Sexual abuse committed by members of the Catholic clergy and lay people in France: how many victims?
The number of over 300,000 mentioned in a 2021 report now seems uncertain and is hotly debated. But the problems for the Catholic Church remain enormous.
by Massimo Introvigné
In October 2021, the Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the Church (CIASE, Independent Commission on Sexual Abuse in the [Catholic] Church) published its report. CIASE studied sexual abuse in a Catholic context rather than sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy only, as it also included abuse perpetrated by lay people associated with Catholic institutions. Although the detail was ignored by some foreign media, CIASE was “independent” in the sense that the Catholic Church did not control its work and results, but was appointed and funded by French Catholic bishops, not by the government or by any organization. other secular institution.
The report concludes that between 1950 and 2020, victims of sexual abuse in a Catholic context in France were 330,000, of which 216,000 were abused by Catholic priests, monks and nuns. Predictably, the report made headlines around the world. The first reaction of the Catholic Church was shame and repentance, expressed by both the French bishops and the Vatican.
However, once the dust settled, doubts were cast about how CIASE got its numbers. Eight members of the Catholic Academy, all renowned scholars, criticized the methodology adopted by CIASE. The commission and its chairman Jean-Marc Sauvé reacted strongly in interviews with both print and electronic media, and published a lengthy response with several new documents.
What is the point of this controversy? As an academic who has studied the pedophilia crisis in the Catholic Church and participated in past projects, both Vatican-sponsored and secular institutions, on the issue, my response is that the debate can be characterized either (or both) irrelevant or of some importance, depending on the perspective.
Statistical controversies are ultimately irrelevant, it is the responsibility of Catholic clerics (and some lay people) who sexually abused children, women and men, and bishops who failed in their duty to control them. The CIASE and its detractors agree on a few essential points: that the victims in France were several thousand; that some perpetrators continued their crimes for years and the bishops were either unwilling or unable to stop them; and that some bishops actively hid their criminal pedophile priests from prosecution by secular authorities.
It is one of the most dramatic crises in the long history of the French Catholic Church (and of the international Church too, of course), and perhaps the most shameful. If there had been one or ten victims, it would already be a shame. As the victims certainly number in the thousands, there are no words to describe the drama, and the bishops who have done nothing or not enough are inexcusable.
On the other hand, whether the victims were 30,000 (totally hypothetical figure admittedly) or 300,000 interests, more than for the general public, the sociologists who study the phenomenon and the Catholic and secular authorities called upon to respond to it. 30,000 victims would already reveal a systemic problem, but whether the real number is 30,000 or 300,000 is of some importance for comparative studies of the Catholic Church and other institutions, and for refining the measures that must be imperatively adopted.
One risk in the debate, which Sauvé did not avoid when he delivered strong and emotional responses to technical criticism and claimed that his opponents were “in denial” or defending a “clerical church”, is to consider any attempt to discuss the CIASE methodology and its numbers as a form of disrespect towards victims. On the contrary, victims or potential victims are best served by studies that are as precise as possible.
Were the CIASE figures correct? I will ignore here the criticism of Catholic scholars, because although illustrious in their fields, they may have a conflict of interest. I will concentrate on a document commissioned and published by CIASE itself among those who are willing to respond to Catholic scholars. This is a report by five inspectors general from the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE), the national statistics office under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance. It is a secular and official institution, and the inspectors were asked by Sauvé to help him answer his Catholic detractors.
They did their best to please Sauvé and repeatedly stated that it was impossible to prove his numbers wrong. However, being serious professionals, they also wrote that the arguments in support of the numbers are “flimsy”. To understand their caution, it is necessary to explain how the CIASE arrived at its results. First, our patient readers need to understand what an access panel is.
This is a group of Internet users who have generally agreed to participate in online surveys, and have provided certain demographic data allowing for better sample selection. I myself have been a partner of a company specializing in brand and product investigations for thirty years, and I know that an Access Panel is a crucial asset for such companies.
