Did the “Deviant” Behavior of the 1960s & 1970s in the US Lead to an Increase in Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse of Children?

Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger

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


Study blames culture of era for church’s abuse crisis: Priests poorly trained, report to bishops says (Boston Globe)

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)

The John Jay College Report: The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010

Study Finds Homosexuality, Celibacy Did Not Cause Catholic Sex Abuse Crisis (WBUR)

Church Sex-Abuse Report Blames ‘60s Culture (WBUR/ Here & Now)

Study: Changes of 1960s Behind Church’s Abuse Crisis (WBUR)–(Transcript)

Catholic Priest Talks About Sex Abuse Report (All Things Considered/WBUR)–(Transcript)

54 thoughts on “Did the “Deviant” Behavior of the 1960s & 1970s in the US Lead to an Increase in Catholic Clergy Sex Abuse of Children?”

  1. Catholic clergy sexual abuse of children is a worldwide scandal. It has been going on for centuries. It did not start in the 60s and 70s in the States.

    Irish television did an excellent program last week on the sexual abuse of children by both priests and bishops from Holland and Ireland, working as missionaries in Africa.

    I recommend you watch the RTE video, called Primetime Investigates, on the web at:

    The program can be seen on the web until June 13.

    Geoffrey Robertson, Queen’s Counsel, human rights lawyer, and judge at the United Nations for crimes against humanity is in the film. In his new book, THE CASE OF THE POPE, Robertson challenges the claim that the Pope has diplomatic immunity.

    As a family physician who has met many women and men who have been sexually abused by priests, and as one who was sexually assaulted by a Carmelite priest when I was a young doctor in Dublin, I know that lawyers are a critically important group to help the Church to become accountable.

    The only member of the hierarchy that seems to care about the truth is Archbishop Martin of Dublin. If you look on the Marquette Law School website for April 2011, Archbishop Martin spoke on the priest sex abuse scandal in Ireland at a 2 day conference on restorative justice. The videos can be viewed.

    Archbishop Martin says that the abusers that he interviewed have 2 qualities: narcissism and grandiosity. They did not feel guilt for abusing children and felt that they were above the law.

    Lawyers who are focused on finding the truth and cutting through all the deceit and cover-up of the Church are needed. Archbishop Martin said the truth will set us all free.

    Best wishes, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, IL.

  2. DAMN! As a 60’s hippy I hoped to change the worlds view on war, on greed, on consumption, on the ecology, on civil rights and so many many things I wanted changed before my children had to experience them. There was change but all in the wrong way. There for a moment I thought, may be we hippys had changed something. But no, we didn’t cause priests to diddle the congregation either. Hippies are “0 for everything”.


  3. The earliest recorded Catholic Church legislation of sex crimes by clergy, seems to appear following the Council of Elvira. I found a synopsis of the Council at the UCLA library.

    According to the synopsis, 50% of the canonical laws passed, dealt with sexual behavior of one kind or another. They included penalties for clerics who committed “adultery” and “fornication.”

    Although the synopis does not reference specific mention of homosexual activities by the clergy, this early Council documented the Church’s official attitude toward same-sex relationships: Priests who had sex with boys were disallowed “Holy Communion,” even on their dying day. Priests sexually involved with females, of any age, were not.

    As some of you probably know, the Council of Elvira was held in Spain. In the year 306.

    The Penitential of Bede (England, 8th century) recorded that clerics who commit sodomy with boys be given increasingly severe penances, commensurate with their rank: bishops received harsher penalties. The subject of Catholic clergy sex crimes is mentioned so frequently that the problem was certainly not isolated; was known in hundreds of communities, and was treated more severely than similar acts committed by laymen.

    One revealing item in all of this, is that these writings came many centuries before celibacy was mandated, in the 12th century,

    I’m almost certain this predated the Mamas & the Papas.

  4. Church report on priestly abuse falls short
    by Mary Sanchez
    Miami Herald

    So we’re to believe that priests were simply swept along with the rest of society as drug use increased, premarital sex became more acceptable and divorce more common? Oh, the horrors of the Summer of Love!

    May I point out that “deviant” behavior is a slippery category, and loosened morality on sex in general isn’t the same as the criminal act of sexually abusing a child? The report correlates the rise in sexual abuse of children by priests with rising crime rates and divorce rates — deviant behavior, all — without establishing how they’re related other than coincidence in time.

    The problem is that child molestation by priests — and the systematic cover-up of their crimes by church hierarchy — has been exposed as a global phenomenon. How well does generalized “deviance” explain trends in sexual abuse that happened in South Africa, Ireland, Germany and other countries worldwide? Surely the divorce and crime rates didn’t play out in the same way in all of these countries the way they did in the United States.

