Over the past several decades, an important pattern in the Catholic priesthood has been reversed. This is good news for all wounded survivors, vulnerable youngsters, and anti-abuse advocates. In short, there used to be more religious order clerics than diocesan clerics. Now, it’s the other way around, and it’s very likely that kids are safer as a result. Diocesan priests ‘belong’ to a diocese, a geographic entity, like the Sacramento Diocese or the Shreveport Diocese. The priests swear obedience to the bishop of that diocese and usually are kept in that one geographical area for their entire careers. On the other hand, religious order priests ‘belong’ to a group that’s based on a purpose, a saint, or a mission that’s not geographically based, like the Jesuits, the Marianists, the Christian Brothers.
Larger dioceses are called ‘archdioceses.’ Religious orders can be large or small, headquartered anywhere, and are usually overseen by a ‘superior.’ They sometimes go by other names, like ‘institutes.’ From the perspective of wounded survivors, vulnerable youngsters, and anti-abuse advocates, here are two reasons why having fewer religious order clerics is good news.
- Religious orders have gotten (and still get considerably less scrutiny than dioceses and bishops have. There’s far less media coverage of orders than of dioceses.
- Some religious orders have tremendous access to innocent children and vulnerable adults because they operate schools, universities, camps, and retreat centers. At many of these places, adults and kids are especially vulnerable (as opposed to diocesan priests who may see an adult or kid once a week and at Sunday mass.
Many religious order clerics, therefore, are in settings that are ripe for abuse: when a boy is at a summer camp and perhaps away from his parents for the first time, when a college freshman is struggling to adapt to campus life or when a lonely girl’s family has been transferred, and she has to attend a new school. We feel deeply sad for and worried about ALL clergy sex abuse victims, especially religious order survivors. We know that far too many of them continue to suffer and haven’t sought justice.
As is so often the case in this crisis, hard data is tough to come by (thanks in large part to a still-secretive church hierarchy). But we at Horowitz Law strongly suspect that the rate of abuse by religious clerics is higher than the rate of abuse by diocesan clerics.
For all of these reasons, survivors of abuse by religious order clerics often feel neglected and frustrated. From their perspective:
- Some bishops have resigned, but few religious order officials have.
- Some bishops, but few religious order heads, have faced extensive and critical scrutiny.
- Some bishops have had to publicly explain (and sometimes apologize for) their actions and inaction that kept predators hidden. Few religious order superiors have had to do this.
Here are the specifics, according to the latest annual survey of Catholic clerics in the US:
In 1970, the number of priests, brothers, and seminarians in religious orders outnumbered diocesan priests by over 2,500. By the late 1970s, the two populations (diocesan and religious) intersected, and diocesan priests have outnumbered religious priests and brothers since that time. The most current data indicate that today there are over 8,000 more diocesan priests than there are men in religious institutes. As a percentage of clerics overall, those who belong to religious orders are shrinking percentage-wise.
Over roughly the past five decades:
- The number of religious order priests has declined from 21,920 to 10,709
- The number of religious order brothers has declined from 11,623 to 3,832
We at Horowitz Law hope that this trend continues indefinitely. Finally, for an example of how religious order officials are in many ways more egregious in child sex cases than diocesan officials, let’s look at this week in Rome. A prominent Jesuit cleric repeatedly abused women, ‘forgave’ one of them in confession, was reported, and was allegedly excommunicated in secret. End of story? Sadly, not. He supposedly apologized, and his ex-communication was revoked, again in secret. So he went right back to work.
Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by religious authority figures and other clergy. If you need a lawyer because a member of a religious organization sexually abused you, please contact our law firm at 888-283-9922 or send an email to sexual abuse lawyer Adam Horowitz at [email protected]. Our lawyers have decades of experience representing survivors of clergy sexual abuse nationwide. We can help.