, not 42, but even if there were no recidivism at all, it’s still clear that the priests in the John Jay study were accused of molesting children at a considerably higher rate than that–and that’s a study that leaves out the bulk of such accusations.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.