Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Questionable statistics in the French abuse report

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 08, 2021

By now, sad to say, we all know what to expect when an independent commission issues a report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The sensational headlines, the huge numbers, the exposure of cover-ups, the expressions of outrage and betrayal have become all too familiar. So this week’s report from France—shocking as it was—could not really be called a surprise. Still the magnitude of the scandal, as reported by the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church, was enough to jolt even someone who has been reading similar reports for years. Over 300,000 young people were molested by clerics or church officials between 1950 and 2020, the commission said. That huge figure cried out for headline treatment.

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But could we take a closer look at the statistics? On closer inspection, several oddities appear.

First, the figure of 300,000 victims includes not merely the young people molested by priests, but also those who were preyed upon by teachers, ushers, janitors—anyone involved in Catholic parishes, schools, and other institutions. Priests accounted for about 200,000 of the victims. That number by itself is horrific; there was no need to inflate it by adding in a wide variety of other cases, in which it is impossible to generalize about the degree to which the Church could be held responsible.

Second, these figures are only estimates—and rough estimates at that. The commission allowed that the actual number of priests’ victims might be 50,000 higher or lower than the figure given in the report. The actual number, the report said, could be anywhere from 165,000 to 270,000 victims. That’s an enormous margin of error, indicating that these “statistics” aren’t really statistics at all, but informed guesses.

In fact, the commission actually identified 7,500 victims. From that figure, the commission extrapolated. Extrapolations are based on assumptions, and assumptions can always be questioned. The commission based its projections largely on the results of a survey that was sent to almost 250,000 people. But only 28,000 people returned the survey. As any pollster will tell you, it is dangerous to base any assumptions on the results of a self-selected sample.

Third, although the number of victims is huge, the number of priests accused of abuse is lower than what has been reported elsewhere. The commission estimated that 2.5-2.8% of the priests active in France over the past 70 years have been accused of abuse. In the US, the John Jay report put the figure at 4% of all priests. Again that is a noteworthy difference, which begs for an explanation.

Fourth, the number of victims does not match the number of perpetrators. If roughly 3,000 priests molested roughly 210,000 young people—the numbers given in the report—then the average priest-molester racked up 70 victims. In the US, only a handful of the most notorious priest-predators approached that number of victims. To reach an average of 70, every two priests who molested “only” five boys would have to be balanced by a super-predator who victimized 200. The report insists that this is “possible,” and maybe so. But it certainly is not plausible.

These questionable statistics undermine the credibility of what is otherwise a powerful report, and make me question whether the French bishops, who paid $3 million for the commission’s investigation, received an adequate return on that investment.

Yet no one seems inclined to raise tough questions about the report. The French hierarchy reacted to the report with statements of grief, and renewed apologies for the betrayal of the innocent—as did the Vatican. The victims’ advocates denounced the perfidy of Church leaders who allowed the abuse. The media stressed the scope of the scandal, searching for superlatives, putting a heavy emphasis on those shaky statistics without examining them. The public responses, like the report itself, were fairly predictable. No one has much appetite for digging further into the matter.

Frankly, neither do I. The fundamental truths of the matter were easily established. The report presented us with an awful but familiar picture: thousands of innocent young people were violated; hundreds of priests were protected by Church officials; dozens of bishops were complicit. We don’t need exact figures in order to understand the scope of the scandal; it is catastrophic.

The most important element of the commission’s report was its stinging indictment of the attitude that prevailed in the French hierarchy: a reflexive willingness to protect the clerical molesters at the expense of their innocent victims. Has that attitude changed? Will it change? Those are the key questions that should be addressed. The eye-catching statistics are only a distraction.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 11, 2021 5:26 AM ET USA

    "Has that attitude changed? Will it change?" - The Biblical teachings on the subjects of corruption of the little ones, and on homosexuality, are more than clear. But as long as the teachings sound too rigid to the hippie crowd in the hierarchy and are dismissed or "updated" to match the cultural marxist fads of the day, there will be no change.