Recently, the findings of a controversial five-year study into the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church were released. The study, commissioned by the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops, was conducted by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. The study concluded that homosexual priests were no more likely to be abusers than heterosexual priests. It also found that celibacy was not to blame for the sexual abuse of children. Authors of the study wrote: “The most significant conclusion drawn from this data is that no single psychological, developmental, or behavioral characteristic differentiated priests who abused minors from those who did not.’’
Karen Terry, PhD., John Jay’s principal investigator for the report, claimed that the bulk of the cases occurred decades ago. Terry said: “The increased frequency of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s was consistent with the patterns of increased deviance of society during that time.” She added that “social influences intersected with vulnerabilities of individual priests whose preparation for a life of celibacy was inadequate at that time.” The poor training of priests combined with social isolation, job stress, and few support systems were also said to have been contributing factors to clergy sex abuse of children.
From the report: The rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in American society generally. This increase in abusive behavior is consistent with the rise in other types of “deviant” behavior, such as drug use and crime, as well as changes in social behavior, such as an increase in premarital sexual behavior and divorce.
Speaking for myself, I find it hard to believe that drug use, premarital sex, and divorce outside of the priesthood in the 1960s and 1970s could be societal factors that could have contributed to an increase in the incidence of Catholic clergy sexually abusing children. I also fail to see how the insufficient training and preparation of priests could have been a cause of the sexual abuse of children. Wouldn’t anyone with a conscience—anyone who knows right from wrong—understand that sexually abusing children is an abhorrent crime?
Fr. Thomas Doyle, a Dominican who is an advocate for victims of clergy abuse, said he believes the report is missing data “about the increased number of cases of abuse that are coming forward that occurred before the 1960s.” He has worked with lawyers in this country and said that he has seen “cases of hundreds of adults in their 60s and 70s that have only begun coming forward.”
Fr. Doyle noted that the study conducted by John Jay was limited to the United States and the years from 1950 to 2010. He said there are indications that clergy abuse occurred in other countries as well—and before the period studied. Evidently, scores of people in their 60s and 70s who live in the United Kingdom are just beginning to tell stories of their abuse by members of the clergy in private Catholic schools. Fr. Doyle claims that these incidents of abuse “had nothing to do with sociocultural changes in the ’60s and ’70s.”
He said the John Jay study focuses on the behavior of priests but really does little to address the behavior of bishops. “In that sense, he said, the report ‘misses the essential point, which is: When the abuse and abuser became known to church authorities, why were they allowed to continue doing what they did?’”
Fr. Doyle said that continuing reports of sexual abuse in other countries “throws a monkey wrench in the theory” of the causes of the abuse that were reported in the study. He added: “The patterns we’ve seen are similar in every country: significant amounts of sexual abuse of vulnerable groups and the pressure of a religious culture on victims and parents against saying anything.”
Other critics of the report claimed that it downplayed the “church’s responsibility for creating conditions where abuse flourished, relieving church leaders of an obligation to make fundamental changes.” In his statement, David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said: “Predictably and conveniently, the bishops have funded a report that tells them precisely what they want to hear: It was all unforeseeable, long ago, wasn’t that bad, and wasn’t their fault.’’
One more thing about the clergy sex abuse study: The study reported that fewer than 5% of the abusers were pedophiles. To reach that conclusion, however, it appears the researchers “redefined” what constitutes pedophilia. In a Boston Globe article, Lisa Wangsness wrote: “Major associations of psychiatrists typically define pedophilia as interest in children 13 and younger, calling them ‘prepubescent.’’’ Wangsness added that the authors of the report reached the conclusion of the low incidence in pedophilia in the abusers by suggesting that “the prepubescent period ends at age 10.” One has to ask why the authors of the report chose to “redefine” pedophilia in that way.
NOTE: I recommend listening to the following program that was broadcast on Radio Boston (WBUR) on May 18, 2011.
Church Abuse Scandal’s Roots Detailed in New Report (Radio Boston/WBUR)
Guests who participated in the discussion:
- Father Walter Cuenin, Catholic chaplain and coordinator of the Interfaith Chaplaincy, Brandeis University
- Anne Barrett Doyle, board member, BishopAccountability.org
- David Gibson, reporter, Religion News Service
- Walter Robinson, professor of journalism, Northeastern University
- Karen Terry, principle investigator and professor of criminal justice, John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Authors defend report on clergy abuse (Boston Globe)
Study: Homosexuality, celibacy didn’t cause abuse (AP/Boston Globe)
Critics point to John Jay study’s limitations (National Catholic Reporter)
John Jay College Reports No Single Cause, Predictor of Clergy Abuse (John Jay College)
Church Sex-Abuse Report Blames ‘60s Culture (WBUR/ Here & Now)