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Abuse Problem Is Clouded by A Lack of Data

Opinion Split on Whether Molestation Is More Prevalent in Catholic Clergy
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 10, 2002
Page A03

In Maryland, a former Episcopal priest was convicted last month of molesting a 14-year-old boy. In New Jersey, an Orthodox rabbi is about to go on trial on charges of groping two teenage girls. In South Carolina, a Baptist minister has begun a 60-year prison sentence for sexually abusing 23 children.

As the Roman Catholic Church faces a widening scandal over child abuse by priests in Boston and around the country, some Catholics cite cases of misconduct by clergy of other religions and ask: Does the Catholic Church really have a bigger problem with sexual abuse? Or are the public and the media just more fascinated by stories involving priests?

Many victims, psychologists and academic researchers believe that the Catholic Church does have a greater problem. They point to egregious abusers long protected by superiors, such as John Geoghan, the former Boston priest accused of molesting more than 130 children. They argue that celibacy attracts people with troubled sexuality and that the church's structure allows abusers to move around and avoid exposure.

But they have little hard data -- nationwide statistics or scientific studies -- to support their position.

The Catholic Church's own experts, including priest-psychologists who treat other priests, suspect that rates of sexual abuse among Protestant and Jewish clergy are as high as among Catholics. But they, too, lack statistical evidence. And they acknowledge that the church is partly to blame because its hierarchy has not tried to gather information on sexual misconduct by priests.

"The bishops have resisted attempts to do studies on this, and the Vatican is death on any empirical, scientific study on the celibacy or sexuality of the priesthood," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a priest and canonical lawyer.

Doyle should know. Seventeen years ago, he co-wrote a report urging the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to begin keeping uniform, centralized records on cases of sexual abuse by priests. The proposal was never adopted, and Doyle said he was treated as a mild dissident and shunted out of his post at the Vatican embassy in Washington. He now serves as an Air Force chaplain in Germany.

The independently compiled data that do exist are sketchy. Sylvia M. Demarest, a Texas lawyer, began tracking allegations against priests in the mid-1990s, when she won a $119 million jury award on behalf of former altar boys abused in Dallas. As of 1996, she said, she had found 1,100 priests accused of molesting children. She plans to update the list and expects that it will top 1,500 names -- between 2 percent and 3 percent of the roughly 60,000 priests who have served in the United States since 1984.

A.W. Richard Sipe, a former Catholic priest turned therapist, estimates that 6 percent of U.S. priests have had sexual contact with minors -- 4 percent with adolescents and 2 percent with younger children.

But Sipe determined those numbers, he says, through "guerrilla research" -- his counseling of 129 priest abusers, interviews with 200 victims and access to more than 500 case histories.

"I'm convinced that there is higher sexual abuse of minors in the priesthood than in other professions and religious groups," Sipe said. "If there were somebody in the Washington, D.C., school district with Father Geoghan's history, would he have gotten away with it for 20 years? No. Not in any private industry either. There is a dynamic in the church that allows this to be covered up."

The Rev. Stephen Rossetti, a priest and psychologist who is one of the church's authorities on the issue, defined the basic problem for researchers: "You can't take [a sample of] 1,200 males and ask them, 'How many of you have committed child abuse?' and expect to get a true answer."

Rossetti said the fairest way to assess the rate of sexual abuse by priests would be to compare them with other men who deal regularly with minors.

"There are about 40,000 active priests in the United States. I think if you took 40,000 male basketball coaches and scout leaders, the rates would be similar," he said. "That's my clinical opinion, but I have no data to support that because there aren't any."

The federal government keeps track of reported sex crimes against children, but statisticians say the number of offenses cannot be used to calculate the number of offenders because many offenders have multiple victims.

Rossetti said a wealth of information could be collected from counseling centers that have treated hundreds of priests for pedophilia and other psychological problems. These include St. Luke's Institute in Silver Spring; St. Michael's Paraclete Center outside St. Louis; St. John Vianney Center in Downingtown, Pa.; the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn.; and Southdown Hospital near Toronto. But church leaders have rejected the idea.

"There's a will not to do it," said the Rev. James J. Gill, a Jesuit priest and psychiatrist who heads the Christian Institute for the Study of Human Sexuality in Chicago. "When the question comes up, should we do a study of priests and how many offenders have there been, what was the nature of the offense, what was their training, who were the victims, what treatment did the offenders get, what was the rate of recidivism -- it's all researchable, but the bishops fear you keep the issue alive by doing the research. They fear that the press will get hold of it and come to them and say, 'How many were there in your diocese?' They just don't want to get into that."

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said through a spokesman that the conference "has not attempted to gather this kind of data because each diocese is autonomous and answerable to the Holy See. The conference does not think it has the authority."

Researchers cite several factors that may make child molestation more common among Catholic clergy than among, say, Methodist ministers. The most important is celibacy. But it is wrong, they say, to believe that celibacy turns psychologically healthy men into child abusers or that pedophiles go into the priesthood to gain access to children.

The connection is subtler, according to Frederick S. Berlin, a psychiatrist who founded the sexual disorders clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"I have seen men who were privately aware they were experiencing troubling sexual attractions, perhaps to children, who thought that, by going into a life involving celibacy, it would become a nonissue. And then, sadly, because the sex drive is a powerful biologically based appetite, those attractions continued," Berlin said. "But I don't know the extent to which that's an exception or the rule."

Several broad psychological studies of priests, including one commissioned by the bishops conference in 1968, have found high rates of emotional immaturity. Some faculty members at Catholic seminaries lament that many priests-in-training seem to be years beyond their age intellectually and years behind in psychosexual development.

"Obviously, there are many healthy, psychologically well-adjusted men who are priests," said Jason Berry, author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," a 1992 book on clerical abuse.

"But there is within the priesthood a subculture of men who are homosexual and who go into the priesthood thinking they will not be sexual. Their psychosexual maturation process becomes stunted, and when they do act out, often a year or more out of the seminary, they tend to seek sexual gratification with young boys who are at the age they were at when their maturation ended," Berry said.

Once ordained, priests enjoy unusual power and trust, even compared with others who espouse a religious life, such as nuns and brothers. Only they can administer the sacraments, and they are placed in their jobs by the church hierarchy, not by congregations.

Other religious groups have also failed to deal swiftly with clerical abuse. An internal investigation by the Orthodox Union of Rabbis, for example, found "profound errors of judgment" in its handling of allegations against New Jersey Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who is scheduled to go on trial April 15 on charges of criminal sexual contact with two teenage girls.

A Southern Baptist minister, Fernando Garcia, made 26 videotapes of himself abusing numerous children before an 8-year-old boy came forward in Greenwood, S.C., two years ago.

And prosecutors have indicated they will present evidence of institutional failures at the sentencing of former Episcopal priest Kenneth Behrel, who was found guilty on Feb. 7 of abusing a 14-year-old boy at St. James School near Hagerstown in the 1980s.

Gary Schoener, a psychologist whose Walk-In Counseling Center in Minneapolis has consulted with more than 1,000 victims of clerical sexual abuse, believes that the percentage of abusers is no higher among Catholic priests than among Protestant ministers. But in his experience, he said, priests have more victims because they operate longer before they are caught.

Rossetti, the priest-psychologist, is skeptical of that statement. And it's a pity, he said, that the Catholic Church has done no scientific study of the matter.

"It would put to rest a lot of these sorts of speculations," he said. "I'm not afraid of the numbers."

2002 The Washington Post Company