Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
May 3, 2010
Poll on sexual abuse inaccurate, inflammatory
Editorial comments surrounding debatable questions foster bias and prejudice against the Church
In mid-April, an Ipsos-Reid poll was released, informing the nation that more than two million Canadians have family members, friends, or acquaintances who have been sexually abused by a Roman Catholic priest.
The finding was described by the polling company as "astonishing" and "shocking." The senior vice-president of Ipsos, John Wright, told a Global National television audience the day of the release, "If we were experiencing H1N1 tomorrow with two million people, we would in fact shut down this country, because it would be a calamity. We're dealing with what appears to be an epidemic."
Such an alleged discovery in turn needs to be described as inaccurate and unnecessarily inflammatory.
Let me be clear from the outset. I have no pro-Catholic axe to grind. I also share with everyone else the need to denounce and respond to sexual abuse wherever it is found.
But the best interests of everyone are not served by hyperbole - including hyperbole on the part of pollsters who should know better.
While I have much respect for Ipsos-Reid and John Wright, I have little respect for the claims surrounding this particular survey. If John were in my survey methods class, he would have received an "F" for this project.
The reason is fairly prosaic to anyone who reflects for a few moments on what such a survey actually tells us.
Suppose, for example, that Ipsos-Reid had asked Canadians, "Do you have family members, friends, or acquaintances who have been divorced?" I'd venture to say that the question would have resulted in as many as 90 per cent of people across the country saying, "Yes." Contrast this to the number of people who have personally been divorced - my own latest national survey shows this figure is probably around 15 per cent.
The first question asks individuals about the people they know - and who doesn't know someone who has been divorced? The other asks individuals about their own experiences. Awareness does not equal incidence. Both are important. But obviously they are two very different things.
Take teenage suicide as another example. If one is to equate awareness with an epidemic, here's a major one: our latest national youth survey has found that about one in three teenagers has a close friend who has attempted suicide.
Does that mean that one in three - or as many as one million Canadian teens - have tried to take their lives? Of course not. In one school of 1,000 students, for example, teenagers may have two or three people in mind - very serious, of course, but hardly an epidemic.
Ipsos-Reid probed awareness, not incidence. One person in a neighbourhood or larger community could have been assaulted - and hundreds and maybe thousands of people would be aware of it. No time frame was given, meaning awareness of an incident could span up to 80 or 90 years - not just the post-1950s, for example. In short, the reporting net was an extremely large one.
Again, I would emphasize sexual abuse of children by priests or anyone else is a heart-wrenching tragedy that calls for a response. But let's not reduce the credibility of sexual abuse claims by dramatically exaggerating their incidence.
A second item in the survey that has received considerable media attention is the finding that 58 per cent of Canadians believe that Pope Benedict "has perpetuated a climate of silence and cover up around pedophile and hebephile priests."
Now that could be interesting and important information. The problem, however, as George Gallup pointed out sometime ago, is that we who poll people for a living have to pose questions that they have a mathematical chance of being able to answer. In this case, I hope that Ipsos-Reid, for starters, defined "hebephile" to respondents. (The word refers to a person attracted to youngsters at the age of puberty.)
Furthermore, one cannot assume that everyone from British Columbia to Newfoundland knows who Pope Benedict is, or that abuse has taken place, or that the pope himself has been linked to a coverup.
And to the extent respondents can meet those basic information criteria for being able to offer an informed response to the question, what I want to know is this: How on Earth do Canadians have the inside scoop on whether or not the pope has been a part of the alleged scandal? A followup question to the effect of, "On what are you basing your opinion?" may have been extremely telling.
Obviously, most Canadians who offered an opinion were simply offering views based on information they have received from media and acquaintances. In short, the item doesn't tell us very much - beyond Canadian conjecture.
Throughout my career as a chronicler of social and religious trends in Canada, I have felt pretty much like the reporter sitting up in the press box, calling the game as I see it. Individuals and groups may not like what I write and say. But I have always tried to be objective, fair, and academically sound.
I know Ipsos-Reid and John Wright have the same aspirations. However, this particular poll and interpretations did not meet their usual high standard. Of considerable importance, if we were only having an academic debate, we could shake hands at the end of the session, and go out together for dinner with the world continuing on pretty much the same.
Unfortunately, the results and their dissemination have the potential to have a significant impact on public perception, the Roman Catholic Church, and Catholics across the country. That's why a few hands like mine need to be raised.
(Reginald Bibby holds the Board of Governors Research Chair in the department of sociology at the University of Lethbridge.)
(Reprinted with permission from The Edmonton Journal of April 21)
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