Is there a systemic relationship between Catholic priests and sexual abuse of children?

I ask because I grew up in Newfoundland, which was at the time engrossed in the abuse at Mount Cashel Orphanage (see also: Unholy Orders). More recent headlines refer to similar abuses in Ireland and the United States, and there is a lengthy Wikipedia article on cases of Catholic sexual abuse. The recent cases have reaffirmed a suspicion that there is a systemic issue that results in sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests.

With great respect to Catholics on this sensitive issue, there seems to be a systemic issue. Is it fair to say that Catholic priests are systemically prone to sexually abuse of children? If there is a systemic issue by priests or their equivalent, is this issue more prevalent in Catholicism than other religions?

  • 25
    I started looking up the rates of sexual abuse for other environments, and they were appalling too. I don't think priests are particularly more likely than teachers or day-care workers to sexually abuse children. What made it different was the Catholic Church's coverup. Apr 14, 2011 at 3:21
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    As David says. Consider this... A relatively devout young Catholic lad realizes he is having "sinful" urges regarding young children. He knows this is not a good thing, and he is reluctant to tell anyone about it. So, as a refuge, he decides to go into the priesthood. Surrounded by other men, in a religious environment, supported by all that good religious stuff... Maybe his urges will go away. Alas, not so. Paraphilias rarely go away. Our young man completes the program and is sent out into the community...
    – M. Werner
    Apr 14, 2011 at 3:32
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    I think (hence why a comment, not an answer) that the thing that really got the public even more outraged is the systematic cover up of the abuse, in addition to the abuse. Apr 14, 2011 at 10:36
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    The problem wasn't just that covering up these crimes is outrageous in itself, but that the systematic covering up of such crimes allows, as it did in this case, for the perpetrators to continue their offending for a much longer period. Cover-ups are not a problem unique to the Catholic Church, but the Catholic Church clearly engaged in it a lot.
    – Marcin
    Apr 14, 2011 at 23:44
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    To expand on the above, it is not that there are more paedophiles in the Catholic Church than in other segments of the population having access to children, but rather that the criminal careers of the paedophiles operating within the catholic clergy were much longer than they would within an organisation that did not cover them up.
    – Marcin
    Apr 14, 2011 at 23:47

2 Answers 2


TL;DR: Yes, there is damning evidence that the relationship between the Catholic Church and the abuse of children has been systemic.

According to a recent report by the UN (CRC/C/VAT/CO/2), as reported by CBC:

The Vatican "systematically" adopted policies that allowed priests to rape and molest tens of thousands of children over decades, a UN human rights committee said

In its report, the committee blasted the "code of silence" that has long been used to keep victims quiet, saying the Holy See had "systematically placed preservation of the reputation of the church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims."

The report itself states:

  29. The Committee is particularly concerned that in dealing with allegations of child sexual abuse, the Holy See has consistently placed the preservation of the reputation of the Church and the protection of the perpetrators above children’s best interests, as observed by several national commissions of inquiry.

 43. ... Well-known child sexual abusers have been transferred from parish to parish or to other countries in an attempt to cover-up such crimes, a practice documented by numerous national commissions of inquiry. ... Due to a code of silence imposed on all members of the clergy under penalty of excommunication, cases of child sexual abuse have hardly ever been reported to the law enforcement authorities in the countries where such crimes occurred. On the contrary, cases of nuns and priests ostracized, demoted and fired for not having respected the obligation of silence have been reported to the Committee as well as cases of priests who have been congratulated for refusing to denounce child abusers, as shown in the letter addressed by Cardinal Castrillon Hojos to Bishop Pierre Pican in 2001;

 60. The Committee expresses serious concern that in dealing with child victims of different forms of abuse, the Holy See has systematically placed preservation of the reputation of the Church and the alleged offender over the protection of child victims. The Committee is particularly concerned that while the Holy See recognized in its written responses and during the interactive dialogue the primary competence of judicial authorities, it has continued to address these cases through Canon Law proceedings which contain no provision for the protection, support, rehabilitation and compensation of child victims. The Committee is also particularly concerned that:

(a) Child victims and their families have often been blamed by religious authorities, discredited and discouraged from pursuing their complaints and in some instances humiliated, as noted especially by the Grand Jury in Westchester, the Ryan Commission in Ireland and the Winter Commission in Canada;

(b) Confidentiality has been imposed on child victims and their families as a precondition of financial compensation; and

(c) Although it has extended its own statute of limitations, the Holy See has in some instances obstructed efforts in certain countries to extend the statute of limitation for child sexual abuse.