    The study also took pains to characterize the scourge of sexual abuse by priests as “historical” — which is to say, a thing that happened and is now mostly past. It notes a drop in reported abuse cases starting in the mid-1980s and credits new policies and practices put in place in churches and seminaries. If this is true, shouldn’t we be asking how important a factor the societal deviance explanation is to begin with?

    Moreover, it seems a little too pat to use reported cases of priestly abuse to draw conclusions for all time.

    The most damnable aspect of the report — yes, that word is chosen carefully — is how it seeks to distort the role of pedophilia.

    The report defines prepubescent children as 10 years of age and under. By that standard, as The New York Times pointed out, the bishops can claim that fewer than 5 percent of sexual predator priests were pedophiles and that only 22 percent of their victims were prepubescent.

    Tell that to a man molested as a 12-year-old altar boy.

    A more accepted age cutoff is 13. Had the report used 13, the vast majority of the cases involving priests could be tagged pedophilia.

    To its credit, the bishops’ National Review Board that oversaw the study took pains to point out that “none of the information included in this report should be interpreted as making excuses for the terrible acts of abuse that occurred,” as one member wrote in her introduction. “There are no excuses.”

    But they’ve come close to making them. Tweaking the data can’t hide the facts. Nor can attempts to find a broader sociocultural context explain away the institutional context of the church itself. Hierarchical authority in many dioceses provided cover for the “men of God” who committed these acts. And the church continues to struggle with its credibility as an honest broker with law enforcement and its own congregants in rooting out priestly abuse.

    A sin is a sin is a sin. Every Catholic knows that. The church makes much of its monopoly of theological and moral truth. For its faithful, there are no uncertain terms; they must take personal responsibility for their actions. And yet, with this report, the U.S. bishops appear to be seeking scapegoats.

    And that doesn’t make for a very healing confession.

  5. In 1950 a parish school and church, sponsored by the local diocese, opened its doors offering a catholic education to the children of a modest sized, northern, Ohio town. Small houses on neatly trimmed streets sprung up all around the new school as catholic men and women, newly freed from the rigors of war, moved their young families to the “suburbs” in search of a better life and a solid catholic learning environment for their children.

    The priest, who built the church and school under the auspices of the local diocese, was a pedophile. In spite of occasional complaint, he remained for decades and the children were abused for decades.

    That’s how it was really done and this “five-year study into the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church” is a complete joke.

  6. Time to suspend tax-exempt status. Time to face the laity directly and ask them how they can continue the tithe each week, dollars that go increasingly to pay lawyers to defend the indefensible. Time to demand of the laity why they tolerate leaders that coddle criminals. Time to break the back of this evil institution once and for all. The KKK was sued out of existence in America, it can work here. There can be no “good works” against this nightmarish backdrop.

    Time to end the quaint practice of not questioning the magic-thinking of each other based on “freedom of religion.” Freedom to be mentally ill, in this case. How many children have to be felt up by adults to break through this ridiculous and demonstrably dangerous wall?

  7. John Jay “Study” Reveals Little
    By Jessica Arbour
    May 18, 2011
    Herman, Mermelstein,& Horowitz–Attorneys at Law
    (Advocates for Survivors of Sexual Abuse)

    As an advocate who has been blessed to work with more than 1000 survivors of clergy sexual abuse survivors over my career, I am appalled that John Jay researchers think this conclusion would be anything more than an insult to survivors. It is nothing more than blame-shifting by the bishops- or at least a PR stunt paid for by the bishops. To add insult to injury, to say that clergy sexual abuse was just a byproduct of the sexual revolution is not even one that makes sense; it is on par with the excuse offered up by a small child who broke mom’s favorite vase and is quickly offering up any excuse he can in order to avoid punishment. Mom never buys the excuse when it is absurd. We should not accept this excuse for exactly the same reason.

    To be truly committed to preventing childhood sexual abuse and ameliorating the sins of the past, the bishops must understand exactly what causes clergy sexual abuse. But this study has done nothing to shed light on the subject. True understanding involves turning a mirror upon themselves and taking a good hard look, not just at the mistakes of those who were in charge “back then,” and “before my time.” As the Chicago and Philadelphia examples show, the problems are still with us. Today’s bishops have to stop blaming outside influences and admit that they have done many, many things wrong. This new report does not give me much hope that Bishops will have a greater understanding of past mistakes or why it is crucial that they change. That piece is going to take more than just one study that apparently is not worth the paper it is printed on.

  8. Priest abuse study called ‘deeply flawed’
    Northeastern University

    May 23, 2011
    Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice this month released the results of a study, commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, examining the causes of the sexual abuse crisis within the Church. The report, which places blame not on church leaders but on the permissive culture of the 1960s and 1970s is “deeply flawed” says Walter Robinson, distinguished professor of journalism at Northeastern University, who led the Boston Globe Spotlight team that broke the clergy sex abuse story, netting the paper the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003

    What is your immediate takeaway from the John Jay study, which says the sexual abuse crisis was the result of cultural changes in 1960s and ‘70s?

