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A Lighthearted Dispute: Does More Sex Abuse Occur In Schools Or Catholic Churches?
Fun with social science!
Zombie statistics, defined here as “a false or misleading statistic, often reanimated from studies conducted many years ago and now printed as truth without citation,” are interesting to me. I came across what certainly felt like such a statistic last week, during an interaction between Katie Herzog (never heard of her) and the anti-“woke” conservative crusader Chris Rufo.
Rufo is mad at Disney for… well, reasons. Mostly because the company put out a statement against the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis signed a couple weeks ago. Rufo supports the bill (which is bad for reasons we discuss at length during the second segment of our most recent podcast), so he pointed out that Disney has had a handful of employees arrested for sex crimes:
Disney has 190,000 employees, so it isn’t really surprising that some of them are criminals — it doesn’t really tell us much.
Herzog responded with this:
To which Rufo responded:
I guess a lot of what follows hinges on what Rufo means by “even worse than that.” Is he saying teachers are more abusive, in terms of the likelihood they’ll commit abuse, than priests?
Some Googling led me to the origin of this statistic. It’s almost two decades old, and it comes from a professor named Dr. Charol Shakeshaft, now at Virginia Commonwealth University. Back in the aughts, when she was at Hofstra, she was tasked by the U.S. government with pulling together everything we know about sexual abuse committed by American teachers. She wrote a big report, “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” which was published in 2004 and included various studies and estimates, but which seems to have mostly concluded we need better data on this (I didn’t read the report, save the portions relevant to this post). Shakeshaft viewed it as a reasonable estimate that 10 percent of public school kids will, at some point in their K–12 career, be the victim of sexual harassment or abuse (ranging from unwanted comments to contact offenses) perpetrated by teachers or administrators at their schools.
A small wave of media coverage followed. In 2004, for example, Education Week published an article running down her findings that quoted her as saying, “So we think the Catholic Church has a problem?”
That article continues:
To support her contention that many more youngsters have been sexually mistreated by school employees than by priests, Ms. Shakeshaft pointed to research conducted for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and released late last month. That study found that from 1950 to 2002, 10,667 people made allegations that priests or deacons had sexually abused them as minors. (“Report Tallies Alleged Sexual Abuse by Priests,” this issue.)
Extrapolating from data collected in a national survey for the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in 2000, Ms. Shakeshaft estimated that roughly 290,000 students experienced some sort of physical sexual abuse by a public school employee from 1991 to 2000—a single decade, compared with the roughly five-decade period examined in the study of Catholic priests.
Those figures suggest that “the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests," contended Ms. Shakeshaft, who is a professor of educational administration at Hofstra, in Hempstead, N.Y.
A lot of apples are being compared to a lot of oranges here, and the biggest problem is the methodological difference between the AAUWEF research and the Catholic Bishops research. The former was conducted on a sample of American students — they were surveyed to ask about whether they’d been victimized, and then the percentages were taken to be representative of the broader population of American students. This method would scoop up both reported and unreported acts of abuse (plus a probably small handful of mischievous responses, false claims, etc.).
The research on the Catholic priests was conducted differently. As the Education Week article on that research notes, “The researchers based their analysis on information provided voluntarily by dioceses and religious orders. They promised not to divulge the names of dioceses or priests in their report. The response rate among dioceses was 97 percent.” This research was only going to capture instances in which someone actually came forward to complain; the research on the students was going to capture any instance in which a kid ticked off a box saying they’d been harassed or abused, regardless of the facts of the matter. The priest study could only have underestimated the total number of cases (because it didn’t capture instances in which someone didn’t come forward, or in which they did but their diocese didn’t pass that info on to the researchers), while the student study might be at risk of overestimating the rate at which public-school kids were abused given the lack of any mechanism to check individual allegations. These are such different methods that you just can’t compare their estimates at all, or at least you shouldn’t.
Anyway, all research has weaknesses, and it’s particularly hard to get concrete numbers on something as serious and stigma-shrouded as sexual abuse. But the point is this is a pretty silly comparison.