So the answer according to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child is yes. There is a systemic relationship between Catholic priests and sexual abuse of children in that the church has:

  1. adopted policies that allowed rape and molestation of children over decades;

  2. a systematic preference for preserving the reputation of the church and sexual offenders above the best interest of those the church has abused;

  3. demoted or fired those who violated the "cone of silence" on child abuse, and congratulated those who have refused to denounce child abusers;

  4. obstructed efforts in some countries to extend the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse;

  5. blamed, humiliated, discredited or discouraged its victims of sexual abuse.

I noted that the report cites the Winter Commission (Canada) regarding the Mount Cashel affair I mentioned in the question.


The most exhaustive analysis on this question was performed by Philip Jenkins in his book Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis. Jenkins conclusions, in a nutshell, are that:

  • Catholic priests do not commit sexual abuse against minors at a rate higher than other faiths or occupations, and in fact may have rates of sexual abuse less than that of many or most other professions
  • that the incidence of "pedophilia", i.e., sexual relations with pre-pubescent child, as compared with "ebophilia," sexual relations with post-adolescent teenagers, is extremely small
  • the popular perception of pedophilia and Catholic priests owes much to deeply imbedded historical, American anti-Catholic prejudice and a confluence of sociological factors, including the breakdown of Catholicism as a key identity of Catholics, and the fact that because of its structure, the Catholic Church has "deep pockets" that make it an attractive "target" for suits.

Jenkins' study was performed in the late '90s, but its conclusions have held up over time. The recent John Jay College Report on the Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950 - 2010, published in May of 2011, confirms that the number of priests accused of child abuse was around 4% of the total number of priests, that the number of priests who were true pedophiles was around 5% of priests acccused of child abuse, and that the incidence of child abuse peaked around 1970 and has fallen since that time. [One should also be aware that not all "child abuse" allegations involve allegations of physical impropriety.]

The John Jay Report contains information about the incidence of child abuse within other faiths and child service organizations. Making a precise comparison of other institutions with the Catholic Church is hampered by the fact that while the Catholic Church has made its data known, other faiths and institutions have engaged in pretty much the behavior that the Catholic Church engaged in prior to the child care scandal shining the light on the issue on the Catholic Church. The publicity given to the Catholic Church has permitted other institutions to escape attention. For example, a report by Charol Shakeshaft in 2004 has been largely ignored. That report synthesized data found from a variety of sources and concluded that 7% of students in grades 8 to 11 had experienced an unwanted sexual contact, with 21% of those being perpetrated by educators. There has, as yet, been no public outcry against schools or educators with respect to "pedophilia" as there has been against the Catholic Church.

The John Jay Report purports to exonerate homosexuality and celibacy as the "causes" of the pedophilia crisis, preferring instead to assign the cause to the general breakdown of social mores during the "Woodstock era." Given the fact that celibate priests are no more likely to engage in pedophilia/ebophilia than other groups, and that the number of child abuse incidents have declined notwithstanding the continuation of the celibacy requirement, it seems contrary to the facts to argue that celibacy causes child abuse or that Catholicism has some propensity toward child abuse.

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    The alleged American anti-Catholic prejudice fails to account for the portrayal of widespread abuse in Europe, especially in Ireland (deeply Catholic) and Germany (also predominantly Catholic). Also, saying that there has been no outcry against other institutions is ridiculous. Firstly, because it’s untrue (e.g. Odenwaldschule (in German)) and secondly because while there is also abuse, there has never been a widespread hush-up perpetrated by the leaders of these other institutes. May 24, 2011 at 7:52
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    And thirdly because the numbers you cite indicate that while 4% of priests have been accused of sexual abuse (note: what’s the dark figure here?) only 1.4% (21% of 7%!) of educators have been, so priests have perpetrated more twice as many sexual abuses as other educators. May 24, 2011 at 7:59
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    What is the Philip Jenkins book like? Not all books are objective attempts at reaching the truth. I'm not reassured by the "John Jay" report blaming the "general breakdown of social mores", which strikes me as likely a convenient scapegoat. This is a politically hot topic, and there are likely to be polemics masquerading as studies on both sides. May 24, 2011 at 13:21
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    @David Thornley, You can read my review here - amazon.com/review/RY5WIIAQ2UU74/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm Briefly, though, Jenkins is a non-Catholic historian, who looked at the issue without any particular axe to grind. His account provides a fascinating examination of the way in which social issues can be "framed", which is pertinent to other historical and sociological issues. I recommend the book on that basis. Even if you don't have any particular interest in Catholic child abuse scandal per se, the book is still an interesting read on how social forces work. May 24, 2011 at 17:01
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    @Peter thanks for the detailed answer. One point re total numbers of abuse in public education vs. priests, though. The question was about “systematic” abuse. What matters in this context is indeed the percentage rather than the absolute number because we want to see whether and how the system abets such behaviour. If we were after absolute numbers, I’m all but certain that even the public education system would be dwarfed by the sexual abuse inside families – and not many people would argue that families systematically abuse children. May 24, 2011 at 17:52

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