Child abuse sadly appears to be widespread in all societies, writes David Quinn
A major report into the problem of child abuse in the Catholic Church in Holland was published in the run-up to Christmas.
The report brings us closer to being able to answer such questions as whether the problem was worse in Ireland than in other countries, and whether it was worse in the Catholic Church than in other organisations.
The report found that in the period 1945 to 2010 ”tens of thousands” of Dutch people now over the age of 40 suffered some form of abuse, from mild to severe, at the hands of a Catholic priest, or religious or lay worker.
This is a truly horrible finding that heaps further shame on Catholics everywhere.
The report was commissioned by the Dutch bishops last year and its findings are based mainly on reports of abuse made directly to the investigating body and on a huge survey of more than 34,000 Dutch people aged 40 or more.
The survey was interested only in those who had suffered above by a non-family member.
It found that one in 10 of those surveyed had suffered abuse in this way and of those between one in 30 and one in 10 had been abused by a Catholic priest, religious or lay worker. (The 23 English-language summary of the 1,000 page Dutch-language report does not make clear why such a big variation in the estimate of abuse by Catholic workers exists).
To put it another way, based on the survey, between 0.3pc and 0.9pc of Dutch people over the age of 40 had been abused by a Catholic worker as a child.
One or two notes of caution must be struck about the Dutch survey before proceeding. It is not clear from the English summary what the response rate was.
That is, what percentage of people contacted actually answered the questions? If it was low, it may not be truly representative of the population.
Secondly, more than half of respondents were Catholic. But in 1947 (according to the report itself) 38.5pc of Dutch people were Catholic and today it is about 29pc.
Unless the report adjusted the survey results to take this into account, it means that the percentage of people who reported being abused by a Catholic worker is higher than it should be. In other words, the report may be overestimating the prevalence of abuse in the Catholic Church.
The report finds that people who were in institutional care as children were twice as likely to be abused as other children. This stands to reason because abusers in such settings have particularly easy access to children.
However, and crucially, it also found that the prevalence of abuse in Catholic institutions was no higher than in non-Catholic ones.
What this means is that child abuse is not disproportionately a Catholic phenomenon as some would have us believe.
That is, the problem is not worse in the Catholic Church than in other organisations and therefore there is no particular characteristic of Catholicism that makes it uniquely prone to the problem of abuse.
Interestingly, the report has words to say about media coverage of child abuse within the Catholic Church and warns against the media conveying the impression ”that sexual abuse of minors occurred primarily within the Catholic Church” or in educational establishments.
Unfortunately, most of the media paid no attention to this section of report because more media coverage once again gave the impression that this is a problem particularly associated with the Catholic Church.
It is little wonder that many people badly overestimate the number of priests guilty of child abuse.
To judge from the SAVI report, the one major survey of child sexual abuse in the Irish population, released in 2002, roughly 13pc of Irish people, or almost one in eight, were abused as children by non-family members. (Eighteen per cent were abused if you include family members).
This is a terrifying statistic and while it is hard to make direct comparisons with the Dutch report, it indicates that the overall societal problem here is somewhat worse than in Holland, particularly among boys.
SAVI indicates that 3.7pc of Irish people abused as children were abused by a Catholic priest or religious. This seems to be very roughly comparable with the Dutch figures, allowing for the lower percentage of the Dutch population that is Catholic.
However, treat this comparison with care because, as mentioned, it is very hard to directly equate the Dutch report and the SAVI report (SAVI stands for Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland).
So, what conclusions can we draw? The first is the shocking one that child sexual abuse — ranging from very mild to very severe in nature — seems to be very widespread in all societies.
A second, very tentative conclusion is that the incidence of abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland and Holland appears to be roughly comparable.
A third is that the problem is no worse in Catholic institutions than in non-Catholic institutions. A certain amount of comfort can be drawn from this, but not much because an institution informed by Christian values should have much lower levels of abuse than non-Christian ones. Indeed, the level of abuse should be zero. Then again, it should be zero everywhere.