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A recent controversy surrounding comments made in 2002 by Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has brought attention back to the sexual abuse scandal that was engulfing the Catholic Church at that time.
In the 2002 article on the Web site Catholic Online, Santorum wrote, “When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political, and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm of the clergy sexual abuse scandal.”
When asked for comment after those remarks were brought to light in a June Philadelphia Enquirer column, Santorum said, according to a report in the Boston Globe, “If you have a world view that I’m describing [about Boston] . . . that affirms alternative views of sexuality, that can lead to a lot of people taking it the wrong way.”
After enduring harsh criticism from many quarters, and meeting with victims of abuse who felt offended by his comments, Santorum told George Stephanopoulos in a July 31 interview that while when he wrote the article in 2002 he felt using Boston as an example was appropriate, “Now, I would not say it would be appropriate.”
It is a welcomed clarification. Still, his comments serve as another opportunity to place Boston in its proper context of the sexual abuse crisis of the Church in the United States.
Certainly the crisis erupted in Boston after the Globe printed a series of articles on defrocked priest John Geoghan in January 2002, beginning a series of revelations that ultimately led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as Archbishop of Boston in December later that year.
As the scandal unfolded, the national media coverage prompted victims in other areas of the country to come forward. Soon it became apparent that the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy was not unique to Boston.
In 2004, a review board appointed by the U.S. bishops published their findings on “The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States.” The John Jay report, as it became known, confirmed the national scope of the problem. “The consistency of the findings in dioceses across the United States is remarkable,” the report said.
The report provides comparative data from different regions in the United States. According to the report on Region 1, which includes all of New England, the percentage of accused priests — 5 percent — was about the same as most other regions.
The worst diocese in the New England Region had 10 percent of its clergy accused of abuse (the dioceses were not individually named in the report).
In the region comprised of New Jersey and Pennsylvania — Santorum’s home region — the diocese with the highest proportion of accused clergy had 24 percent of its priests accused — the highest rate of any area in the country.
An even further indication of the nationwide nature of the problem, the second diocese with the highest percentage of accused priests — 19 percent — was found in the region made up of Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas.
The statistics of sexual abuse are chilling. The report said that researchers could identify 4,392 priests who were accused of sexually abusing a youth under the age of 18 since 1950. In its own reporting, the Boston archdiocese identified 162 accused priests in the same period. While the numbers were horrendous here, clergy abuse was certainly not only a Boston problem.
The sexual abuse of minors by priests will always be remembered as a shameful tragedy. Victims have suffered, often in silence, as a consequence of the disgraceful actions of some of those who had the sacred duty to protect and care for them as spiritual fathers.
But these revelations were a national tragedy for the Catholic Church. Moreover, it is an issue that transcends any particular institution, and is present in many other aspects of society. Sexual abuse occurs in families, schools, religious denominations, youth organizations, foster care environments, and anyplace where a child molester can find victims.
Boston may have been the epicenter of the sexual abuse scandal, but it is now clear the city is not the hub of that universe.