The null hypothesis: why does it matter if clergy are not distinctly prone to sexual abuse?

Consider the following two claims, which I call “the null hypothesis”:

  • The rate of sexual abuse of minors by priests during a given decade is within one standard deviation of the mean of an assorted rates for clergy of other religions and secular professionals with access to children during the same decade.
  •  The handling of accusations of such behavior by bishops is not exceptional compared to that of these other group, again always controlling for the block of time.

Some studies have claimed that available data is consistent with the null hypothesis.  This is perhaps a weaker claim than it might appear, since no other group has been investigated with anything like the thoroughness to which the Catholic priesthood has been subjected.  Also, one must try to correct for the enormous selection biases of the Church keeping personnel records for far longer than any other organization, and that various legal and ecclesiastic bodies have been hunting exclusively for priest offenders, often into the far past, with no comparable solicitude to find victims of other professionals.  I readily admit that the null hypothesis has not been proved, but it is consistent with the data, and it is telling that few of the Church’s critics explicitly contest it.  What I would like to address here is the idea that the truth of the null hypothesis is unimportant, or rather that it is important only to those like me who are frivolously concerned with the relative moral status of my group, but that it is not particularly important for understanding or suppressing clergy sexual abuse.  I claim in fact that it is all important, that every prominent side in the current debate implicitly assumes the falsity of the null hypothesis, and therefore that all their proposals will be futile.


What is the cause of priests sexually abusing minors, or of bishops incorrectly responding to it?  Ask various factions of Catholics, and they will point to clericalism, celibacy, permissive post-conciliar moral theology, or a disproportionately high number of homosexuals.  Implicit in all of these explanations is the assumption that the phenomena are distinctive to priests and bishops, and therefore the cause must also be something distinctive to them.  If this were true, then the simultaneous truth of the null hypothesis would be an unexpected coincidence.  Rather, in the absence of other information, it is more natural to assume that when the effect is the same, the cause is likewise the same.  If priests abuse at the same rate as other professionals, and if bishops deal with it the same way as other professionals’ employers, then it is natural to assume that they do so for the same reasons.  In this case, the explanation cannot be clericalism, celibacy, theology, or homosexuality.  All the explanations on offer are wrong, and hence all the suggested fixes will not work.  That is slightly interesting, is it not?  If we eliminate celibacy, priests will presumably abuse at the same rate as Protestant ministers, and we have not established that this would be an improvement.  If we eliminate clericalism, priests will presumably abuse at the same rate as teachers, councilors, and juvenile detention officers, and we have not established that this would be an improvement.  If we eliminate gay priests, priests will presumably abuse at the same rate as heterosexual men, and we have not established that this would be an improvement.


I frankly don’t agree that cover-ups are always wrong, but since I’m in the minority, I will grant for the sake of argument that they are.  Suppose the second plank of the null hypothesis is true, as stories of the shenanigans of school administrators and other religious bodies suggest.    I admit, by the way, that the second plank is more difficult to quantify and even harder to test, and so is perhaps even more uncertain.  Suppose it is true, though.  Is it important?  Shouldn’t our bishops do the right thing, and we should not care what other groups do?  On the contrary, the question of how to handle the handling of sexual abuse allegations also completely changes under the null hypothesis.

Why do bishops respond inadequately to accusations of clerical sexual abuse?  Because they’re clericalists who hate children?  Because they’re evil?  Because they are pathologically devoted to their institution?  Such explanations are plausible if the phenomenon in question is uniquely episcopal, because bishops might be unusual in any number of ways.  But if the phenomenon is wider, then such explanations are clearly inadequate.  We can’t just say that every institution dealing with minors is staffed by evil men.  If unwanted behavior is widespread, we should be looking at the perverted incentive structure that makes it so.  Consider, civil society is a good thing, so it is a good thing that those staffing its institutions wish to preserve those institutions.  We may lecture bishops that they should have no concern with protecting the Church (as everyone but me does), but can we really extend this disregard to every social structure?  Again, maybe bishops only thought that they needed secrecy to protect the Church because they’re paranoid clericalists, but if a wide variety of administrators come to the same conclusion, they are probably right, and unwanted behavior is being incentivized.  The solution, then, would be to look at the legal, financial, and media incentives and make sure that what we regard as good behavior is not punished.  If transparency is what you prize, then organizations must be praised for it and somehow protected from having the information they reveal used against them.  Because everyone implicitly assumes the falsity of the null hypothesis, they are pursuing the opposite strategy, making sure the bishops are punished for their efforts, with the lesson to the wider world being “reform is suicide”.

