France is reeling after yesterday’s release of a report on child sexual abuse. An estimated 216,000 victims suffered abuse between 1950 and 2020, according to the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE).
“The church failed to see or hear, failed to pick up on the weak signals, failed to take the rigorous measures that were necessary,” Jean-Marc Sauvé, the president of the commission, told the media in Paris. For years, the church showed a “deep, total and even cruel indifference toward victims.”
“The Catholic Church is thus, with the exception of family and friendship circles, the environment in which the prevalence of sexual violence is by far the highest,” the report said.
The report is massive – about 2,500 pages of background, analysis, and testimony from victims – so even the French will have difficulty in assessing it. However, an executive summary – which has also been published in English – makes available the report’s principal conclusions and recommendations.
To the eternal shame of the Catholic Church, there have been a number of reports on sexual abuse around the globe and their findings are always the same: a large number of priests abused children in the decades after World War II. Bishops covered it up, sometimes with the complicity of the police. This has been the story in Australia, Ireland, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany.
However, it’s always important to look at the fine print and not just the headlines. Is this report fair? And my impression is: No, it’s not.
I don’t want to be misunderstood. As I wrote about the report of Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse, these are “horrifying stories of abuse by men (they are nearly all men) and women consecrated to God. They are deplorable and inexcusable and cry out to the Almighty for redress. The lives of many innocent children have been ruined.”
The only decent response to the testimony of the victims is rage. Sometimes I muse that barbaric punishments, like stoning to death, should be revived for these barbaric crimes.
But we live in a civilised society which is built on the rule of law. The guilty must be punished, but first they must be proven guilty. They have a right to an advocate to speak in their defence. And guilt is not proven simply by citing a few headlines.
Unfortunately, media coverage of the French report, in my estimation, has been very poor. Journalists have plucked a few startling figures from the executive summary with very little critical sense. If French Catholics want to reform their Church, they have to work with facts, not emotions.
Here are a few issues that call for further explanation.
(1) The report’s executive summary is headed: “Sexual Violence in the Catholic Church France 1950 – 2020”. One would assume that all the statistics relate to these seven decades. But this is not the case. It appears the statistics also include the years 1940 to 1949 (pages 125 and 151 of the Report). At one point it states that “the period 1941-1969 accounted for 55.9% of the violence committed against minors by clerics and religious — i.e. approximately 121,000 minors.”
It’s not clear how much abuse happened in the 1940s, but including it in the figures for 1950 to 2020 distorts the total abuse significantly. Statistically, it verges on deception.
(2) The horrifying headline figure of 216,000 is an estimate, according to the New York Times, “ a projection based on a general population survey, archival analysis, and other sources”. In short, it is an informed guess. When studying clerical abuse of children, any number greater than zero is infinitely too much. But readers of the report need to understand that the figure of 216,000 is an extrapolation. Like all such figures, it has its limitations – especially considering that many of the perpetrators and victims must have died decades ago. Only an experienced historical statistician is capable of assessing whether they are realistic.
(3) The report says that at least between 2,900 and 3,200 priests and religious were perpetrators of sexual violence (page 225). However, these figures need to be explained. They do not represent convictions or even substantiated allegations. The names of about 1,500 abusers are known from Church archives. The other 1,500 is an educated guess based on archives, fresh allegations, and statistical extrapolations.
Since there were 115,000 clergy in France during this period, the rate of offending was found to be roughly 3 percent. This, the Commission noted, is much less than corresponding figures for other countries, which range between 4.4 percent and 7.5 percent. Perhaps it is even less, given that the data includes the 1940s.
(4) The most damning allegation in the report is that the Catholic Church is the most dangerous place for children in France. What evidence is there of this? Not much.
A bar chart on page 233 of the report depicts the incidence of abuse: in the family (3.7%), unknown (2.1%), friends of the family (2.0%), friends (1.8%), clergy (0.82%), lay Catholic employees (0.4%), holiday camps (0.38%), and public schools (0.34%).
However, the figure for public schools excludes public boarding schools, although this is only disclosed in a footnote. If abuse in this setting is included, the percentage for public schools rises to 0.49%. Why was it excluded?
In any case, the figure for public schools is simply not credible. While the public eye is currently on the Catholic Church, France’s public schools have a scandalous record for sexual abuse.
In 2015, the minister for education, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, was forced to admit that 16 teachers had been allowed to continue working in schools even though they had convictions for paedophilia on their record. Homayra Sellier, founder of Innocence en Danger, an NGO dedicated to child abuse victims, told the media that this was just the tip of the iceberg. “The ministry of education has covered this up for years. The government has never been inclined to listen to these stories.” She estimated that there were “thousands” of cases in public schools.
As I pointed out above, the figures in the report are rubbery, but in the 50 years from 1970 to 2020, 75,000 children were allegedly abused by clergy – that’s 2,500 a year. Is that more or less than the number in public schools? It is far from clear.
(5) The report states starkly that “The Catholic Church is the place where the prevalence of sexual violence is at its highest, other than in family and friend circles.” This invites two questions. First, how does the Commission know this if Protestant, Jewish and Muslim communities have not been investigated with the same rigour? How about the French military, whose soldiers were alleged to have been involved in horrific abuse of children in the Central African Republic a few years ago. How about sporting associations?
Second, the report uses the present tense, “is”. It fails to analyse the abuse by decades, but it does indicate that more than half of the abuse (55.9%) happened before 1970 and that it declined up until 1990. Thereafter the picture is murkier. Less than half the abuse (44.1%) happened in the 50 years to 2020. It appears that things did improve. Perhaps in the 1960s the Catholic Church might have been the worst place, but is that still the case? Like many of the startling allegations highlighted by the media, this withers under closer scrutiny.
The report is grim and depressing. If one act of sexual violence on a child is enough for the earth to open beneath a clerical perpetrator – how about 216,000? However, it’s important for the French Church to demand the full truth. The Commission’s analysis is dismayingly imprecise; it’s not necessarily accurate.
And a lot is at stake. The report’s recommendations, for instance, include a revision of how priests observe the seal of confession.
In the United States, a newspaper columnist concluded after a similar report in Pennsylvania that “It is time to face the horrible truth: The Catholic church is a paedophile ring … Like a criminal syndicate, it is time for the Church to be broken apart and cleaned out.” France has a long, long history of anti-clericalism and its enemies could try to use this report to écrasez l’infâme, in the words of Voltaire, to crush the loathsome beast.
It’s absolutely necessary to get the facts right. The victims of clerical sexual abuse deserve justice, but justice must always be based on truth.