Numbers

Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington

March 21, 2002

Below is Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick’s column from this week’s Catholic Standard newspaper.

Years ago, when I was studying for my doctorate in Sociology at Catholic University, I took a course in statistics. I confess that I couldn’t pass it now – and I suspect I barely passed it then. One of the things I remember about it was that, like all things in life, statistical conclusions are only as good as the data they are given to work on. I want to talk about that today.

The newspapers are giving a lot of scary statistics about priests who have abused minors. Sometimes the numbers make us shudder – and rightly so since even one such man who abuses a child is a disaster and a scandal for us all. However, it can help us to put the problem into a clearer context if we take a second look at what we are being told.

A week or so ago, a large diocese in the Northeast reported that 35 priests had credibly been accused of this crime. What was not stressed was that this covered a period of fifty years during which that local Church had more than 2,100 priests serving its Catholic people. We can all do the math. It comes to 1.5 percent of the priests, a little more than one in a hundred! Even the terrible statistics which have come out of Boston do not add up to two percent of the priests in that huge Archdiocese. I wonder what profession or group of men or women has a lower rate than that?

We don’t have such careful statistics on other groups in our society, basically because, unlike other organizations in the United States, the Church in our country has tried – often too late, I have sadly to admit – to take steps to face this problem and to put responsible practices in place.

If a person in a non-descript occupation abuses a minor, it is usually reported in the back pages of our newspapers. If, God forbid, it is a clergy person from another denomination, it gets up toward the front. But if it is a Catholic priest, it makes banner headlines. I am not really complaining about this last point. In a way it is a tribute to our priests that our society expects more of them than it does of others, and when we fail, it is so much more terrible. I just don’t want you to think that these numbers are an epidemic or unique to the priesthood. Less than two percent does not indicate that, although I say it again, even one priest who harms a child is one too many.

I hate to write about this or even to talk about it, but I want to put these statistics into context and to assure you as the servant of this Church of Washington that your love and respect for our priests is not misplaced. Pray for them – and for me – during these very difficult days. Be sure that, in a very special way now, all of us are gratefully thinking of you.

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