Breaking Glass

Of Priests and Peducators

Over the past decade, I have been involved in public debate over the problem of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and that experience has taught me a great deal about the way people come to understand—or, rather, misunderstand—social problems.  My point is simple enough.  While some priests have undoubtedly been abusive, and a few have been criminal predators of the first order, there is no evidence that Catholic clergy are more likely than any other social group to abuse children.  At many times, my position has been desperately unpopular because it runs flat contrary to what “everyone knows,” which is that the priesthood is seething with perversion and pedophilia.  But how exactly does “everyone know” this?  Nobody is claiming to have a detailed comparative chart of abuse rates in different professions, on which priests soar off the charts.  People believe in the evil nature of the priesthood because they hear so much about those wrongs, while they hear very little about other horrors committed by other groups, religious or secular.  What I have tried to explain is that what we hear about a given group, and what the media report, depends largely on how people expect that group to behave—in other words, on our assumptions, our prejudices. 

This issue of expectation is critical.  Imagine a hypothetical series of events in which some other group...

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