    Like everybody else, I was drawn to what you could call this “third-rail conclusion” that the supposed surge in the incidence of sexual abuse by priests in the ’60s and ’70s was somehow caused by the permissiveness of that era. The report cited such things as divorce, drug use, crime and premarital sex as somehow being instigating factors that made priests abuse children.

    The fact of the matter is that the data is deeply flawed. So to draw any kind of conclusion like that is, I think, unwarranted. It is more likely that the incidence of abuse of minors by priests was just as prevalent in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s as it was in the ’60s and ’70s. But the numbers John Jay College has don’t support that because a lot of records in a lot of those dioceses from those earlier decades had been destroyed. Also, in those earlier decades, people did not come forward. And by the time people did start to come forward, in the late 20th century and early in this century, many of the people who were abused in those earlier decades were dead. That’s a more logical explanation for what happened, and it obviously further undermines this notion that the permissiveness of the ’60s and ’70s had anything to do with the abuse.

    What are the flaws that you believe skewed the results of the study?

    The study is based upon reporting by the dioceses and the archdioceses in the United States to the John Jay College that was done over time. Some of those dioceses were simply not forthcoming. A recent example of that can be seen by looking at the Philadelphia archdiocese, where, as recently as this February, there were 37 priests with credible allegations against them who were still in ministry.

    In other dioceses, many of the records had been destroyed. In the Boston archdiocese, for instance, there were well over 200 priests who were identified as having had credible allegations against them between 1950 and 2002, which is the period under study. In the New York archdiocese, there were only 49 priests [with allegations], and the reason for that is that the New York archdiocese had, sometime before this scandal broke, destroyed all of their earlier records. That’s the most obvious example of a diocese that didn’t even have data to submit, even if it wanted to be forthcoming.

  9. OK, so lots of Woodstock, flowers-in-hair, beads, and peace signs drove those poor priests to molest boys. Now what excuse can we find for all those bishops who covered for them and enabled them?

  10. Okay. I’ll bite.

    Let’s pretend I’m drinking the Holy See Kool Aid straight from the chalice. Let’s pretend we can’t all shoot 40 holes through this juvenile attempt at diversion.

    All 4,500 priests between 1950-2005 were led astray by our American Sodom & Gomorrah. Fine.

    What excuse do the hundreds Bishops & Archbishops promote, for their criminal cover-ups?

    The 20 U.S. Cardinals?

    The current Pope?


    There’s a solid reason this Catholic academy grad lost his religion.

    And it wasn’t Sister Mary Mayhem that did it.

  11. The John Jay researchers seem to have missed a few obvious things. Since the 70s, people have been much more willing disclose abuse and authorities have become more willing to take reports of it seriously. The number of priests entering seminary has been declining and many active priests have been leaving the Church from the 60s. These factors could easily account for the bubble that was observed. OTOH, the reports have not stopped coming. As for all those smug non-Catholics, the reports keep on coming from other faiths, as well. Religions encourage young people to work toward a religious vocation beginning at early ages and to do so in relatively cloistered environments. Then they thrust moral authority on these unworldly young people. they wouldn’t have been ready for “the 60s”, but they also wouldn’t have been all that ready for “the 50s” or any other decade, either.

  12. Damn and I missed all the fun….Buddha…..Hey, I tried to ring your number…I invited you to come and play Tom Sawyer….I do have an extra brush….

    Buddha, I only have 6 sections to rebuild….wanna come help?…..Its a lot of fun…..the after…we can take a dip in the pool…I’ll even buy….

  13. Blouise,
    you are correct that the higher ups in the Church allowed these crimes to go on unreported.

  14. Buddha,

    Exactly. There are far too many of them centered in one organization world wide for it to have been accidental. Common sense …

    Now, we will never know if there were a few “highly placed” person/persons within the Church itself who made it easy for their fellow pedophiles to come on board. No study is going to look under that rock.

    Off to graduation parties!

  15. Blouise,

    Given that many pedophiles are caught when the police infiltrate their contact/distribution networks, your idea is not even remotely hyperbolic.

  16. Here’s a thought:

    One pedophile tells another pedophile, “My buddy Joe found the perfect place. He got a degree in education and then became a Catholic priest assigned to a parish school. He gets room and board, has a housekeeper and a cook, fawning parishioners give him gifts and take him to the country club for golf, but best of all … he has a whole school full of potential victims. Hell, a Nun pulls them out of class and sends them to his office whenever he asks. All he had to do was scam the dumbshits at the seminary for a few years and voila, he’s set for the rest of his life.”

    One pedophile tells another pedophile … the word spread quickly … all around the world.

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