Catholic Priest Sex Abuse Scandals: How the Media Shapes the Public Perception of Child Abuse in the Catholic Church


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By: Elizabeth Echard, Staff Writer


Is Catholic priest sexual abuse a result of their choice of lifestyle and career, or is that a misconception fed by the media’s portrayal of the Catholic sexual assault scandals? It is not disputed that sexual abuse happens on a daily basis and that sexual abuse is a horrid and traumatic occurrence. It is also not disputed that some Catholic priests have engaged in this horrible offense. In the United States, one American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds.[1] On average, there are 321,500 victims of rape or sexual assault each year in the United States.[2]

According to a study conducted by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “4,392 priests and deacons had allegations of child sexual abuse from 1950 to 2002 against 10, 667 children, representing approximately 4% of all priests in the United States in that time period.”[3] There are 321,500 victims of sexual assault each year, and despite the amount of media coverage the Catholic Church receives, an overwhelming majority of assaults are committed by people other than priests.[4] While Catholic priest sexual abuse has been documented as far back as the 1950’s, there have been very few reported cases after 2002, as the church has implemented practices to handle this issue.[5].

The media contributes to the public misconceptions of Catholic priest sexual abuse. The media has been fixated on Catholic priests ever since states began to release individual reports of sexual abuse within the church. However, the media fails to put the Catholic priest abuse scandal in context. The U.S. Department of Education found that 5% to7% of public school teachers engage in sexual abuse of children per year.[6] In addition, a small scale study found that 4% of Anglican priests had sexually abused minors in western Canada and other religious leaders and clerics engage in this type of behavior as well.[7] Despite a higher offender rate among public school teachers and similar offender rates in other religions, the media’s incessant coverage of the Catholic priest scandal leads to the public misconception that Catholic priests are responsible for a majority of child sexual abuse cases, when this simply is not true. Sexual abuse offenders are not limited to one specific profession or type of religion. Any person in any potential job, position, or lifestyle has the potential of being a sexual abuse offender.

Another myth that the media plays into is that clerical celibacy leads to pedophilia, however, there is no research to support this allegation.[8] [9]  In fact,  roughly 80% of sex abuse offenders are men, who are not celibate and are often married or in a relationship.[10] [11] These men often abuse children within their own families or homes.[12] Furthermore, of the public school teachers who have sexually abused children, most are married or non-celibate, and somehow, public school teachers tend to offend in this way at a higher rate (5-7%) than Catholic priests or other clerics (4%).[13]

Simply being a Catholic priest or other type of cleric does not make one more vulnerable to becoming a sexual abuse offender. Those who become sexual abuse offenders tend to have histories of child abuse themselves, impulse control problems, issues with alcohol, head injuries, or issues maintaining satisfying adult relationships.[14] These characteristics could apply to anyone, across all walks of life and all career paths. Sexual abuse is a horrible thing that occurs in the United States on a daily basis and some clergy and Catholic priests are guilty of this crime. However, clergy, and the Catholic Church especially, may be taking added heat from the media that simply is not true or substantiated by empirical research. Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children stated, “we don’t see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this [sexual abuse and pedophilia] or as a place that has a bigger problem [with this issue] than anyone else.”[15]



[1] Victims of Sexual Violence Statistics, (2019).

[2] Id.

[3] (p. 162).

[4] Victims of Sexual Violence Statistics, (2019).

[5] Thomas G. Plante, Separating Facts About Clergy Abuse From Fiction, (2018).

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Catholic Sexual Abuse Partly Caused by Secrecy and Mandatory Celibacy, Report Finds,, (2019).

[9] Barbie Latza Nadeau, Australia Blames Celibacy and Confession for Pedophile Priests, (2017).

[10] Thomas G. Plante, Separating Facts About Clergy Abuse From Fiction, (2018).

[11] Catholic Priest Denies Report Suggesting Celibacy Leads to Pedophilia, (2017).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] James Martin, S.J., It’s Not About Celibacy: Blaming the Wrong Thing for Sexual Abuse in the Church, (2017).

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