Clerical sexual abuse: what are the stats?

A couple of weeks ago, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton found himself in a media storm after he said in an interview with Andrew Bolt that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser had made mistakes in bringing some people to Australia in the 1970s.  Pressed for an answer in Parliamentary Question Time the following week, Mr Dutton said:

The advice I have is that out of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 of those people are from second- and third-generation Lebanese-Muslim background.

There were calls for an apology or even a resignation from Mr Dutton, a result which was reasonably predictable in today’s climate. 

But there was one article which was a little different.  In The Monthly, columnist Richard Cooke penned an article suggesting that allowing Catholic Priests into the country was a failed immigration policy given their propensity for offending.

It was obviously a tongue-in-cheek piece, an argumentum ad absurdum in response to Mr Dutton’s comments.  But the article did cause some concern amongst Catholics because of statistics cited without reference by Cooke.  He wrote:

 There are around 80,000 Lebanese Muslims in Australia. Of these, 22 have been charged with terrorism offences, or around one in 3600. There are around 3000 Catholic priests in Australia, plus a few hundred retirees. Of these, an astonishing one in 20 has been charged with child sexual abuse offences. And according to the best academic experts, the true number of offenders is around one in 15.

These statistics are alarming, but are they accurate?  In a word, no.

While he provided no source for his data, it appears Mr Cooke appeared to be getting his numbers from a study of clergy who graduated from Werribee seminary, Melbourne, between 1940 and 1966.  14 out of 378 Priests who were ordained after studying at Werribee were convicted of crimes against children, but the Archdiocese of Melbourne admitted that another four who had died without conviction were also abusers.

18 out of 378 gives a rate of 4.7%, which is a little under 1 in 20.

But these statistics from a singular seminary 50 to 75 years ago cannot be extrapolated to the entire cohort of Catholic Priests across Australia today and doing so is both unfair and misleading. 

No honest data analyst would take the statistics from one seminary and presume they apply to all other seminaries, because to do so would fail to account for specific factors which may have been attributable to that seminary.  Nor would they suggest that data which demonstrated that 18 offenders who were ordained more than 50 years ago as proof of the outrageous claim that there are 150 clergy offenders currently in Australia.

People often point to the John Jay Report from the United States, which looked at allegations made against clergy in the US over a 52 year period and found that 4.4% of clergy have been accused of child sexual abuse.  But to be clear, this number relates to accusations, not convictions or even instances where criminal charges were laid but not successful.

During the 52-year period covered by the John Jay Report, 384 Priests were charged with criminal offences out of 109,694 Priests who were active during the same timeframe.  This equates to 0.35% of clergy who had been charged with abuse, or about 1 in 300.

While even one Priest committing an offence is too many, exaggerating the numbers is of benefit to no one.

As mentioned above, it is obvious that Mr Cooke’s piece was not an attempt at serious journalism, and so this article is less of a response to him and more of a guide for Australian Catholics who were wondering about the numbers as a result.  As we prepare for the Catholic “wrap up” hearing at the Royal Commission in February 2017, a number of claims will be made about the Church and her Priests.  Stay tuned to catholicTalk for the stories behind the sensationalism.

Monica Doumit, catholicTalk editor

Wednesday, 07 December 2016 06:55 Written by 
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in CathTalk blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of all members of that of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney.

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