Even to the eyes of a seasoned child pornography investigator, the photographs are horrific. One image depicts a young boy, no older than 12, standing on a wooden deck, a pair of white underwear pulled down around his knees. In the next shot, a different naked boy is sitting in an office chair, with two holy rosaries—one white, one black—dangling from his skinny neck. It’s impossible to know for sure, but detectives believe the anonymous boy could be as young as nine years old.
In yet another photo—one of 964 discovered on Bishop Raymond Lahey’s laptop—a male teenager is posing in front of a bookcase. “He is blond and looks hurt as there are red welts and marks on his stomach and chest area,” according to a police statement filed in court. “He looks sad in this image.”
Sadness does not even begin to describe such a betrayal. In August, the same Bishop Lahey proudly announced a historic, out-of-court settlement worth millions of dollars for victims who were sexually assaulted by Catholic priests in his diocese of Antigonish, N.S. Then, just weeks after the press release, he was flagged by border guards following a flight from England to Ottawa, and—after a peak inside his Toshiba—charged with possessing and importing child pornography.
Like everyone, Lahey is entitled to his day in court (his next appearance is Dec. 16). As he told police during his first interrogation, he has “never done anything that would be abusive with a child” and has “no time for child exploitation.” His downloads, however, tell a much more sinister story: when the good bishop wasn’t negotiating with victims of sexual abuse, he was in his rectory, staring at graphic images of the very same crime.
Though shocking, Lahey’s arrest was not exactly surprising. Sadly, he is just the latest in a long, infamous line of Catholic clergymen accused of preying on innocent children (or in his case, watching from afar as others prey on innocent children). The headlines have been repeated so many times over so many years that it’s difficult to look at any man in a Roman collar and not assume the worst. Of course Bishop Lahey had kiddie porn on his computer. All priests are pedophiles.
In pop culture, at least, that presumption is now gospel truth. Doubt, last year’s Oscar-winning movie, centres on a priest suspected of sexually abusing a student. The latest Scotiabank Giller Prize was awarded to Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, a novel that tells the story of a guilt-ridden East Coast cleric whose job is to clean up—and cover up—any whiff of scandal in the diocese. And if a priest shows up in an episode of Law & Order, odds are he is attracted to nine-year-old boys. “I’ve seen TV shows where the surprise ending is that the priest is not the pedophile,” says Philip Jenkins, a professor at Penn State University and author of Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis.
The media is not to blame for the allegations against Bishop Lahey—or the sins of any other priest who uses his spiritual authority to violate a child. If parishioners assume the man saying mass is a molester, it’s because thousands of priests actually were molesters. Law & Order did not invent the stereotype, and neither did newspapers. Priests did.
But at the risk of downplaying decades of unspeakable abuse—or forgiving a Church hierarchy that moved heaven and earth to suppress scandal and protect criminal clergy—an obvious point is often ignored: the vast, vast majority of Catholic priests are not sexual predators. In fact, the scientific research suggests that men who target children are no more pervasive in the priesthood (and perhaps less pervasive) than in any other segment of society. Depending on the study, somewhere between two and four per cent of priests have had sexual contact with a minor. Or, to put it another way, between 96 and 98 per cent have not.
“It’s part of that myth—the myth of the pedophile priest who can’t help himself,” says Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University who has published dozens of studies about sexually abusive priests. “It’s really an issue of perception rather than reality. Believe it or not, probably the safest place for a kid to be is in a Catholic church environment.”