Cases of sexual abuse of children are not rare. Roughly 1.15 million cases were reported between 1990 and 2002. In 1990, there were 119,000; the number was down to 88,000 in 1999 and remained at about that number up to 2002, the latest year of publication of government statistics for such offenses.
In April 2002, Time magazine cited studies indicating that half of child sexual abusers are the parents of the victims, and 18 percent are other relatives of the victims. Pedophiles also include teachers, coaches, Scout masters and others who work with youngsters.
Priests accused of sexual abuse of children are a fraction of 1 percent of all such abusers. Ideally, there should be no priest who sexually abuses a child, but, ideally, no parent should sexually abuse a child.
To turn from the ideal to financial reality, while most sexual abusers of children are not sued for damages, Catholic dioceses have been sued for negligence for not removing accused priests from ministry.
Since the 1950s, the Catholic Church in the United States has spent about $1 billion in costs related to child sex abuse cases.
A report published by the Chicago Archdiocese in January 2003 said that, in the past 40 years, 55 allegations of sexual abuse of children by 36 archdiocesan priests were determined to be founded. Other allegations had been found to be foundless accusations of innocent priests. At the time the report was published, there had been no allegations of sexual misconduct in the previous 12 years.
The archdiocese had spent $7.9 million on counseling, settlements, and other forms of assistance to victims. It had spent $4.3 million on legal fees, including $1.3 million to defend a priest and school principal found not guilty by a jury.
The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was accused of sexual abuse by a former seminarian who later recanted.
Contrary to the traditional legal principle, priests accused of sexual abuse of children are apparently deemed guilty until proved innocent. Moreover, while conviction in a criminal trial requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the standard for finding liability in a civil suit for damages is less rigorous, and settlements are sometimes made both to avoid the cost of the trial and the possibility of a jury finding that is more costly than a settlement.
The pain experienced by sexual abuse victims is real and deserves compensation, but, as the latest episode in the scandal unfolds, it should be remembered that false accusations have been made and that very few priests have been found, in fact, to have sexually abused children.
John Maher is a free-lance writer from Jefferson Park.