The truth about priests

From 2009: It is hard to believe, but not every Catholic priest is a pedophile

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December 7th 2009: The Truth About Priests

Bishop Lahey

Even to the eyes of a seasoned child pornography investigator, the photographs are horrific. One image depicts a young boy, no older than 12, standing on a wooden deck, a pair of white underwear pulled down around his knees. In the next shot, a different naked boy is sitting in an office chair, with two holy rosaries—one white, one black—dangling from his skinny neck. It’s impossible to know for sure, but detectives believe the anonymous boy could be as young as nine years old.

In yet another photo—one of 964 discovered on Bishop Raymond Lahey’s laptop—a male teenager is posing in front of a bookcase. “He is blond and looks hurt as there are red welts and marks on his stomach and chest area,” according to a police statement filed in court. “He looks sad in this image.”

Sadness does not even begin to describe such a betrayal. In August, the same Bishop Lahey proudly announced a historic, out-of-court settlement worth millions of dollars for victims who were sexually assaulted by Catholic priests in his diocese of Antigonish, N.S. Then, just weeks after the press release, he was flagged by border guards following a flight from England to Ottawa, and—after a peak inside his Toshiba—charged with possessing and importing child pornography.Like everyone, Lahey is entitled to his day in court (his next appearance is Dec. 16). As he told police during his first interrogation, he has “never done anything that would be abusive with a child” and has “no time for child exploitation.” His downloads, however, tell a much more sinister story: when the good bishop wasn’t negotiating with victims of sexual abuse, he was in his rectory, staring at graphic images of the very same crime.

Though shocking, Lahey’s arrest was not exactly surprising. Sadly, he is just the latest in a long, infamous line of Catholic clergymen accused of preying on innocent children (or in his case, watching from afar as others prey on innocent children). The headlines have been repeated so many times over so many years that it’s difficult to look at any man in a Roman collar and not assume the worst. Of course Bishop Lahey had kiddie porn on his computer. All priests are pedophiles.

In pop culture, at least, that presumption is now gospel truth. Doubt, last year’s Oscar-winning movie, centres on a priest suspected of sexually abusing a student. The latest Scotia­bank Giller Prize was awarded to Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, a novel that tells the story of a guilt-ridden East Coast cleric whose job is to clean up—and cover up—any whiff of scandal in the diocese. And if a priest shows up in an episode of Law & Order, odds are he is attracted to nine-year-old boys. “I’ve seen TV shows where the surprise ending is that the priest is not the pedophile,” says Philip Jenkins, a professor at Penn State University and author of Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis.

The media is not to blame for the allegations against Bishop Lahey—or the sins of any other priest who uses his spiritual authority to violate a child. If parishioners assume the man saying mass is a molester, it’s because thousands of priests actually were molesters. Law & Order did not invent the stereotype, and neither did newspapers. Priests did.
But at the risk of downplaying decades of unspeakable abuse—or forgiving a Church hierarchy that moved heaven and earth to suppress scandal and protect criminal clergy—an obvious point is often ignored: the vast, vast majority of Catholic priests are not sexual predators. In fact, the scientific research suggests that men who target children are no more pervasive in the priesthood (and perhaps less pervasive) than in any other segment of society. Depending on the study, somewhere between two and four per cent of priests have had sexual contact with a minor. Or, to put it another way, between 96 and 98 per cent have not.

“It’s part of that myth—the myth of the pedophile priest who can’t help himself,” says Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University who has published dozens of studies about sexually abusive priests. “It’s really an issue of perception rather than reality. Believe it or not, probably the safest place for a kid to be is in a Catholic church environment.”

That certainly wasn’t the case for John Swales and his two younger brothers, Guy and Ed. Back in the summer of 1969, the boys attended a summer camp for low-income kids where they met a charming, larger-than-life volunteer named Father Barry Glendinning. An instructor at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont., the priest soon became a surrogate big brother. He gained the trust of the boys’ parents, showered them with pizzas, movies and booze, and, when opportunity knocked, introduced them to sex. John was 10 years old when the first assault took place. “You name it, he did it,” Swales says.

Glendinning was later convicted of six counts of gross indecency, but for Swales, the damage was already done. His life spiralled into a hell of drug addiction and male prostitution. “I’m coming out on the other end, but there is no healing,” he says now, 40 years later. “The impact is so intense and so deep-rooted it is beyond comprehension and beyond my ability to express it. That sounds melodramatic, but when you have sex at the age of 10 with your priest, it’s pretty weird.”

