In last week’s issue, William Witwer wrote a column urging the Catholic Church to “change the policies that may have contributed to the problem (i.e. doctrine requiring celibacy, prohibition against women being priests).” He also admitted, however, that he was “not sure what the facts are, exactly . . . ” I urge him to do some investigation into the facts, surely a proper activity for a journalist. If he had done so, he would have discovered that the rate of sexual abuse by Catholic priests is no different than that of clergy in other denominations, and in fact of men in other positions which involve frequent contact with youth (teachers, coaches, etc.).
For evidence on this, I suggest he read the recent Newsweek article, “Mean Men” (available online at http://www.newsweek.com/id/236096), as well as the Seattle Times investigation into the moving around of serial abusing coaches in the state of Washington in 2003, “Coaches Who Prey” (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/news/local/coaches/). The data and cases cited in both articles would at least strongly indicate that the requirement for priestly celibacy has nothing to do with the problem. Moreover, while it is true that women do not abuse children at the same rate as men, I am fairly sure that neither Mr. Witwer, nor any reasonable individual, would want to bar men from the clergy and all positions involving contact with youth.
Finally, to suggest that the Catholic Church has done nothing to improve institutional response and prevent serial abuse by individual priests is to demonstrate ignorance of policies put in place by the current so-called “hyper-conservative” pope while head of the Congregation for the Faith. These have streamlined the process by which priests are suspended and removed from ministry when substantiated claims are made against them. This has been admitted by even the most liberal Catholic publication in this country, the National Catholic Reporter (see http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/keeping-record-straight-benedict-and-crisis), a magazine that generally goes out of its way to advocate for so-called “modernization” of doctrine along the lines suggested by Mr. Witwer.
Obviously in the past the Church has been at fault in her handling of cases and treatment of victims, as she herself has both admitted and apologized for repeatedly, and she can always work to do better, but there has been a sea-change in the response to abuse in the last 20 years, resulting in a dramatic drop in number of reported incidents. The vast majority of the cases under discussion, horrible as they are, date from before the 1980s. To suggest that there has been no genuine attempt to “shift focus” and “fix [the] problem” is simply wrong. I suggest Mr. Witwer follow Jon Stewart’s own advice, and get his news from some source other than The Daily Show.
Adjunct Assistant Professor of General Studies