Caught in the spotlight

A new film is raking up the coals of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal.
Kevin Ryan | Oct 21 2015 | comment  

Coming soon to your local theatre is a new movie celebrating the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting on the darkest moments in the American Catholic Church, the sexual molestation of children by some clergy. We haven’t seen the film, but the trailers are enough to tell us it will be a blockbuster and will present, as the paper’s original report did, a one-sided view of a wrenching moment in the history of the Catholic Church.

The movie will be a huge success because its hero is played by Oscar nominee Michael Keaton, plus a cast of well-known actors. Also, the studio’s advertising machine is in promotional high gear. And, the scandal provides an enticing and voyeuristic story. And, again from the trailers and Hollywood’s history, it will be a one-sided, black-and-white story.

The film will surely bring back the shame Catholics, clergy and laity, experienced when we became aware of the horrible events committed by some members of the clergy. It will also re-ignite the hatred and deep animosity that many, particularly in the media, have for the Catholic Church. Much of the good will generated by Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States with be replaced by the return of an anti-Catholicism that sadly lies just below the surface in the hearts of many.

There is, however, another side to this story. Here are some facts, many drawn the 2004 independent study conducted by the prestigious John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The focus of the study was the rates and characteristics of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Researchers found that a total of 10,667 individuals had made allegations of child sexual abuse against 4,392 Catholic priests between the years 1950 and 2002. The 4,392 accused priests made up 4 percent of all US Catholic priests. Further, most of these acts took place between 1960 and 1984. The apex of these crimes was 1970, 32 years before the Boston Globe’s “report.”

Not that it is an excuse, but Catholic priests commit no more abuse than other American males. Nevertheless, shortly after the Globe’s Spotlight story, a WSJ-NBC poll reported that 64 percent of those polled believed that Catholic priests "frequently'' abused children. In 2010 Newsweek printed an article entitled, “Priests Commit No More Abuse than Other Males.”

A well-known social scientist, Carol Shakeshaft, was principal investigator for a US Department of Education study on the issue of child abuse.  She reported that the sexual abuse of children by school personnel is “100 times the abuse by priests.”

Another common distortion is that most priests committing child sexual abuse were pedophiles, that is, individuals attracted to children under age 11. In fact, the majority of victims (almost 75 percent) were between 11 and 17, showing preference to children in their early years of adolescence. In addition, the majority (81 percent) of alleged victims were male.  This finding suggests that the offending priests had a homosexual orientation. The fact that so much of the press coverage characterized the abuse as crimes against children rather than adolescent boys suggests that the media has a pro-gay agenda.

Other key findings were that fewer than half of the priests (1,881) were found to be subject to unsubstantiated allegations and more than half had only one allegation brought against them. It should also be noted that a handful of priests accounted for a disproportionate number of victims. For instance, 3.5 percent of priests accounted for 26 percent of victims.

Even though an investigation was conducted almost every time a report was filed, only 217 or 5.4 percent of priests were charged with a crime by a district attorney. Of the 217 priests who had criminal charges brought against them, a substantial majority (64 percent) were convicted -- but a third were found not guilty.

Many cases depended on “recovered memories” evidence, recognized now as the psychological quackery of the 20th century. We now know that people, especially young people, are quite suggestible and can and do form false memories.  Adults, too, lie and have false memories, particularly when big money is involved.

What has been the impact of the sensational and often distorted coverage of this tragic problem? For over a dozen years, innocent priests, men who have made heroic sacrifices to serve others, were spat upon and accosted in our streets. Who knows what will be the effect of this new film on them and their work? And who knows the numbers of young men who were and are discouraged from priesthood?

What, beyond sorrow and shame, has the scandal cost the Catholic Church?  Estimates of financial penalties range from US$2.6 to 3 billion. To date, six dioceses have been bankrupted.

The parishioners whose churches closed, the inner-city students whose Catholic schools were shut down and so many others no longer served are victims, too. Much of the Catholic Church’s historic work has been truncated as a result of the huge penalties.

Yes, some priests have committed horrible crimes and some in the hierarchy were unresponsive and negligent. But why, as the American Review of Journalism commented, has there been such a “feeding frenzy” in the American press? And why 13 years later is Hollywood pulling out all its stops to drag this story back?

One answer is the nation’s increasing hunger for sensationalism. More convincing, however, is that virulent anti-Catholicism is alive and well in our country and particularly in our media. The Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr  characterized prejudice against Catholics as "the deepest bias in the history of the American people."

But what is behind the secular press’s deep-seated antagonism toward the Catholic Church and Christianity? One answer is that the Christian religion stands athwart their secular, “progressive” project. It resists their efforts to celebrate a homosexual lifestyle and to control population through contraception and unrestricted abortion. Christians have the audacity to cling to the words of a first century desert preacher.


Authors’ note: Much of the material for this column comes from Catalyst and is available here. For more information of the Boston Globe’s erroneous coverage of the priest’s scandal read David F. Pierce’s Sins of the Press: The Untold Story of The Boston Globe's Reporting on Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church.

Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, where he is professor emeritus. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education. He can be reached at 

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