By J.M. Hirsch, Associated Press, 8/6/2002 17:55
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) Roman Catholic priests who molest children have an average of more than eight victims and often are repeating a cycle that began with their own abuse, academic researchers said Tuesday.
The clergy abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church was the focus of discussion Tuesday as part of a four-day conference on the victimization of children sponsored by the University of New Hampshire.
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Researchers presented studies on what is known and more often unknown about priests who abuse children and the church culture that for years ignored or covered up warning signs about abusive clergymen.
Some researchers, such as Thomas Plante, chairman of the psychology department at Santa Clara University, also attempted to explain the church’s reaction to the scandal.
Church leaders aren’t used to dealing with the media, or having to answer to anyone except the pope, Plante said. As a result, they often make bad situations worse.
”The way they deal with it is like adding kerosene on the fire,” Plante said.
Plante, who recently studied 80 priests who abused children, said that despite media scrutiny, little is known about clergymen who sexually assault children.
Although the public perception is that the Catholic Church has a disproportionate number of pedophiles, only 2 percent to 5 percent of U.S. priests abuse children a smaller percentage than among the general male population of the United States or clergy of other religions, Plante said.
So why all the attention on Catholics? Plante attributes part of it to allegations that church leaders for years covered up the actions of abusive priests, moving them to new parishes and failing to report abuse to civil authorities.
He also thinks the perception that many in the priesthood are homosexual has played a role.
”We estimate that somewhere between one-third and one-half of priests would describe themselves as homosexuals,” he said. ”That’s certainly larger than the general male population. Given the church’s stance on homosexuality, that’s a big thing.”
Plante also said that among abusive priests, as many as 90 percent abuse adolescents. And 66 percent of abusive priests were sexually abused when they were children.
Another researcher, Bette Bottoms from the University of Illinois at Chicago, said part of the trouble with understanding the church scandal is that many of the assumptions about the problem are turning out not to be true.
”It has been suggested that most sexual abuse committed by religious authorities, particularly Catholic priests, targets boys rather than girls,” she said. ”Surprisingly, our data did not support these assumptions.”
Her study of roughly 271 clergy abuse cases which were not limited to Catholic priests reported to social workers and other clinicians found roughly similar numbers of male and female victims. Among Catholic clergy, the ratio tilted just slightly toward boys, she said.
More surprisingly, she found that parents had some role in the abuse in roughly 20 percent of the cases. She said sometimes a parent actually participated in the abuse, but often the problem was the parent’s tacit consent.
But she said there may be good reason for the recent attention to the Catholic Church, because Catholic clergy account for a large number of victims. Out of all clergy abuse cases she studied, 53 percent involved Catholic priests. In her study, that included Russian and Greek Orthodox clergy.
About 27 percent of the abuse cases involved mainstream Protestant clergy and 12 percent involved clergy from fundamentalist Protestant denominations.