I was at a cocktail party, or at least what I call a cocktail party: an overdressed crowd of semi-strangers indulging in large drinks and small talk. I prefer neither.
A guy came up to me and said, “So, you’re the Catholic.” I didn’t realize that there was a diversity sign-in sheet and I was the token Catholic.
“Born and bred, raised and educated, graced and blessed,” I answered.
He sipped his drink then said in a lowered voice.
“Did one of those guys bother you?”
As God is my witness, I thought he meant one of the bartenders. “Nah, they seem like good eggs to me,” I said.
“No,” he shook his head, “One of those priests, you know, when you were a kid.”
“No,” I answered. “And I haven’t been struck by lightning, either.”
I wanted to be wittier, but that’s the best I could come up with on short notice.
I can’t pretend to even imagine what it is like to be a priest in public today — the behind-the-back sniggering, the sideways looks, the not-so-whispered insults. I used to be annoyed when a priest would not wear his collar to the mall. I understand it completely today.
For laymen, it is nothing like that, except for the assumption in the general public consensus that if you are a Catholic adult male, there must be a 50-50 chance that you were abused by a priest when you were a child. It’s stupid. It’s nonsensical. But it’s there.
The sexual abuse crisis has dominated the public image of the Catholic Church for a quarter of a century. It is almost impossible for the general public to think of the Catholic Church, or of the priesthood, without thinking of the sexual abuse of minors.
In one sense, it is reparation. Children were abused by a small number of priests — about 4 percent of the priests who served between 1950 and 2010, according to the study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.”
That’s a sin that has to be answered for, a penance that must be served, victims who have to be heard and respected.
But it is the myths of abuse and the Catholic Church that have become part of the collective cultural shorthand that need to be addressed if we are ever to really understand this evil in society.
When it is all a joke, a Jay Leno monologue at the expense of the Church, the real tragedy and extent of the sexual abuse of minors is ignored. The myths let society off the hook.
The biggest myth of all is that the sexual abuse of minors is a “Catholic problem.” The fact is that the sexual abuse of a minor is far more likely to take place in almost any other environment than that involving a priest.
The John Jay study showed that 4,392 priests out of a total of 109,694 priests serving in active ministry were accused of abuse of a minor. In 2001, it was estimated that five out of 100,000 young Catholics had been abused by a priest.
The average rate in the United States as a whole was 134 abused young people out of 100,000.
Despite the John Jay study, the myths will no doubt remain part of the cultural shorthand of the sexual abuse of minors. But as long as society continues to view this as a Catholic issue, the more likely that the sexual abuse of minors will continue to fester in American life.
No punch line. Just the hope and prayer that the John Jay study is the polite shove that moves the culture away from the jokes and the myths to the reality of abuse.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.