Priests as tracers

If the null hypothesis is true, then the data in the John Jay report and elsewhere is more widely applicable.  We can take our rich data on priestly sexual abuse and extrapolate it to the wider society.  In particular, we see that the rate of clerical sexual abuse has varied widely since World War II, being much more common in the 1970s–80s.  Most likely, this is true for the wider public as well, with the reasons having more to do with wider social trends than anything distinctively Catholic.

Do we see evidence of such social trends?  In fact, they are quite common, and often easier to see outside the Church.  I have linked before to Mary Eberstadt’s article on how pedophilia was then considered “cool” in literary circles.  Scanning sex books written during this era, I encounter, without a hint of censure, that scientists find they can give a female infant orgasms by stimulating her clitoris.  And if an infant, why not a two, four, or ten year old?  It was the age when all enlightened people believed in childhood sexuality.  A while back, there was a bit of a scandal when a German politician on the Left was confronted with his statements from the seventies calling for a reduction or elimination of the sexual age of consent.  I remember the politician was baffled at being singled out, pleading that that’s what everyone was calling for at the time.

Christians often say that the hostile culture has embraced the Sexual Revolution, but that’s not quite right.  Elite culture is no longer praising sexual expression and exploration, but has switched to Civil Rights 2.0:  promoting homosexuals as victims of oppression for an (at best euphemistically-described) immutable characteristic, punitively hostile to heterosexual male sexual expression as oppressive to career women.  Historically, the appetite of homosexuals for boys is unquestionable.  During the Sexual Revolution, the cause of all perversions were united under the banner of freedom and rationality.  Today, homosexuals claim to abhor the sexual exploitation of children as much as anyone, and perhaps we have no reason to doubt them.  The history of clerical sexual abuse proves that behavior can change drastically on decade timescales.  Possibly one reason for the anomalously homosexual nature of the statistics on abuse by priests is that this data goes so much farther back in time.  That’s just speculation, but it illustrates the importance of disaggregating data in time, lest we risk identifying false correlations.  Also speculative but interesting is the idea that the downfall of the pedophile cause may have been when homosexuals, following the AIDS epidemic, reconceptualized their movement as a fight against something akin to racism rather than part of a general fight for unlimited sexual expression.

If priests are unexceptional, and we can thus use our rich data on them as tracers for the wider society, then presumably most religions and professions have enormous sex-abuse/”cover-up” scandals from the 1970-80s in their closet.  However, we also see from the priest data that abuse rates were declining even before the massive publicity and reform efforts which might (but then again, might not have) have caused priest data to decouple from wider trends.  It is probably incorrect to look for distinctively Catholic causes (John Paul II’s reform of the seminaries, etc) for this.  General social trends explain it quite well; we have no reason to abandon the null hypothesis.

So, what should other institutions do?  I see at mostly-Catholic First Things, there are a couple of recent articles urging Baptists and Evangelicals to confront their own histories of sexual misconduct.  Protestants observing the self-destruction of the Catholic Church will probably take a different lesson.  What I recommend is the course that society has actually decided on, which could be described as “a massive cover-up”.  Attitudes toward pedophiles, ephebophiles, and their treatment have changed.  The problem is solved, insofar as it can be.  There is no reason to poke around into the past and destroy all the institutions, all the social trust and social capital of the present.  Remember I also recommended destroying all records of civilians reporting their neighbors during the communist years in Eastern Europe.  Destroying social trust in these newly-free nations would only push them in the direction of statism and communism, ironically pushing these countries back to that which one condemns.  Cover-ups are often good.  The present needn’t sacrifice itself for the past.

