Priests far from only abusers

Illinois abuse of children happens equally as often in all religions, experts say

Medill News Service/March 8, 2006
By Brian D. Sabin

When priests, ministers or rabbis abuse children, experts say they violate a sacred trust.

Psychiatric experts say that clergy abuse of children isn't exclusive to the Catholic Church. It happens equally as often in other religions, and sadly, most sexual abuse occurs within the home.

"This sort of behavior is certainly not distinctive to the Catholic Church," said Anna Salter, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from Harvard University and gives expert testimony in sexual abuse cases. "We find offenders from all walks of life."

Charges of abuse against the Rev. Daniel McCormack, formerly of St. Agatha's in Lawndale, rocked the Archdiocese of Chicago in January. Since that time priests in such places as South Holland and Peoria have left their churches amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

While he empathized with the victims, Archdiocesan Chancellor Jimmy Lago said abuse cases have been blown out of proportion, considering that more than 1,600 priests work in Chicago.

Many experts who've studied child sexual abuse agree.

Psychologists say that in any group of people who have unmonitored access to kids -- priests, ministers, rabbis, and even coaches and teachers -- a small percentage will sexually abuse children.

"You can expect about 4 percent of clergy, regardless of religion, to be sexual abusers," said Professor Thomas Plante, who has studied clergy sexual abuse for the past 17 years. "The best research tells us 5 percent of schoolteachers out there have had a sexual experience with a minor."

In many cases the adult will victimize only one child, said Frederick Berlin, director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma in Baltimore.

A smaller percentage abuse multiple children. Berlin said abusers who have many victims "tend to be people with a sexual disorder."

Many outside the church say its policy of celibacy, which prevents priests from being married, has created an environment that fosters sexual abnormality.

Plante conducted a study of both celibate Catholic priests and non-celibate Anglican priests and found "about the same percentage" abused children. Other experts concur, adding that many non-celibate, non-religious organizations have also seen their members abuse children.

Some conservatives within the church blame the abuse on homosexual priests.

Those who support this view cite a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which reviewed all reported Catholic clergy abuse cases between 1950 and 2002. The study showed priests victimized males nearly 81 percent of the time.

Plante said younger men and boys were victims of convenience for priests. No study has ever shown that homosexuals are more likely to be sexual abusers.

Berlin said the church may have a pedophilia problem, not a homosexuality problem. Pedophilia is a mental illness defined by an attraction to very young children. Often the victim's age and gender indicate little, Berlin said, except that the victimizer is sick.

Pedophilia is not a matter of hoice, Berlin said, but a legitimate mental affliction.

Many pedophiles were sexually abused as children, and some repeat that behavior later in life, Berlin said.

He added that not all pedophiles act on their impulses. Many of his patients are pedophiles who've never abused children. He said they often feel incredible guilt and struggle to resist their urges towards children.

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