John Swales at St. Peter’s Seminary in London, Ont.

In 2004, the Swales family won a landmark $1.3-million judgment against Glendinning and the London diocese, but not before a bitter court battle that dragged on for years. The diocese went so far as to file a countersuit against John, claiming he was to blame for some of his brothers’ pain because he also molested them—albeit after Glendinning molested all three of them. The judge was not convinced: “Blaming John for his assaults on his siblings would be similar to blaming Frankenstein’s monster for his actions, rather than attributing its behaviour to the scientist who created it.”

Tragically, the Swales saga is not an isolated one. The Catholic Church, both in Canada and abroad, is rife with stories of priests who took advantage of vulnerable kids—and bishops who, at the first sign of trouble, simply shuffled them off to a different parish. Kevin Bennett. Charles Sylvestre. Thomas O’Dell. Bernard Prince. John Geoghan. Mount Cashel Orphanage. The list goes on and on.

But as implausible as it may sound—especially so soon after Bishop Lahey’s arrest—the Catholic priesthood is not overflowing with serial sex offenders. For all the pain he inflicted, Barry Glendinning is an exception, not the rule. “What has happened with some priests is obviously extremely distressing, but it is important to remember that this is still a very tiny percentage of priests that we’re talking about,” says Frederick Berlin, founder of the sexual disorders clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. “It’s important to put this into the proper context.”

Context, of course, is often mistaken for a cop-out. But after so much scandal, knowing the stats is arguably just as important as knowing what Lahey was hiding on his laptop.

In 1993, experts analyzed the files of 1,322 priests who were hospitalized over a 25-year period at Southdown Institute, an Ontario facility that treats clergy suffering from a wide range of psychological disorders. Fewer than three per cent were pedophiles. Around the same time, the archdiocese of Chicago examined its own records over the previous 40 years—spanning more than 2,200 priests—and reopened every internal complaint. The result: fewer than two per cent sexually abused a child. A New York Times analysis conducted a decade later found the same rate across the United States: 1.8 per cent.

The bible of all such studies was released in 2004. Commissioned by American bishops and conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the analysis was both startling and sobering: between 1950 and 2002, exactly 4,392 priests and deacons in the U.S.—four per cent—were accused of child sexual abuse. There were a total of 10,667 victims, and the allegations ranged from touching over clothing (52.6 per cent) to penile penetration (22.4 per cent).

The revelation that four out of every 100 priests were leading double lives is hardly reassuring. And one victim—let alone 10,667—is one victim too many. But if nothing else, the John Jay study does offer compelling proof that priests, on average, don’t seem to be any more dangerous than the people sitting in their pews.

Nobody knows for sure how often Boy Scout leaders or hockey coaches or daycare workers abuse the children under their watch. Headlines are the only indication. But consider this stat: according to the most reliable figures, 13 per cent of men and up to 40 per cent of women say they were sexually abused as children. The huge majority of those crimes occur inside the home—and the culprit is usually a relative, not the local priest. “We don’t know what the prevalence rate is for the general population, but it has to be at least double what it is for priests,” Plante says. “We can estimate it backwards through the lens of the victim.”

We also don’t know the prevalence among other religious leaders. So while four per cent may seem high (or low), it’s impossible to say whether rabbis or imams or pastors are violating children at the same pace as their Catholic counterparts. “It’s clear that the Catholic Church has a bull’s eye on it,” says Leslie Lothstein, a Connecticut-based psychologist who has counselled hundreds of wayward clergy. “No one is really collecting that data systematically for all Protestant sects. The same is true for the Jewish clergy, and while little is known about the Muslim clergy, it’s clear that when you actually work with people who are sexually abused, everyone seems to be part of the act.”

Even John Swales, a man who has suffered so much at the hands of the Church, chooses his words carefully. Despite a lifetime of agony, he also knows that every priest is not Father Glendinning. “We focus way too much on the act and the individual,” he says. “The real problem here is the response to the issue. We keep saying Lahey, Glendinning, and we throw these names out, but the real failing is the institutional response to these deviants. Every culture, every occupation has these issues of sexual abuse. Few have the ability to conceal it like the Church does.”

Indeed, nobody at the Vatican should be celebrating the fact that Catholic priests don’t have a monopoly on child molestation. The gravity of a sin is not measured by how many people commit it. Priests, after all, are supposed to be God’s earthly representatives, and when they rape a child, the sense of betrayal is that much more grievous. “Soul murder,” as Lothstein describes it.