The Catholic Church is probably doomed, but I think other institutions might survive.  First of all, no other institution has the same destructive ideology of prioritizing reform over survival.  Second, the public still maintains a sense of the common good in the context of other institutions.  We think it perfectly fine that a parish or diocese should be financially ruined because fifty years ago Father so-and-so touched mister-so-and-so, and bishop so-and-so ignored it.  We would not allow a school district to be financially ruined because fifty years ago Mister-so-and-so touched so-and-so, and the superintendent ignored it.  We would even say that it is because we care about the children that we will not allow this to happen, no matter what happened in the past.  The exception, of course, would be those who want to eliminate the public school system anyway, but such people are arguing in bad faith, just as are those who say “sue the Church out of existence” because they want to eliminate the Church anyway but can’t argue that case on the merits.  It is perfectly rational to protect society’s massive investment in public education, and sociologists will surely recognize that it be a massive loss to allow all other religions to suffer the fate of Catholicism.  A social desert serves no one.

Intrinsic plausibility

More study, suitably disaggregated in time, of other institutions are needed to test the null hypothesis.  Lacking that, I think it has a good claim to be the default assumption.  Many other groups have had more power and as much sense of their own distinctiveness as the priesthood.  Other institutions have all the same incentives as the Catholic Church.  Nor should we expect Catholic doctrine to give priests any advantage, because Protestant and secular cultures have exactly the same attitude toward sex with minors.  Even if the null hypothesis is false, say that the Catholic clergy is a 2SD outlier, the speculations here are still highly plausible, because we would expect different groups, subject to the same social forces, to trend together.

14 Responses

  1. there’s something in here to piss off every group! Quite a feat.

  2. It is obvious that the Catholic priests have gay boyfriends, not mistresses. If boyfriends, going to bang little boys.

  3. What if the rate of incidence, and severity of occurrances, were not the same.

  4. Maybe I’m a naive virtue-signaller, but your posts on the Church of late seem to be uninformed by faith, and so come across as unintelligible. By faith we know that the Church is not doomed in her intrinsic mission, for example, and so I’m left thinking, what can you be talking about?

  5. The wrongness of a cover-up is entirely dependent on who is being misinformed. The friend-enemy distinction is, as always, the key to the problem. I am under no moral obligation to point out my weaknesses to my enemy, or to hand him the raw material from which he can manufacture a damaging scandal. But an organism is doomed if it is not generally aware of some grievous wound or tumor. This is not to say that the laity needs to know everything, since some of us are certain to blab to the enemies of the Church, but even here there is the danger of the reaction when people feel they have been played for fools and kept in the dark.

    It is reasonable to ask if we should ask the Church to have higher moral standards than other organizations, but I think the answer is that no organization can repeatedly outrage its rank and file. The big shots in a criminal gang cannot outrage the rank and file members by a timid refusal to employ violence; the officers in a scholarly society cannot outrage ordinary members by being within one standard deviation of the social norm of truthfulness, and the Church cannot outrage its members by being no better or worse than anyone else. It may be naive, but most pew-sitters imagine that the moral standards of a bishop are, on average, appreciably higher than the moral standards of a high school principal.

    I appreciate your point that the truth of this null hypothesis would cut the legs out from many of the reforms that have been proposed to remedy the problem. I just this morning read Andrew McCarthy’s article advocating an end to celibacy, female priests and acceptance of domesticated homosexuals as the solution to this problem. Oh yes, more liberation theology, too.

    Your section on priests as “tracers” reminded me of all the books and movies from the 1970s in which professors slept with their students. English professors, mainly, and Indiana Jones. Was that really common? It certainly is not common now. I know a few professors who left their wives for a graduate student, and one very old story of an anthropologist who beguiled coeds with some hokum about a flower ceremony, but professors don’t hit on undergraduates, much less bed them.

