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. The 60s and 70s are to blame?

    Do the catholic cult clowns mean the 1870s when an Australian nun reported priests molesting children?

    Or do the 60-year-old-virgins mean the 1260s, when concubines, rape and nepotism were common practice in the vatican?

  2. Lotta,

    We had some good music, but so did the 20’s in Jazz and Blues. The Beatles were genius, but Louis Armstrong was a trailblazer.


    I was also 4f with high blood pressure and yes I marched anyway. My career was spent in helping others and I pretty much maintained my ideals, like you. Many of those we saw as our allies of like mind, perhaps the majority of them, really were more into being cool and getting laid, rather than real change. I could see it in my friends who found money and status to be the ultimate end, rather than social justice. My cynicism doesn’t mean I’ve given up, I never will, but I refuse to sugar coat my memories. I recommend “Nixonland” by Rick Perlsten as a book that expresses a good part of my experience then, in the context of living through the decades since.

  3. Pete, LOL. Point taken. But in totality, um, yes. Best music EVER!

  4. Mike, I don’t think it was our opinion of ourself that was the problem. It was our opinion of humankind. We were altruist & most people are too self-centered and egotistical.

    I offer as evidence –
    I was born with spina bifida and so was 4F but I protested the war anyway because it was the wrong fight in the wrong place. It became clear after the fact that a lot of the guys that were against the war had only one concern: keeping their ass out of Viet Nam. Those are the ones that elected Reagan. Guys like Norm Coleman, who played the part in the 60’s and then could quote Dylan to justify the destruction of the social safety net to further his career.

  5. I am sick and tired of the sick and tired crap people say about priest. Look, we all have needs. Just because I like a little on the side, how can you say it is wrong? Have you tried it? We work long hard hours for very little.

  6. Mike Spindell and Frank,

    “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”


    We never accomplished all those changes we imagined we were causing, but we did have some fun. Too bad we had a too high opinion of our abilities and our strategies.

    You guys are being way too hard on yourselves and letting it distort you view of history IMO. the Hippies didn’t accomplish everything they may have wanted but they sure helped moved the culture forward. I’m not talking about the “Counter Culture” which did it’s part in its own way, mostly non-political, but the hippies.

    First, we had the best music ever. Ever.

    We didn’t just sit home getting high, we marched and organized. We became an anti-war movement, a women’s right movement, continued the civil rights movement and the environmental movement. We were there when those movements were born, embraced them, swelled their ranks and, some of us still support them with our money as our legs have given out. no matter what the revisionist history says. We, many of us, most probably, carried those ideals into our careers and made a difference on the job. And we kicked Lyndon Johnson out of office.

    Did I mention that the soundtrack to that period, our youthful lives, was the best music EVER?

    We did pretty good for a bunch of idealistic stoners. Give yourselves a pat on the back.

  7. Elaine M.

    You are welcome. I met Archbishop Martin in Dublin last summer when I was on a visit to see my relatives. He is the only member of the hierarchy, that I know of, who has the courage to be on the side of the victim/survivors of priest sexual abuse.

    After he heard my story of being abused by a Carmelite priest who, I found, was still in active ministry in Dublin, Archbishop Martin said he would get back to me. Within 2 weeks, Dr Martin had the head of the Carmelites contact me, when I was back in Chicago. My case was referred to the sexual crimes unit in Dublin for investigation and the priest has been removed from active ministry. Archbishop Martin wants to face and end these problems in the Church.

    I believe that Archbishop Martin asked 5 bishops, who were found to be complicit in the Irish priest sex abuse scandal, to resign. All 5 resigned but 2 resigned under protest and our Pope Benedict sadly reversed their resignations. The Irish saw it as an undermining of what the Archbishop is trying to do to address the problem of priest abuse, especially of innocent children.

    The problem is with the culture of the Roman Catholic Church and the clericalism of the priesthood.

    Pope Benedict XVI, when known as Cardinal Ratzinger and head of the office of faith and morals for 24 years, and involved in priest sex abuse cases, continued the secrecy and deceit that was part of the culture of the Church for years. Sadly, he has been instrumental in allowing the abuse to flourish worldwide with no accountability by himself or others. As G. Robertson,QC, says in THE CASE OF THE POPE, the Pope considers himself above the law.

    There will be an excellent conference on priest sex abuse in Washington, DC from July 8,9,10 this summer at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City. I went to the one in Chicago last summer. It was excellent. For more information go to: http://www.snapnetwork.org.

    I am grateful to learn that there are lawyers who care enough about the Roman Catholic Church to
    make it accountable.

    Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, Chicago, IL.

  8. “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”


    We never accomplished all those changes we imagined we were causing, but we did have some fun. Too bad we had a too high opinion of our abilities and our strategies.

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