Which is why the numbers, though enlightening, don’t speak for themselves. It’s one thing to know that four per cent of priests assault kids; it’s quite another to know why.

The answer, unfortunately, is anything but simple. Even the term “pedophile priest” is largely misleading.

Some clergy offenders do meet the clinical diagnosis for pedophilia, a disorder defined as a “sustained interest in prepubescent children.” But not all pedophiles act on their fantasies—and not all child molesters are pedophiles. Some abusers have no attraction whatsoever to prepubescent children, but, in a drunken haze, choose their young victim because nobody else is around.

The research shows that most guilty priests are actually ephebophiles: people attracted to post-pubescent boys, typically between 13 and 17. For a victim, though, such a distinction is completely irrelevant. Whether seven or 14, an altar boy is still a minor and the perpetrator priest is still a criminal.

So why do four per cent of priests abuse children? “It would be like asking me: ‘why does anyone sexually abuse minors?’ ” Berlin says. “What they’ve shared in common is that they’ve acted in an improper way sexually. But what they’re like in terms of character, personality, temperament, the degree of remorse they may or may not be showing, you really have to assess that on a case-by-case basis.” In other words, what motivates one priest to steal a child’s innocence is not always the same thing that triggers another.

One theory does stand out: the vow of celibacy. Some researchers believe that because aspiring priests are forced to ignore any and all carnal urges, those urges later manifest themselves as obsessions. In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when many would-be abusers were studying to be ordained, some entered the seminary as young as 13. Simply put, their lives become a constant, adolescent struggle against masturbation. “They were taught that any sexual thought, impulse or feeling was a mortal sin, so they repressed the whole area,” says Donald Hands, a Wisconsin psychologist who ran a treatment centre for clergy. “This paralyzed them at an adolescent level of psychosexual development. When they entered midlife, they began to act out delayed sexual urges. Unfortunately, they acted out by assaulting boys of the same age that they had been when they surrendered their sexuality at the seminary gates.”

Richard Sipe, a former priest who has written three books about the dark side of chastity, is much more blunt. “The system breeds abusers. I don’t know any other way to put it. The Catholic Church, in its management of sexuality, is corrupt. It insists on sexual deprivation without education.”

Deprivation is certainly a dominant theme in the life of a priest, pedophile or not. Most live alone, oversee numerous parishes, and secretly long to be known beyond their Roman collar. One landmark study, conducted by Loyola University in Chicago, found that the majority of American priests (57 per cent) are psychologically underdeveloped—“emotionally immature,” “unfulfilled as persons” and “shaped by the expectations of others rather than a discovery of themselves.” Eight per cent were diagnosed as mal-developed, with “serious psychological problems” and “disruptive sexual conflicts.”

Ask the average Catholic, and they know the solution: let priests get married. But that assumption, Plante says, is as much of a myth as the pedophile priest. “People will say: ‘Oh, if they weren’t celibate, the problem goes away.’ We know that’s not true. Sexual abuse is not an uncommon thing out there, whether you’re married or not, whether you’re a priest or not. It’s common.”

Same goes for child pornography. The RCMP recently estimated that 65,000 Canadians are viewing kiddie porn online. Lahey may have been one of them, but even if all 9,000 other priests in the country were doing the same thing, that leaves 56,000 others—including, no doubt, a large chunk of men wearing wedding rings. “It is simply unjustified to say that the commitment to celibacy is somehow a major factor in the abuse issue,” says John A. Loftus, a psychologist and Jesuit priest. “There are so many people who live terribly productive lives as celibates, so there is nothing about the commitment to celibacy that, in and of itself, creates pathology.”

Loftus also debunks another widely accepted theory: so many priests abuse young boys because so many priests are gay.

It is certainly true that the priesthood includes a large proportion of homosexuals—between 30 and 50 per cent, depending on the study. But there is no evidence that being gay makes a man more likely to molest a boy. Sex offenders choose their victims for a myriad of reasons, including convenience, and countless men who consider themselves heterosexual have preyed on teenage boys. “That sounds weird, but it’s true,” Plante says. “I’ve treated a lot of these guys, and a lot of them will say that when they’re walking down the street, what attracts them is a female. But who they end up violating is a boy.”

