One of the more oft-heard responses to the recent outbreak of coverage on the abuse scandals in the Church is the following: ‘when is the Church going to respond to this and protect children?’ This question is entirely sensible. We have heard about these scandals in the past, and yet fresh stories of abuse are appearing on a weekly basis. Moreover, the responses of many in the Vatican, as in several other incidents in the pontificate of Benedict XVI, has been disheartening. At the same time, I think it is important to point out for those concerned about the abuse of children (as opposed to the competency of the Vatican press office), that the crisis phase of the abuse scandal has been over for the better part of twenty years in the U.S. (and notice the recent reporting has focused on incidents at least that old). The following graph summarizes the annual reports of abuse by priests in the United States over the last fifty-five years (for those who are curious about post-2004, there were six reported incidents in 2009):
Now, certainly statistics are not any comfort to a victim of abuse, any more than the rarity of fatal automobile accidents is a consolation to those who are mourning. But if we are serious about preventing the abuse of children – as I think the Church is – it is essential that we correctly diagnose the problem, rather than latching on to celibacy, the absence of female priests, or whatever our preferred reform may be as the reason why the scandals happened. None of these proposals were implemented during this time period, and yet the rate of abuse fell dramatically and continues to fall.
I have several theories about why the abuse rates rose and then fell so sharply during this time period. They include lax seminary standards in the 1960’s and 1970’s, significant advances in psychological screening after this period, the loss of prestige the Church (and religion more generally) suffered which tended to attract more committed candidates, and perhaps the influence of bishops appointed by John Paul II. Additionally, in recent years, the bishops enacted stringent disciplinary policies for accused priests and mandatory training for all individuals who deal with children in every diocese in the country. Ultimately, however, none of these theories is as important as the data above – which demonstrates that the abuse crisis in the United States has been over for quite some time, and that the abuse of children is exceptionally rare currently in Catholic institutions. This is cold comfort, of course, to the victims, and it does nothing to mitigate the awfulness of the actions of many of these priests and some bishops, but it does (hopefully) provide some context for evaluating the Church’s actions going forward.