Do we have a sense of what happened?

The recently released figures on sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, both in Boston and nationwide, show the magnitude of the problem in the Catholic Church.

"The numbers are truly horrific," Archbishop Seán P. O'Malley wrote in his release of the Boston report. We can only agree that those numbers expose a shameful reality for the Church. We have said many times that sexual abuse is not a Catholic or a religious problem. It happens in every area of society, with about 90 percent of abuse taking place inside families. Still, whether the 4.3 percent in the national study or the 7 percent in the Boston report, the number of accused clergy shows something insidious was happening in the Church, primarily in the 1960s and 1970s when most of the abuse occurred.

The word “shameful” may sound strong, but there is no way a Catholic can go through those reports without feeling shame, without weeping for so many lives damaged or destroyed by the actions of a few priests.

With the release of these reports, at least now we have a sense of what happened. Or do we?

Despite all the information available, certain stereotypes still persist:

-- The abuse was ongoing in 2002, when the scandal began. In reality, as both the local and the national reports show, the abuse peaked in the 1970s and by the 1990s was nearly non-existent.

-- Bishops knew the magnitude of the problem for years and “did nothing.” One of the most striking statistics in the Boston report shows that the vast majority of accusations only came forward after media coverage of instances of abuse. For instance, between 1950 and 1985, only around 3 percent of all cases for which a date could be determined had been reported to the archdiocese. It was only after the two periods of extensive media coverage — the first in 1993 with the Porter case and the second in 2002 — that most victims came forward, as the following graphic compiled by The Pilot illustrates.

-- Most cases involved “pedophile priests.” Pedophilia is a medical term referring to the abuse of prepubescent children. The national report shows that 78 percent of the victims were 11 years old or older, and that 81 percent of the victims were male. Though any abuse of a minor is vile, the facts suggest that most cases involved homosexual behavior, not true pedophilia. Yet, the few true pedophiles each preyed on dozens or even hundreds of victims. In Boston, for example, the report says that slightly more than half of the number of victims “relate to sexual abuse alleged against just 7 archdiocesan priests.” On the other hand, of the 162 priests accused, 89 had only one victim.

The sexual abuse of children by clergy is a heinous act because it violates the sacred trust that should exist between an adult and a child and, even more, between a priest and his flock. But neither is it an ongoing epidemic, nor did the bishops “know and do nothing.”