  6. If those who run the Church think their mission is to optimize the number of saved souls, then I guess some cover up is understandable, maybe even defensible.

  7. If those who run the Church think their mission is to optimize the number of saved souls, then I guess some cover up is understandable, maybe even defensible.

  8. This is a good post, Bonald.

    I wrote elsewhere a few years ago in response to someone praising that vicious movie Spotlight (which I refuse to see):

    “So there have been some wicked priests who ought to have been held accountable. Yet, as an ‘epidemic’, this problem didn’t exist until the ’60s and it exists with other organizations as well. So what’s the ultimate cause of the rise in pederasts in the ’60s through ’80s and the culture of cover-up? It’s not the Catholic Church or Christianity in general. It’s the sexual revolution, which the media helped generate and which the media promotes and celebrates. The Catholic Church had a problem with pederast priests not because of its traditionalism or male priesthood or prudishness or whatever else the media would have us believe, but because of its embrace of liberalism. If the media were to have provided an accurate context to this story, they would have reported that there was a general epidemic of pederasty from the ’60s through the ’80s. Being general, the Catholic Church was not immune to it, but was not the locus or apogee of the epidemic, no different from other organizations that likewise suffered from the epidemic.”

    Regarding the morality of cover-ups, it seems to me that they are at least sometimes the appropriate course of action. If a man is guilty of infidelity for example, it seems obvious to me that all else equal, he should strive to hide this from his children (provided he can do so without committing further immoralities), lest he destroy their image of him as father. In the case of bishops exposing their priests to the world’s opprobrium rather than quietly disciplining them, this would be parallel to a man exposing his own children’s wrongdoing to the world, which seems obviously perverse.

  9. I just this morning read Andrew McCarthy’s article advocating an end to celibacy, female priests and acceptance of domesticated homosexuals as the solution to this problem.

    I’m not surprised that National Review – the ‘flagship conservative’ magazine, remember – would advocate this kind of crap, but I do confess to being a little surprised that it’s coming from McCarthy. Would have expected it from someone like Jason Lee Steorts.

  10. 12345,

    In that case, further analysis would be necessary. First, one would want to check if the difference is large compared to the difference in the inter-group mean during different decades. If not, and if it is trending with time like the average (with perhaps some offset), clergy might be just behind or ahead of “the curve” but not distinctive.

    If this possibility could be eliminated, then of course it would matter a great deal whether the Catholic clergy rate is higher or lower. I expect the latter is more likely (although, as I’ve said many times, right now we only know this is true to order of magnitude, because we are not seeking out sexual abuse by members of other groups going back to World War II), in which case it would be impossible to predict what the effect would be of making the clergy in some way more like everybody else.

  11. Bruce,

    Agreed. We are a very small minority.

  12. I don’t understand why use a null hypothesis instead of a logical hypothesis: celibacy selects for gays. That is, young men who think it is not going to be too hard because they have little sexual interest in women anyway. And only later on do they figure out why. The data that says sexual abuse of minors almost always happens with boys supports this, and I would expect Protestants to have lower minor abuse rate scandals for this reason.

    I am not advocating for ending celibacy. You just need to get better at filtering out gays. An ideal priest should feel sexual desire for women and be able to overcome it – otherwise he will not be very good at giving advice to married men.

  13. Bonald,

    Agreed. We are a very small minority.

    Larger than you think perhaps. There is a lot packed into Bruce’s “If”.

  14. What I’m saying is that the view from the ground where I am does not fit with what you are saying.

    A conversation my wife and I had recently resulted in both of us concluding that we would not trust our children’s instruction in the faith willingly to our local ordinary, relatively speaking, one of the better bishops in the country. We would fear for their souls, just based on our simple observation of his public bearing and presentations. What they would need to follow and observe of the Church’s precepts and practices would be obscured at best, so it appears to us.

    Or maybe it is I who am uninformed by faith. You seem to be saying that a bishop has due concern for souls simply by virtue of his consecration. If faith requires this of me, I certainly missed that one for all of my Catholic life.

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