Interestingly, when I reached out to Shakeshaft, she denied making this direct comparison in the first place. “We cannot calculate the rates in the Catholic church because the only data we have is of the number of priests who abuse, not the number of children they have abused,” she said. Shakeshaft explained: “What I did say is because there are more students who go to K12 schools (both private and independent) than attend Catholic Churches, there are more students who are sexually abused in schools than in churches. It has nothing to do with a comparison of rates. I have explained this to Catholic writers many times, but they seem unable to be able to explain what the numbers mean other than to try to shift the blame.”
So in this telling, Shakeshaft was a bit misconstrued by the Education Week reporter. She wasn’t saying we have any reason to think the rate at which teachers abuse students is higher; she was simply pointing out that the pool of potential victims in public schools is so much bigger that we should expect far more cases there. (It’s unclear to me why she mentioned that other estimate if she didn’t intend for people to compare the numbers directly — for what it’s worth, I didn’t press her further.)
If that’s all her argument is about — raw numbers — then it makes sense and is true-ish, but it also might suffer from a pretty severe case of who-cares-itis (that’s the deft wordplay you pay me for). There were about 37,000 Catholic priests in the country in 2016, according to this L.A. Times article drawing on data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, and about 3.5 million American public school teachers (full- and part-time) in 2017-2018, according to the U.S. government. This is all extremely rough and oversimplified math, but if teachers abused kids at the exact same rate as priests, and had access to the same number of them, we’d expect the raw number of abuse cases caused by teachers to be 100 times those caused by priests — simply because there are 100 times more teachers! So that’s not a very interesting statistic.
Those are pretty big “ifs,” though. Priests are 100% male and teachers are about 76% female. Everything I’ve ever read about sex abuse suggests men are much, much more likely to be perpetrators than women, so on this basis alone — even without taking into account other possible differences between priests and teachers — we’d expect priests to offend at a much higher rate. When I asked Shakeshaft about this I was surprised to hear that in the research she reviewed, “About 30%” of the alleged perpetrators were female.” That’s a smaller disparity than I would have expected, but it still points in the right direction for my argument: It would be shocking if the average teacher
priest was much more likely to be an abuser than the average priest teacher. On the other hand, I bet priests have access to fewer kids than teachers do, which might nudge things in the other direction?
Anyway, we’d need a transcript of Shakeshaft’s conversation with the Education Week reporter to know exactly what happened for sure, but my theory is that she was making a fairly mild point about the likely differences in raw numbers of victims. Think about it: She was a researcher tasked with looking into the question of kids being victimized by adults in schools, and she found there wasn’t a lot of great data on this question. At the time she was conducting this research, there was an explosion of interest in the question of Catholic priest abuse because of Boston, which had just happened. So she’s more or less saying, Look, if you care about kids being abused, this is likely a bigger source of said abuse!
Then, as a result of politicized actors and a game of internet telephone, over the years this rumor — which never went super viral or anything, but did persist — takes on a more exciting, salacious meaning: that we know something about the rates of abuse, or even that teachers are particularly abusive and it’s being covered up. If you poke around online you’ll see this rumor merging with and being fueled by right-wing beliefs: that teachers unions are corrupt (to the point of covering up abuse cases), that the media is more interested in criticizing “right-wing” institutions like the Catholic church than “left-wing” ones like schools, and so on. All those rounds of the telephone game later, you get something vague but sinister-sounding, complete with a concrete, memorable number — ONE HUNDRED! — for people to latch onto.
None of this means these right-wing beliefs are entirely false. Certainly teachers unions do bad things sometimes (this article is famous, and rightfully so), and certainly journalists can exhibit bias. But that’s different from claiming there is some damning, scary fact about public school teachers that’s being covered up, or that we have any reliable data on the likelihood a teacher, rather than a priest, will abuse a young person. But when statistics are this concrete and memorable — again, ONE HUNDRED — and when they tell a story a political constituency wants to hear, they are likely to stick around for decades, regardless of their underlying merit.
Questions? Comments? Scary statistics? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal. Image: BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 28: St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Boston's West End is pictured on Sep. 28, 1962. (Photo by Edward F. Carr/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)