A clear majority of the public overestimate the number of Catholic clergy who are guilty of child abuse, according to a new poll.
The most authoritative estimate to date puts the true number of accused priests at 4 percent.
However, according to a poll commissioned by the Iona Institute and carried out by Amarach Research, seventy percent of the public believe the figure is higher than this, and nearly half of the public (42 percent) believe that more than one in five of priests are guilty of child abuse.
Of these, 27 percent believe the number exceeds 40 percent, and 18 percent put it above 50 percent.
Five percent of the public believe that between 90 percent and 100 percent of all Catholic priests are guilty of child abuse.
It means that nearly half of the public are overestimating the number of guilty priests by a factor of at least five to one.
In total, 27pc of the public believe that 40pc or more of priests have abused a child – an overestimate of at least ten to one - and 17pc believe half or more of all priests have abused a child.
Thirty one percent of respondents put the number of abusers at 5pc or less. Fourteen percent believed that 6 to 10pc of priests were guilty of child abuse, while 13pc put the number at 11 to 20pc.
Ten percent estimated that 21 to 30pc of priest had committed child abuse with 5pc putting the number at 31 to 40pc; another 10pc put it at 41 to 50pc; 4pc at 51 to 60pc; 3pc at 61 to 70pc; 4pc at 71 to 80pc; 1pc at 81 to 90pc and 5pc at 91 to 100pc.
The findings of The Iona Institute polls are similar to those of a poll commissioned on this subject by the Royal College of Surgeons in 2002, although a higher percentage of the public are now grossly overestimating the number of priests who are guilty of child abuse.
The Royal College poll found that 11pc of the public believed that more than half of priests are guilty of child abuse. This latest poll found that 17 percent of the public today put it at more than half.
The most authoritative study on the topic, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the United States suggested that four percent of priests in the US had one or more allegations of child abuse made against them in the period 1950 to 2002.
The study, entitled ‘The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States’ is the only one of its kind on any organisation anywhere in the world.
The variation between US dioceses averaged at between 3-6pc.
Professor Patricia Casey, commenting on the findings on behalf of The Iona Institute, acknowledged that there was “very deep and completely justified public anger over the scandal of child sex abuse by clergy”.
However she said that “only a small minority of priests were guilty of this terrible crime and in the interests of justice, and in fairness to the vast majority of priests, it is essential that fact this becomes universally known among the public at large”.
Professor Casey continued: “It might be understandable if the public were overestimating the number of guilty priests by a factor of two or so, but the fact that so many members of the public are grossly overestimating the number of guilty priests should be a matter of deep concern to all fair-minded people.
“It could be claimed that the fact for this overestimation lies exclusively with the Church. However, as a normal rule when responsible media outlets are reporting crimes by certain groups such as Travellers or Muslims, great care is taken not to stereotype or demonise these groups.
“For example, when terrorist atrocities are committed in the name of Islam, responsible media point out that only a tiny minority of Muslims are guilty of these atrocities, and that such terrorist attacks are an aberration in Muslim terms, rather than a true expression of Islam”.
She concluded: “Therefore, when cases of clerical abuse are being reported, a similarly responsible attitude should be adopted, that is, the cases should be factually and objectively covered, but it should be made clear each and every time that only a very small minority of Catholic priests are guilty of child abuse”.