He continues: “If it were flipped around—if 80 per cent of the victims were girls—we would never say: ‘Get rid of all the heterosexual priests, and the problem goes away.’ In the end, there is just no evidence that being a priest [gay or straight] puts you at risk of being a sex offender. It just doesn’t exist. Sadly, one could argue that not being a priest is a risk of being a sex offender, because the percentages have to be higher in the general population of men.”

Percentages won’t exonerate Raymond Lahey, or a Catholic Church reeling from yet another bout of sexual misconduct. The faithful are staring at the altar with renewed suspicion, stats be damned. “A lot of priests feel as though they are walking under a shadow,” says Monsignor Dennis Murphy, a North Bay, Ont., priest and author of A View from the Trenches: Ups and Downs of Today’s Parish Priests. “People wonder about us. It’s not surprising, but it’s not easy to live with.”

Such mistrust was supposed to be a thing of the past. In the early 1990s, after two separate inquires revealed widespread clerical abuse in Atlantic Canada, the country’s bishops promised reform. The result, a detailed handbook entitled “From Pain to Hope,” encouraged dioceses to respond “fairly and openly” to allegations, provide counselling to victims, and “respect” the jurisdiction of civil authorities. “We weren’t as alert to some Gospel values in the past as we should have been,” says Everett MacNeil, an Ottawa priest who sat on the Winter commission of 1990, which uncovered systemic sexual abuse in the archdiocese of St. John’s. “We were so afraid of scandal. The motivation might have been good—‘Oh, we can’t let the people know this’—but it was a false, false approach.”

Today, priests undergo safe-environment training, and are taught never to be alone with a child. Every diocese has a lay committee that examines new allegations of sexual abuse. If a victim comes forward, he is immediately offered counselling and support. And if the complainant is under 18, police are automatically called (adults reporting historic abuse are given the option to alert authorities; some victims prefer not to). “There used to be a lack of understanding about sexual abuse,” says Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisberger, speaking on behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We tended to see it like alcoholism, that it was a moral problem and completely within the power of the individual to change. So normally, when people were discovered doing things like this, they were called in and given a royal dressing-down, hoping that they would be scared out of that kind of behaviour.”

And if that didn’t work, they would be transferred to a new community, free to exploit another batch of unsuspecting children. “That is not the way we deal with things today,” Weisberger says.

For many victims, the Church’s epiphany smacks of damage control, not genuine change. While bishops talk about care and compassion, their attorneys are busy fighting lawsuits at every turn. And unlike their American counterparts, Canada’s bishops still have no idea how far-reaching the problem is on this side of the border. Is the prevalence rate lower than four per cent? Or higher? In the U.S., each diocese is also subject to an annual public audit, detailing exactly how many new allegations are levelled in a given year. In Canada, we only hear about a case if it lands in court. The public has no idea how many accusations have been covered up with hush money, or how many victims have been scared into silence.

When asked about specific Canadian statistics, Weisberger says such a study would be expensive (the John Jay analysis cost US$4 million) and that kind of money would be better spent on safe-environment training and counselling. “I can see why people could be concerned about this,” he says. “But the bishops have decided in Canada that they don’t want to approach it that way.”

But why, after so much sin and deceit, should people now trust the Church to do the right thing? “Simply by the way we are dealing with things,” Weisberger answers. “I don’t know how else you can prove it.”

Philip Latimer has a different strategy. Now 47, he was an altar boy at St. Paul’s Church in Havre Boucher, N.S., when he was raped for the first time by Father Allan A. MacDonald. “My life was forever changed,” Latimer says, holding back tears. “I can only describe it to you this way: he reached into my soul, tore out everything in me that was good—mentally, physically and emotionally—and ran me through a blender.”

Latimer would have qualified for financial damages under the settlement signed by Lahey, but when he heard about the announcement he decided not to bother with the paperwork. Latimer had spent his life trying to forget Father MacDonald, and he wanted to keep it that way. But in late September, when word spread that Lahey was caught with child pornography, something snapped. “I couldn’t help but focus on this fact,” he says. “I kept thinking: ‘what am I going to do? What can I do? What should I do?’ ”

What he did was opt out of the class-action settlement and file a lawsuit of his own. If Lahey—the man supposedly looking out for victims—was victimizing others, what else is going on behind rectory doors? “The more and more people who commit this crime, the better and better they are at trying to hide this crime,” Latimer says. “Their plan is never to admit anything that they knew, and so my plan is to reveal everything that they knew.” Beyond the statistics.