06/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sexual Abuse of Children: A Human Problem

Last week Mo'Nique got the apology she'd been waiting for. The comedian-turned actress, best known for her role as an abusive mother in Precious, learned that her brother finally confessed to sexually molesting her nearly 40 years ago.

"I did it. I'm not proud of it. Mo'Nique, I'm sorry," Gerald Imes, the star's brother, said on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

As the Vatican continues to deal with and apologize for its own sexual abuse scandal, it is worth taking note of Mo'Nique's story, for it offers an essential reminder: that child sexual abuse is by no means unique to the Catholic Church.

Sexual abuse is a problem that affects 20 to 25 percent of American women before they reach the age of 18. It is a problem that from 2005 to 2006 afflicted 135,300 American children. It is a problem that the World Health Organization estimates has harmed approximately 25 percent of girls and eight percent of boys worldwide. Child sexual abuse is a human problem.

"Over a 50 year period there were 13,000 victims of abuse by Catholic priests in the United States," said Father Thomas Reese, a Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center. "The John Jay report [on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church] notes that from 1992 to 2000, the number of substantiated sexual abuse cases in American society as a whole was between 89,355 and 149,800 annually."

"Thirteen thousand over a 50 year period is terrible," Reese said, "but 90 to 150 thousand kids a year reporting to the emergency rooms would be called an epidemic."

This wider picture has too often been left out of the coverage of the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. A public impression has emerged that there is something intrinsic to celibacy that leads to sexual abuse, and that priests are especially prone towards committing the crime.

This is ill-founded. According to John Jay College Of Criminal Justice's study of sexual abuse in the American Catholic Church, four percent of the priesthood engaged in sexual abuse from 1950 to 2002. That means that 96 percent of priests did not engage in abuse.

Undoubtedly, four percent--or 4,392 priests---is an alarming figure. Any amount of sexual abuse should be dealt with straightaway, which by all accounts the Catholic Church did not. But in condemning the Church, it is important to remember that no comparable studies have been made examining the abuse rates of doctors, teachers, coaches, nannies, or any other groups of people in regular contact with children. Is four percent above or below the national average? Is it higher or lower than the rate of married men? The honest answer is that we don't know. We lack the data.

As far as we do know, priests are not so unlike non-religious offenders.

"The basic underlying truth is that some priests molest minors for the same reason why some priests are depressed or are alcoholics. Not because they're priests, but because they're human beings, and sometimes human beings have problems," said Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, a psychologist at Catholic University who previously ran Saint Luke Institute, a mental health treatment facility for Catholic priests.

"There are no unique psychodynamics to priest offenders," Rossetti said. Rather, "there is a broad range of psychodynamics that can lead any male or female to abuse a minor. There are those who themselves were abused and they are re-enacting their own abuse. There are others who are neurologically impaired. There are still others who are narcissistic predators. And there are those who are sexually indiscriminate and they will have sex with a wide variety of people, including children. There are many different kinds of offenders, not one type."

But the offending priests do stand out in one respect. An overwhelming majority of the abuse was same-sex abuse. Eighty-one percent of the victims were male, and this doesn't square with national figures.

The recently released NIS-4 study of child abuse in America states that from 2005 to 2006, "females were sexually abused much more often than boys," and that "87% of children were abused by a male compared to only 11% by a female." The possible role of homosexuality in the American Church's abuse, as it were, remains a mystery.

Conversely, the Church's rate of sexual abuse has dropped with, or even ahead of, national trends. John Jay's research shows that abuse picked up in the 1960s, peaked in the 70s, began shrinking in the 80s and by the 90s returned to the levels of the 1950s. According to the NIS-4 study, the estimated number of sexually abused children "decreased from 217,700 in 1993 to 135,300 in 2005-2006," representing a "38% decrease in the number of sexually abused children and a 44% decrease in the rate of sexual abuse."

This is no reason to let up. In 2002, American bishops implemented a zero-tolerance policy for abusing priests, forcing laicization. They also mandated that police be alerted when abuse is reported to a Church official. But the truth is that they should have had these policies in place from the get-go.

The Church has failed its flock. In the past, it did not respond to -- and even covered up -- claims of abuse. Today it botches its response to news reports suggesting as much. The result is a P.R. train wreck and a deep crisis of faith.

But even if the Church leadership were to dissolve, and abusive priests were imprisoned en masse, the sexual abuse of minors would persist at staggering rates. The problem is not "out there." The problem is right here.

"Like many problems that seem overwhelming -- world peace, hunger, poverty -- people cope by minimizing and ignoring," said David Clohessy, national director for SNAP, the preeminent support group for victims of Church sexual abuse. "That's a perfectly natural temptation. No one wants to think about horror. No one wants to realize the extent of horror. And in a way, that contributes to the problem."

It is critical that the Church be faulted for the right reasons, for targeted reasons. It should be faulted for its inaction, for its hypocrisy, for its secrecy -- for its abuse. But if it becomes a scapegoat for the sexual abuse of children as a whole, the effect could obscure a problem that continues to blacken lives in America, and throughout the world.