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Date: 22nd April, 2010

Photo: Sergey Kozhukhov , reproduced from under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Licence

'To make a fair judgment of the crimes of the Church, we need to know not just about the kind of things that happened, but on what scale.'


This is not the happiest year in the history of the Roman Catholic church but then it’s hardly the worst either, says Steve Tomkins

Remember the days of John XII, a 17-year-old who became Pope in 955, opened a brothel in the papal palace and sexually assaulted visitors to his church?

He’s said to have castrated a bishop who criticised him and paid his lovers with church plate. Benedict’s got a way to go before he looks back with nostalgia to those days.

The constantly emerging story of child sexual abuse naturally provokes extreme reactions.

On the one side, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens talk of arresting the “leering old villain in a frock” when he comes to the UK in September for 'crimes against humanity'.

Equally well-judged attempts by senior clergy to defend the Church include claims that the attacks are so exaggerated they must be a Jewish conspiracy.


To make a fair judgment of the crimes of the Church, we need to know not just about the kind of things that happened, but on what scale, how that scale compares with other comparable institutions, and how the Church dealt with them.

None of this information is very easy to come by. A detailed report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that in the US, 4% of Catholic priests and deacons in active ministry between 1950 and 2002 had been accused of the sexual abuse of an under-18 year old.

But statistics about secular child sex abuse tend to focus on the numbers of victims instead of perpetrators. The same report finds that in academic studies something like 20% of US men and women report experience of childhood sexual abuse.

The US Education Department says that “nearly 9.6% of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct sometime during their school career”.

According to the NSPCC, 16% of under-16 year olds experience sexual abuse, two-thirds of which comes from people who are neither family nor complete strangers.

Nothing about such findings let’s the Catholic Church off the hook, but it is far from proven that the Church has a worse record than secular institutions such as schools and children’s homes.


The Church has compounded the crimes of its priests by the culture of denial and cover-up that has permeated the institution from top to bottom, by demanding silence of victims and by its failure to hand perpetrators over to the police.

But again is this really any worse than social work institutions that presided over similar horror stories in the 1970s and have only been forced to get their houses in order recently?

To be sure, the sense that the Church has protected criminals and taken their side against their accusers on the principle that precisely because it is the church of Jesus Christ its reputation needs to be protected from the truth is disgusting, and the Church’s claim to be morally superior to the rest of the world is obviously rubbish.

It’s just not clear that it’s significantly worse.

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