Child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church: Revisiting the rotten apples explanation
The Pope’s first state visit to Britain this week has fuelled controversy, not least due to his recent comments expressing his “great sadness” over revelations of widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests, saying “authorities in the church have not been vigilant enough” in combating the problem. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) retorted “On the contrary, they’ve been prompt and vigilant, but in concealing, not preventing, these horrors.”
During the last decade the Catholic Church has come under intense scrutiny because of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. A 2004 US national study of the nature and scope of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church showed that 4,392 priests and deacons had allegations of sexual abuse against 10,667 minors during the past 50 years). The Church has paid more than $2 billion in legal costs, settlements, and treatment for offenders and victims. This article considers the Church response to the scandals, and how the problem should be addressed. It parallels the “rotten apple” theory. According to this theory, originally generated to explain cases of police brutality, any (policemen) found to be corrupt must promptly be denounced as a rotten apple in an otherwise clean barrel. It must never be admitted that his individual corruption may be symptomatic of underlying disease. The study concludes with a discussion of lessons the Church can learn from the police organization as they seek to prevent, control, and effectively respond to sexual abuse of children by their clergy.
The Catholic Church response to its sexual abuse crisis and how the problem should be addressed parallels the “rotten apple” assertions of police deviance. The rotten apple theory, however, does not fully explain police deviance, as there are often also structural explanations. This article employs Kappeler, Sluder, and Alpert’s (1998) police deviance framework to characterize and understand the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, drawing specific comparisons to the intentional use of excessive force by police. Though the analogy has limitations, there are similarities at both the individual and organizational levels, particularly because the Church has implemented accountability mechanisms similar to the police. The article concludes with a discussion of lessons the Church can learn from the police organization as they seek to prevent, control, and effectively respond to sexual abuse of children by their clergy.
White, M., & Terry, K. (2008). Child Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Revisiting the Rotten Apples Explanation Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35 (5), 658-678 DOI: 10.1177/0093854808314470