CIASE used an access panel operated by a company called Bilendi. Its access panel includes 760,000 panelists, but for CIASE research, a sub-panel of 243,600 panelists was selected. Of these, 46,014 responded to the questionnaire, but to guarantee certain proportions between the different categories of respondents, 28,010 responses were retained for analysis. Of these 28,010 online respondents, 171 said they had been abused in a Catholic context, and 118 of 171 said they had been abused by priests or male or female members of religious orders.
The CIASE or, more precisely, the INSERM (National Institute of Health and Medical Research, itself dependent on the IFOP, the French Institute of Public Opinion, French Institute of Public Opinion Opinion, a company well-respected polling and market research firm) who conducted the research for CIASE, then used a mathematical proportion.
If there had been 171/118 victims out of 28,010 French people, how many victims would there have been in the general population? The second figure for the period 1950-2020 being known, the calculation is relatively simple and gives the figure of 330,000 victims, of whom 216,000 could have been victims of priests or monks or nuns.
Let me explain for non-professionals that this is not unusual. This is a normal way of proceeding in market research. However, companies that sell and buy market research, conducted using Access Panels, know that it does not offer “the truth”, but simply indicates a trend. The problem is that in this case, public opinion was told that the figures were “true”. INSEE inspectors note that an Access Panel only includes people from the general population who have a good knowledge of the Internet and who are willing to participate in online surveys.
Obviously, this excludes a large part of the population. Second, even among Access Panel members selected for research, “81% did not activate the link, despite two reminders.” Third, if the methodologies of INSERM and IFOP, which are highly respected organizations, are known, much less is known about the functioning of Bilendi, which managed the Access Panel.
Again, don’t suspect any conspiracies here. Market research companies defend the privacy of their Access Panels and methods because that is, after all, what they are selling. However, there is a widespread debate about internet market research companies, their methods and access panels, and within this debate skeptical opinions about the results are often voiced by academics and professionals.
Knowing that the opinion of the INSEE inspectors had been sought to help the CIASE respond to the criticisms of Catholic academics, it is highly significant that they note that they “cannot guarantee that there is no bias significant that could affect the final results. It is the phase of Access Panel which prevents us from arriving at completely reassuring conclusions. Obviously, the inspectors “cannot say either that the estimates are far from the true figures”. They just don’t know. If serious institutions were involved, “there is no guarantee that the Access Panel did not have an unbalanced structure”, which in this case would have generated unreliable results. And, just as the detectives don’t know, we don’t know.
Journalists have commented on the INSEE inspector’s document and the controversy, but I’m not sure they fully appreciate the technical problems. A journalist specializing in religious issues such as Jean-Marie Guénois noted in Le Figaro how distant were the figures in the CIASE report from the various works counting the victims who had initiated legal or canonical action (4,832, according to a study by the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, EPHE) or who had responded to a previous request for witnesses by the same CIASE (2,738).
There are good reasons to argue that these numbers were too low: for a number of reasons, many victims do not testify and do not press charges. Yet many doubts remain about the dramatically higher estimate of CIASE 2021.
My conclusion is that there is no conspiracy and nothing particularly sinister in the way CIASE/INSERM/IFOP calculated, as the normal methods used in normal research were used. As the INSEE inspectors write, there are elements indicating that the results of the CIASE could be close to reality, but there are other elements which would lead to the conclusion that they are “fragile” and uncertain. It might be important to explain to the general public that these are hypothetical estimates obtained by mathematical formulas.
I repeat once again that even if one concludes that the “fragility” highlighted by the INSEE inspectors leads to the conclusion that the CIASE figures are exaggerated, this does not change the fact that thousands, and probably tens of thousands – but maybe not hundreds of thousands of French citizens were sexually abused between 1950 and 2020 in a Catholic context, most by clergy; that this could not have been done without serious shortcomings and, in certain cases, the complicity of the bishops; and that the tragedy highlights systemic issues in the Catholic Church that should be recognized and addressed.
On the other hand, a serious and necessarily technical discussion of the figures can help those who are called upon to study preventive measures for the future. Accusing those who doubt the CIASE figures of trying to justify the crimes that have taken place within the Catholic Church is worse than a misunderstanding. It is a form of intolerance which makes any serious discussion impossible.