Do Religions Produce "More than Their Fair Share" of Child Abusers?
One Patheos' writer's logic is flawed. But church leaders should still be ashamed.

Terry Firma recently raised a provocative question through Hemant Mehta's "Friendly Athiest" channel on Patheos.com: Do all religions—not just Catholicism—produce more than their fair share of child sex abusers?

He says yes. Unfortunately for him, it's just not true. His methodology and logic are flawed. And the general evidence and expert opinions on the subject don't at all suggest religiously affiliated adults are more likely to sexually abuse children than other adults.

But, unfortunately for religious leaders, especially Christian pastors and church leaders, his piece still implicitly raises a damning (and related) question: Why don't we see fewer than our fair share of abuse cases?

We'll explore the latter (and frankly, more important) question in a moment because, per Christ's mandate to protect the most vulnerable in our midst (Matthew 18:6), we're committed to eliminating child abuse.

But first, let's consider Firma's argument.

Because My Google Alerts Say So

As the founder of a blog called Moral Compass, Firma says his question and the resulting conclusion are fair game. He bases this on his daily work throughout the past six months tracking media coverage of child sex abuse nationwide, along with the long-running scandal of abuses within the Catholic Church. Firma cites several examples, including a decades-long cover-up of cases at a high school operated by a Jewish university and numerous articles detailing child abuses in the Islamic community.

Like many of us in media, Firma presumably uses Google Alerts or news databases to help him find these headlines. So surprised was Firma about the regularity of such reports, that he began tagging his blog posts with the faith involved when he published them. By doing so, he says he now sees just as many Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic cases as Catholic ones:

(S)ometimes I almost feel sorry for the Catholic Church, because it's beginning to seem to me that the abuse is widespread throughout the world of religion (and beyond). And I think it isn't just selective perception or confirmation bias.

Except for one problem. It is selective perception. Firma says so earlier in his piece when he acknowledges his six-month review involved "very close attention, every day, to reports of sex crimes by clergy" (third emphasis added by me).

In other words, he's using anecdotal evidence drawn solely from one specific segment of society, not all segments. That simply doesn't work when considering his overarching premise: That religions produce "more than their fair share" of abusers. We're never told quite what "more than their fair share" means, so we're left to assume—relatively safely, I think—that he means more than the rest of the adult population in the country.

July 16, 2013

Displaying 1–4 of 4 comments

Mark

October 07, 2013  10:01am

Great article. If someone were able to expand the study worldwide other trends would emerge. Some random thoughts: 1. Since most of the world's population is "religious" in some way or another, most abusers will be "religious" and use their contacts in their religion to prey on children. Correlation does not equal causation. 2. Certain non-religious organizations such as NGOs, U.N. peacekeepers and others are known to have their employees "trade sex for help" or even go to foreign countries to prey sexually on children. In most cases when someone is caught he simply is sent back to his country of origin. 3. Some of the communist leaders (atheistic) in the last fifty years, such as Mao, were known to prefer children for their sexual satisfaction. I agree that the church - all denominations - needs to examine itself to see why the rate is not significantly lower in our ranks and what we can do to change this. But, there is no evidence to say that religion is the problem or religions produce more child abusers.

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Matt Branaugh

July 18, 2013  2:55pm

Steve–You make a fair point. I'm not aware of any statistical work that's been done that provides numbers supporting or refuting what you assert. I think we can safely say that there are some who have attended churches all of their lives and look to exploit opportunities to molest children. Perhaps a future piece would explore the role church leaders must play to build a culture that brings those individuals to a place of confession.

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Steve Sherwood

July 18, 2013  12:26am

I like this article, but I have one quibble. In discussing the much too high rate of abuse in churches (thank you), you primarily focus essentially on "outsiders" who recognize churches as lax, target rich environments and move in to prey upon children. That certainly happens, but that's hardly all, or, I suspect, most of the abuse that happens in churches. You don't talk much about the fact that life-long attenders, elders who have been a part of a congregation for decades, etc. perpetuate vast amounts of the abuse in churches. You cite a study that says abuse of children seems to be spread evenly across economic, racial, cultural demographics. The implications for us as Christians is what I'm commenting upon here. WE are the abusers, as much as those outside the church and that is the tragic and heartbreaking truth.

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Marshall

July 17, 2013  11:11am

Thanks, Matt, for clear thinking and helpful analysis. This is a problem that won't go away quickly or easily, but it's certainly one we can get better at preventing.

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