Irish Priests, Abuse, and Mathematics

A report by the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Dublin finds 102 priests may have abused 350 children since 1940.

To begin with, let’s state the obvious: This is horrible. 350 abused kids is 350 too many. It’s even worse coming from those in positions of responsibility.

That said, the “breaking news” hubbub over this report is spurred by a combination of innumeracy and bandwagon jumping. Because we now have it in our heads that Roman Catholic priests are child molesting perverts, the numbers always seem high. And the reporting tends to be sensationalistic. See, for example, the rather breathless headline “Ireland’s Catholic archdiocese acknowledges hundreds of sex abuse reports” on several versions of the AP report.

Dublin is a Roman Catholic city in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country (88.4%). And those numbers have been in steady decline, probably partly because of these scandals. Indeed, the report results from “a two-year review of the personnel files of more than 2,800 priests who have worked in the Dublin archdiocese, either as parish priests or in religious orders, during the past 66 years.”

So, of 2,800 priests, 102 “are suspected of sexually or physically abusing” children. That’s 3.64 percent of the priests who are even suspected of abuse.

And this is sexual or physical abuse. What percentage of the suspected cases are physical abuse? And how were they defining physical abuse? Paddling too hard? Did it include things that were considered legitimate at the time but not now?

And 350 kids out of how many total? This is a span of 66 years, after all. One imagines that thousands of kids passed through the doors of Dublin’s churches and parochial schools.

None of the stories I have seen so far (all variants of the AP report) or the release at the Archdiocese of Dublin website have those details. They are not inconsequential.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    With respect, the Christian Brothers, long the core of teachers in Irish parochial schools, have a notorious reputation for physical violence against offending students. It goes beyond “paddling” to out-and-out punches in the face and more.

    But I do think you’re right: take away the “physical violence” from this report, then let’s see what we’re talking about.

  2. James Joyner says:

    John: I don’t doubt it, especially back in the old days. Hell, even nuns had a reputation for abusive treatment.

    But lumping sexual abuse and that sort of thing into the same number is like “killed or wounded” represented as one number, maybe worse.

  3. Oldradus says:

    If the problem were the # of abusing priests, this would not be much of a scandal. In the USA the Scandal was the fact that, on orders from Rome, the hierachy hid the problem, moved suspect — and proven — abusing priests from assignment to assignment, making themselves complicit in the abuse those priests perpetrated. This 3.64% figure is a cynical diversion from the real fact that — right from the top, the Catholic church cared more about its prestige and power than about the children these priests abused. OTB, please either think more seriously or devise better frauds to conceal the evil people do.

  4. just me says:

    If I remember some study right, the percentage of child abusing priests in the US was the same percentage as the rates among the general population-so it wasn’t actually higher.

    The real crime with the abuse scandal was, I think more the fact that it was covered up and hidden, and so many priests were just sent on to other parishes to find more victims.

    As for this study-I can’t help but think the sexual and physical abuse numbers should be separated-because these aren’t the same thing.