The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 17 Aug 2018

What fraction of Pennsylvania Catholic priests were child molesters?

The grand jury report on Catholic clergy sexual abuse has been released and I have been poring over it. The great majority of it is details about the church's handling of the 301 “predator priests” that the grand jury identified.

I have seen several places the suggestion that this is one-third of a total of 900. This is certainly not the case. There may be 900 priests there now, but the report covers all the abuse that the grand jury found in examining official records from the past seventy years or so. Taking a random example, pages 367–368 of the report concern the Reverend J. Pascal Sabas, who abused a 14-year-old boy starting in 1964. Sabas was ordained in 1954 and died in 1996.

I tried to get a good estimate of the total number of priests over the period covered by the report. Information was rather sketchy. The Vatican does do an annual census of priests, the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae, but I could not find it online and hardcopies sell for around €48. Summary information by continent is reported elsewhere [2], but the census unfortunately aggregates North and South America as a single continent. I did not think it reasonable to try to extrapolate from the aggregate to the number of priests in the U.S. alone, much less to Pennsylvania.

Still we might get a very rough estimate as follows. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference says that there were a total of just about 2500 priests in Pennsylvania in 2017 or 2016. The Philadelphia Archdiocese and the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese are not discussed in the grand jury report, having been the subject of previous investigations. The official websites of these two dioceses contain lists of priests and I counted 792 in the Philadelphia directory and 80 in the Altoona-Johnstown directory, so let us say that there are currently around 1620 priests total in the other six dioceses. (This seems on the high side, since my hand-count of Pittsburgh priests contains only about 200. I don't know what to make of this.)

[ Addendum 20180820: I wonder if it is because my hand counts, taken from diocesan directory pages, include only diocesan priests, where the total of 2500 also includes the religious priests. I should look into this. ]

Suppose that in 1950 there were somewhat more, say 2160. The average age of ordination is around 35 years; say that a typical priestly career lasts around 40 years further. So say that each decade, around one-quarter of the priesthood retires. If around 84% of the retirees are replaced, the replacement brings the total number back up to 96% of its previous level, so that after 70 years about 75% remain. Then the annual populations might be approximately:

$$\begin{array}{rrrrr} \text{year} & \text{total population} & \text{retirements} & \text{new arrivals} & \\ 1950 & 2160 & 540 & 453 \\ 1960 & 2073 & 518 & 434 \\ 1970 & 1989 & 497 & 417 \\ 1980 & 1909 & 477 & 400 \\ 1990 & 1832 & 458 & 384 \\ 2000 & 1758 & 439 & 368 \\ 2010 & 1687 & 421 & 354 \\ \hline \text{(total)} & & 3350 & 2810 \\ \end{array}$$

From the guesses above we might estimate a total number of individual priests serving between 1950 and 2018 as !!2160 + 2810 - 70 = 4900!!. (That's 2160 priests who were active in 1950, plus 2810 new arrivals since then, except minus !!354\cdot20\% \approx 70!! because it's only 2018 and 20% of the new arrivals for 2010–2020 haven't happened yet.)

So the 301 predator priests don't represent one-third of the population, they probably represent “only” around !!\frac{301}{4900} \approx 6.1\%!!.

The church's offical response is availble.

[ Addenda: An earlier version of this article estimated around 900 current priests instead of 1620; I believe that this was substantially too low. Also, that earlier version incorrectly assumed that ordinations equalled new priests, which is certainly untrue, since ordained priests can and do arrive in Pennsylvania from elsewhere. ]

[ Addendum 20180820: Some followup notes. ]

[Other articles in category /religion] permanent link