A Plea for Accuracy When Discussing Size of the Clergy Abuse Scandal

A plea for accuracy

Every few months, we at Horowitz Law see or hear a line like this and practically moan with disgust:

“The Catholic Church has dealt with decades of scandal as investigations have found hundreds of priests across the globe who sexually abused minors. . .”

This inaccurate and minimizing line appeared in the Denver Post. But sadly, many reporters have written similar sentences.

https://www.denverpost.com/2018/11/12/denver-priest-sexual-abuse-allegations/

As you might have guessed, it’s the word ‘hundreds’ that gets our goat. That’s nowhere close to accurate.

Hundreds of Catholic priests have been accused of abuse in several countries, including:

—Ireland.

https://www.inquirer.com/philly/news/special_packages/inquirer/When_faithful_flee.html

— Italy.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/12/world/australia/george-pell-sexual-abuse.html

http://www.bishop-accountability.org/AtAGlance/diocesan_and_order_lists.htm#Los_Angeles_CA

Hundreds of Catholic priests have been accused of abusing in several US states, including

— New York.

https://www.npr.org/2019/04/27/717798215/archdiocese-of-new-york-names-120-clergy-credibly-accused-of-child-sex-abuse

— Pennsylvania.

https://www.foxnews.com/us/hundreds-of-priests-sexually-abused-more-than-a-thousand-children-pennsylvania-attorney-general-says

— Texas. (NBC News)

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/hundreds-accused-abusers-named-catholic-leaders-texas-n965716

— California.

https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/catholic-churtch-los-angeles-archdiocese-priests-accused-pedophile-molest-children/1945910/

Heck, hundreds have been accused in just one California archdiocese: Los Angeles (Church officials say 244 priests but BishopAccountability.org says it’s actually 354 priests.)

And hundreds have been accused in two other archdioceses: Boston and New York. (287 priests and 211 priests respectively, says BishopAccountability.org.)

http://www.bishop-accountability.org/AtAGlance/diocesan_and_order_lists.htm#New_York_NY

And hundreds of priests have “been left off official ‘credibly accused’ lists in the US,” according to Pro Publica and the Associated Press)

https://projects.propublica.org/credibly-accused/

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2019-12-28/accused-clergy-church-sex-abuse-lists

So you get a sense of just how off base it is to claim “hundreds” of clerics across the globe are alleged child predators.

http://www.bishop-accountability.org/news2008/09_10/2008_10_20_Lambert_ManySuspended.htm

Since the US is roughly five percent of the world’s population, common sense tells us that the most accurate phrase to use would be “tens of thousands of priests have been accused. . .”

The New York Times came close to getting it right when it recently reported “Three popes over three decades have tried to manage an abuse scandal that has involved thousands of accusations against priests and clerics.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/16/world/europe/vatican-new-sex-abuse-rules.html

But even this understates the extent of this horror.

So our plea to journalists is this: Please get your figures right on the Catholic abuse crisis.

To some, it may not seem like a big deal. But to abuse victims, it certainly IS a big deal. And it’s a big deal to those of us at Horowitz Law. We believe in accuracy.

In some ways, being accurate when writing about this horrific topic is tough, in large part because church officials deliberately choose to not collect the information they should about clerics who commit and conceal child sex crimes. And when church officials have such information, they often refuse to make it public, even fighting tooth and nail in courts to preserve secrecy.

Still, no one needs to breach Vatican vaults or steal diocesan files to know that the phrase ‘hundreds of accused priests. . .’ just doesn’t cut it.

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2019-12-28/accused-clergy-church-sex-abuse-lists

And while we’re on this topic, let’s consider the word “accused.”

That doesn’t seem accurate to us either.

We’re not sure what’s the best wording to use. But many of the ‘accused’ have been deemed ‘credibly accused’ by church officials themselves, and been suspended from ministry or even defrocked. Precious few have been found guilty in criminal or civil courts. Still, just to lump them all into the generic category of ‘accused’ isn’t fully accurate. Many of these cases have been adjudicated in one form or fashion. And many of the ‘alleged’ offenders have in fact been formally declared guilty, in essence.

Finally, look again at that recent Times sentence: “Three popes over three decades have tried to manage an abuse scandal that has involved thousands of accusations against priests and clerics.”

They’re missing half of the picture, by making no mention of the cover up.

To many in the pews and in the public, that’s the hard-to-swallow scandal – that tens of thousands of supposedly healthy, well-educated and caring priests, nuns, bishops, seminarians, monks and lay employees either knew of feared that kids were being violated and didn’t holler STOP. Didn’t call 911. Didn’t report over and over and over to someone, inside or outside of the church, crimes and potential crimes.

And that at least thousands actively helped to hide this horror, and are still doing so.

So it’s just not accurate to say the crisis is about abuse. It’s about both abuse AND cover up.

When journalists make mistakes, some might believe that they’re lazy.

But we at Horowitz Law believe that, when journalists err, it’s because of the tight time pressures they face.

Regardless of the reason, when reporting abuse, we must all try to neither exaggerate NOR underplay how widespread this tragedy is.

(As always, the best source of information on this scandal is BishopAccountability.org. In fact, on the left side of the home page of the group’s website, near the top, is the “Data on the Crisis” tab. It’s a terrific compilation of solid stats about the crisis.)