Majority of public overestimates number of priests who are guilty of child abuse

November 1, 2011- A CLEAR majority of the public overestimate the number of Catholic clergy who are guilty of child abuse, a new Amarach Research poll commissioned by The Iona Institute reveals.

The most authoritative estimate to date, conducted in the United States, puts the true number of accused priests at 4 percent. (See note three below).

However, seven out of every ten respondents believe the number is higher than this and 42 per cent put the number above 20 percent. Of these, 27 percent believe the number exceeds 40 percent, and 17 percent put it at half or more.

Five percent of the public believe that between 90 percent and 100 percent of all Catholic priests are guilty of child abuse. (For a fuller breakdown of the figures see note four below).

Therefore, close to half of the public are overestimating the number of guilty priests by a factor of at least five to one.

The findings of The Iona Institute poll are similar to those of a poll commissioned on this subject by the Royal College of Surgeons in 2002, although a higher percentage of the public are now grossly overestimating the number of priests who are guilty of child abuse.

The Royal College poll found that 11pc of the public believed that more than half of priests are guilty of child abuse. This latest poll, as mentioned, found that 17 percent of the public today put it at more than half.

Commenting on the findings on behalf of The Iona Institute, Professor Patricia Casey said: “There has been very deep and completely justified public anger over the scandal of child sex abuse by clergy. However, only a small minority of priests are guilty of this terrible crime and in the interests of justice, and in fairness to the vast majority of priests, it is essential that fact this becomes universally known among the public at large”.

Professor Casey continued: “It might be understandable if the public were overestimating the number of guilty priests by a factor of two or so, but the fact that so many members of the public are grossly overestimating the number of guilty priests should be a matter of deep concern to all fair-minded people.

“It could be claimed that the fact for this overestimation lies exclusively with the Church. However, as a normal rule when responsible media outlets are reporting crimes by certain groups such as Travellers or Muslims, great care is taken not to stereotype or demonise these groups.

“For example, when terrorist atrocities are committed in the name of Islam, responsible media point out that only a tiny minority of Muslims are guilty of these atrocities, and that such terrorist attacks are an aberration in Muslim terms, rather than a true expression of Islam”.

She concluded: “Therefore, when cases of clerical abuse are being reported, a similarly responsible attitude should be adopted, that is, the cases should be factually and objectively covered, but it should be made clear each and every time that only a very small minority of Catholic priests are guilty of child abuse”.

Notes to Editor

1.      The Iona Institute is a pro-religion organisation.

2.      These findings are based on a nationwide survey of 1,000 Irish people in September using the Amárach Research omnibus service.

3.      According to the most authoritative study on the topic, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the United States, four percent of priests in the US had one or more allegations of child abuse made against them in the period 1950 to 2002. The abuse scandals peaked between 1975 and 1985. The study is called ‘The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States’. No comparable study has been done of any other organisation anywhere in the world. The variation between US dioceses averaged at between 3-6%.

4.      Thirty one percent of respondents put the number of abusers at 5pc or less. Another 14pc put it at 6 to 10pc; 13pc put it at 11 to 20pc; 10pc at 21 to 30pc; 5pc at 31 to 40pc; 10pc at 41 to 50pc; 4pc at 51 to 60pc; 3pc at 61 to 70pc; 4pc at 71 to 80pc; 1pc at 81 to 90pc and 5pc at 91 to 100pc.