The results of the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse are as stark as they are staggering. They may also be surprising, because while we have long wrung our hands over the tragedy of priestly abuse, seeing the report’s statistics in aggregate may be the first time many Catholics fully understand just how many female victims have been preyed upon over the years by priests. While the first image of a victim may be a choir boy or altar boy, just shy of a quarter of victims in the cases studied were females: girls, teens and women, suffering at the hands of men they trusted as pastors, teachers, counselors, family friends.
That single statistic should dramatically change the way we talk about clergy sexual abuse. For too long, the conversation has been held hostage by those with a homophobic agenda, those on the right who see the tragedy as a convenient excuse to purge the church of gay priests. Overly simplistic, thoroughly unscientific, opportunistic, this response is also offensive, because it imposes a harsh and unjust sentence on thousands of good men serving the church faithfully — and lawfully.
Even more toxic, though, is the reality that the focus on gay men ignores the trauma of female victims abused by heterosexual priests. In a church long criticized for its marginalization of women, ignoring the plight of females in this instance is nothing short of re-victimization. We have long known that sexual violence is not about desire, but about power and control. It’s also a crime that prompts a deep sense of isolation for the victim. If we don’t reference the female victims, acknowledging their unique experiences, we only serve to buy into that systemic marginalization and become part of the problem. But as things now stand, even though we can safely expect thousands of female victims to come to light as grand jury investigations roll out in state after state, no one anticipates a rallying cry to rid the church of heterosexual priests.
When the Pennsylvania report was released this past August, it showed that 6 percent of the thousand cases examined involved prepubescent girls, while 16 percent of victims were female adolescents. Women represented another 1 percent of victims. The resulting indicator of 23 percent of all victims translates to about 250 female victims out of the 1,000 studied, a number that falls in line with the 2004 John Jay College Report, commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which indicated that 19 percent of clergy abuse victims are female.
After the release of the Pennsylvania report, First Things rushed in with a piece headlined “Why Men Like Me Should Not be Priests,” authored by a gay man, while one of Lifesite News’ first stories on the report ran with the headline “Accused Pennsylvania Priest Predators Preyed Mostly on Teen Boys: Analysis.” Overlooked in this coverage was the voice of the female victims, their suffering ignored. (When I questioned one woman who posted to an alt-right site advocating for a purge of gay priests how this would help all the female victims, her response was cool and brutal: since there are more male victims than female victims, the girls and women would have to wait.)
In the mainstream media’s coverage following the release of the grand jury, references to female victims tended to the particularly salacious or remarkable: the victims who became pregnant or the priest who abused five of eight girls in a family, as if one could quantify the crime and resulting suffering.
As more and more dioceses undergo grand jury investigations, our understanding of how widespread the problem is can only grow. After all, abuse is a crime of opportunity, and up until recently, the young people who priests have come in contact with have overwhelmingly been boys, whether because the local bishop insisted only boys could be altar servers, or because teaching priests were assigned to all-boys’ high schools or because seminarians are, by definition, all male.
A 2011 article by Karen Terry and Joshua Freilich in the Journal of Child Sex Abuse, however, analyzed data indicating that when priests began to gain more access to young females in the 1990s, the number of female victims grew also, offering a perverse twist on women’s desire to find equality in the church.
The John Jay College Report followed the Boston Globe’s explosive 2002 expose on abuse in the church, coverage which, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report notes, inspired people in Pennsylvania to report their own experiences of abuse. No doubt the Pennsylvania report will likely spur others to report as well.
In response to the latest explosive accountings — not only from the U.S. but from around the world — Rome has arranged the meeting on the protection of minors this coming February at the Vatican. The first of its kind, it’s an important step. But while women and abuse victims are involved in the preparatory work, and lay men and women experts in abuse will attend as advisers, as of this writing the people with the power around the table at this meeting are all men.
The Vatican Press Office notes that “Pope Francis wants Church leaders to have a full understanding of the devastating impact that clerical sexual abuse has on victims.” We must remain hopeful that experts in the field will move the discussion away from a simplistic, knee-jerk understanding of who abusers are and why they abuse to a more comprehensive understanding of why the church is vulnerable, how to end the problem and how to heal the victims.
As the women victims look on and view a sea of black and scarlet collars at the decision-making table, I wonder how hopeful they will feel that change is coming anytime soon.
Catherine Mulroney is programs coordinator at the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.