Keeping children safe in the Catholic Church

Sexual abuse perpetrated by Roman Catholic priests has been headline news for years. But even with so much press attention, there are many commonly accepted misconceptions about this.

Remarkably, evidence-based research doesn’t always receive attention, while sensationalized stories that create a particular—and sometimes false—narrative do.

This ultimately misinforms and harms the public—not to mention efforts to keep kids safe.

Let’s review some of the most common misunderstandings about clerical abuse in the Catholic Church.

Sexual abuse is much more common among Catholic priests than other groups of men

About 4 percent of Catholic clerics had credible or substantiated accusations of child sexual abuse of minors (both prepubescent children and postpubescent teens) during the last half of the 20th century (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004, 2011).

Research data, although from limited small scale studies, finds the prevalence of clerical abuse among non-Catholic religious communities consistent with the Catholics.

If you review insurance claims against Church communities for sexual victimization perpetrated by their clerics, you’ll find that that there is no difference between Catholic and non-Catholic groups (Zech, 2011).

A U.S. Department of Education study found that about 6 percent of public school teachers had credible or substantiated claims of sexual abuse of minor children under their charge (Shakeshaft, 2004a, 2004b) during the same timeframe as the Catholic clerical data was obtained.

Furthermore, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) report that approximately 3 to 5 percent of men meet the diagnostic criteria for pedophilia.

These numbers increase significantly if you include men who sexually violate postpubescent teenagers, which is illegal in most jurisdictions, but not a diagnosable psychiatric disorder according to the DSM-5.

There is no evidence that Catholic priests sexually abuse children or teens at rates higher than other groups of men, in or outside of religious communities.

Catholic clerical sexual abuse is still very common today

The relentless press attention gives the impression that sexual abuse of children is still commonplace in the Catholic Church, even though the vast majority of cases of clerical abuse occurred before the mid-1980s (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004, 2011).

After the Church reforms articulated in the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002a, 2002b), the number of new cases in the United States averaged about a dozen per year; during the past five years, it went down to about one new case per year.

The Church has gone from averaging about 660 new cases of abuse per year during the 1970s to about 1 new case per year since about 2014 (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2011; Steinfels, 2019; United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2018).

In fact, few realize that the well-known Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical abuse in that state during the past 70 years found only two cases from the 21st century—with both cases already known and managed (Office of Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2018; Steinfels, 2019).

Most clerical sex offenders victimize hundreds of children

Sensational cases of clerical abuse dominate the press.

The famous Fr. John Geoghan case in Boston that was highlighted in the 2002 Boston Globe’s Spotlight report included credible or substantiated reports of 138 victims over many years (Boston Globe Investigative Staff, 2002). Other famous cases (e.g., Fr. James Porter in Massachusetts and Fr. Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana) also included a large number of victims as well.

However, the average number of victims per offender is about one, and only 129 clerics accounted for more than a quarter of all known cases of abuse.

This suggests that a small number of serial offenders caused much of the abuse crisis (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004, 2011).

Homosexual men are to blame for the clerical abuse problem

Many assume that homosexual men are the cause of the clerical sexual abuse problem in the Catholic Church. They note that about 80 percent of clerical abuse victims are boys (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2004, 2011).

Additionally, they report that Catholic clerics have a larger percentage of homosexual men than in the general population of men (Plante, 2007).

It is true that most victims of clerical abuse are boys. But research informs us that abusing clerics were “situational generalists” victimizing whoever they had access to and trust with (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2011; Terry & Ackerman, 2008).

Priests, historically, had easy and regular access to boys more so than girls (e.g., altar servers, all-boy schools, and sports teams).

Furthermore, sexual orientation is not a risk factor for child sexual victimization.

Homosexual men are, by definition, sexually interested in other men, not young children.

Thus, blaming homosexual men for the clerical abuse problem in the Catholic Church isn’t supported by clinical or research data.

Mandatory celibacy causes Catholic priests to sexually abuse children

Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy and thus are not allowed to be married or partnered (Coleman, 2006; Cozzens, 2006; Manuel 2012; US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2006). Most other religious groups do not require celibacy of their clerics.

Many argue that celibacy places Catholic clerics at risk of sexually abusing children.

This isn’t true.

Celibacy for any reason—such as religious vows, not having a suitable sexual partner, conflictual partnered relationships, medical or psychiatric disabilities, or personal choice—does not turn someone into a pedophile where children become the object of sexual desire. Celibacy may cause challenges with adult sexual expression that might result in a priest violating their religious vows with other adults but it doesn’t increase the risk of child sexual abuse (Manuel, 2012).

Clerical offenders went into the priesthood so that they could abuse children

Some people believe that clerical sex offenders went into the priesthood and attended seminary intentionally to get easy access to children so that they could abuse them.

Research on sex-offending clerics tells us that most of these men had no intention of abusing anyone when they entered seminary (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 2011; Plante, 1999, 2011).

There is no evidence that these men decided to attend seminary to become priests with the express purpose of sexually abusing children.

The Church has done nothing to keep children safe and offending priests out of ministry

Many believe that the Church has stonewalled any effort for reform.

However, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken steps to address clerical sexual abuse.

In 2002, the Conference passed the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms that outlines national policies and procedures based on evidence-based best practices for dealing with clerical abuse (US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002a, 2002b).

The Charter requires all dioceses and religious orders in the US to follow a series of strategies to combat clerical abuse.

These include

  • Reporting all accusations of clerical abuse, no matter how long ago they occurred, to local law enforcement
  • Establishing and maintaining a lay review board of local experts representing relevant professionals such as law enforcement, child protection, mental health, and such to review all cases of reported abuse
  • Participating in yearly audits by an independent and secular auditing firm to ensure that all dioceses follow compliance efforts
  • Removing all creditably accused clerics from ministry for life and keep them away from the public
  • Hiring a victim assistance coordinator to support and advocate for victims of clerical abuse
  • Offering safe environment child protection training for all involved with the Catholic Church including clerics, lay employees, volunteers, and even children.

Additionally, maintaining a national review board for child protection that includes national experts (US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2018).

More can always be done to prevent child abuse and to be sure that those who might harm children are kept out of ministry.

Vigilance is always important for children’s safety.

But the fact that credible accusations have been reduced to an average of one new case per year in the United States from levels that were almost 700 times higher several decades ago at least suggests that these best practices are actually working effectively (Steinfels, 2019; US Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2018).


Commonly held misconceptions regarding clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic Church need to be dispelled if we wish to understand clerical sexual abuse in the Church and to be prepared to do all that we can to prevent it from occurring in the future.

Fortunately, best practices and quality research data is available to both provide safe environments for children in the church and to screen and better manage potential or current clerics that could be at risk of harming children (Praesidium, 2001).

An emotionally charged topic like child sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests elicits strong feelings from people in and outside of the Catholic Church.

The story has resulted in national and international headline news on a regular basis for almost 20 years. It is critically important to separate facts from fiction to ensure that children are safe both within and outside of the Catholic community and that those who might harm children are identified and prevented from access to them.

To do otherwise would certainly be scandalous.

  • Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP
  • Republished with permission of the author.
  • To view bibliography, please see Psychology Today.
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