What produced the clerical abuse crisis?
Indeed those looking for any simple explanation of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church will be disappointed by the latest report by a research team from the John Jay School of Criminology. The "Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010" report states that "No single 'cause' of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is identified as a result of our research."
"The bulk of cases occurred decades ago," said Dr Karen Terry, John Jay's principal investigator for the report. "The increased frequency of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s was consistent with the patterns of increased deviance of society during that time."
Some commentators have read this claim as an attempt to blame 1960s permissiveness for rise in sexual abuse, but in an interview with this week's Sunday Sequence, Dr Karen Terry describes that reading of her report as "simplistic".
This latest John Jay report is long and detailed but is now required reading for the contemporary discussion about clerical abuse.
Below the fold, the American Jesuit priest Fr Thomas Reese offers Will & Testament readers a synopsis of the main findings of the report.
The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors: an analysis
What about all the causes that pundits have proposed?
Celibacy and a male priesthood? "[A]n exclusively male priesthood and the commitment to celibate chastity, were invariant during the increase, peak, and decrease in abuse incidents, and thus not causes of the 'crisis.'" (P. 3)
Homosexual priests? "Priests who had same-sex sexual experiences either before or in seminary...were not significantly more likely to abuse minors" (P. 4). "The clinical data do not support the hypothesis that priests with a homosexual identity or those who committed same-sex sexual behavior with adults are significantly more likely to sexually abuse children than those with heterosexual orientation or behavior." (P. 119) The most likely explanation of why more boys than girls were abused by priests is that boys were more accessible to priests than girls.
Post-Vatican II seminaries? "The majority of abusers (70%) were ordained prior to the 1970s, and more abusers were educated in seminaries in the 1940s and 1950s than at any other time period." (p. 118)
Pedophilia? "It is inaccurate to refer to abusers as 'pedophile priests'" because "less than 5 percent of the priests with allegations exhibited behavior consistent with a diagnosis of pedophilia (a psychiatric disorder that is characterized by recurrent fantasies, urges, and behaviors about prepubescent children)."(p. 3) "'Generalists' or indiscriminate offenders, constituted the majority of abusers...." (p. 119)
Only children? "The majority of priests who were given residential treatment following an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor also reported sexual behavior with adult partners." (p. 3)
Weirdoes? "No single psychological, developmental or behavioral characteristic differentiated priests who abused minors from those who did not." (p.) "Priests who sexually abused minors did not differ significantly from other priests on psychological or intelligence tests...." (p. 5) This means it is going to be very hard, if not impossible, to keep them out of the priesthood though pre-ordination screening.
What factors contributed to the abuse?
"The rise in abuse cases in the 1960's and 1970's was influenced by social factors in American society generally."(p. 3) The rise of abuse in the church paralleled its rise in American society.
"The priests with abusive behavior were statistically less likely to have participated in human formation training than those who did not have allegations of abuse." (p. 3)
"Priests who were sexually abused as minors themselves were more likely to abuse minors than those without a history of abuse." (p. 4)
"Priests who lacked close social bonds, and those whose family spoke negatively or not at all about sex, were more likely to sexually abuse minors...." (p. 4)
Abusive priests "had vulnerabilities, intimacy deficits, and an absence of close personal relationships before and during seminary." (p. 5)
"[A]buse is most likely to occur at times of stress, loneliness, and isolation." (p. 120)
"Many accused priests began abusing years after they were ordained, at times of increased job stress, social isolation, and decreased contact with peers." (p. 3)
"Priest-abusers are similar to sex offenders in the general population. They had motivation to commit the abuse (for example, emotional congruence to adolescents), exhibited techniques of neutralization to excuse and justify their behavior, took advantage of opportunities to abuse (for example, through socialization with the family), and used grooming techniques to gain compliance from potential victims." (p. 119)
Bishops: What did they know, when did they know it, what did they do?
"Prior to 1984, the common assumption of those whom the bishops consulted was that clergy sexual misbehavior was both psychologically curable and could be spiritually remedied."
On the one hand, "By the mid-1980s, all bishops had been made aware of the issue of sexual abuse of minors" (p. 118). On the other hand, "Though more than 80 percent of cases now known had already occurred by 1985, only 6 percent of those cases had been reported to the dioceses by that time" (p. 4). In other words, the bishops knew about abuse by the mid-80s, but had no inkling of how extensive it was.
"Diocesan leaders responded to acts of abuse, but with a focus on the priests and not the victims. Many bishops acted in good faith to help abusive priests, most often by sending the priest-abuser to treatment. There is no clear indication, however, of the bishops' or other diocesan leaders' understanding of the extent of harm resulting from sexual abuse. Although this lack of understanding was consistent with the overall lack of understanding of victimization [in American society] at the time, the absence of acknowledgement of harm was a significant ethical lapse on the part of leadership in some dioceses." (P. 119)
"There is little evidence that diocesan leaders met directly with victims before 2002; consequently, the understanding of the harm of sexual abuse to the victim was limited." (p. 4)
"Diocesan responses to abusive priests changed substantially over the sixty-year period addressed in this study. For example, abusive priests were less likely to be returned to active ministry and/or more likely to be placed on administrative leave during the later years." (p. 119)
"Some bishops were 'innovators' who offered organizational leadership to address the problems of sexual abuse of minors. Other bishops, often in dioceses where the Catholic Church was highly influential, were slow to recognize the importance of the problem of sexual abuse by priests or to respond to victims. The media often focused on these 'laggards,' further perpetuating the image that the bishops as a group were not responding to the problem of sexual abuse of minors." (p. 4)
"The count of incidents per year increased steadily from the mid-1960's through the late 1970's, then declined in the 1980's and continues to remain low." (p. 2) In other words, child abuse had been dramatically reduced in the church before Boston, the most prominent laggard, blew up.
"It is the voices and narratives of victims that have confronted priests, enabled diocese to act responsibly, and brought diocesan leaders to an understanding of the harm of abuse." (P. 119)
"Knowing that most potential abusers will not be identified before the abuse occurs, and knowing that many priests have vulnerabilities that may lead to the commission of deviant behavior, it is important to reduce the opportunities for abuse to occur. The church has taken an important step in risk reduction through the safe environment education programs; post ordination education and evaluation can also play a role in further reducing the possibility of abuse."
Evaluation of the study
The study is extraordinary and sophisticated. We will have to wait for other scholars to evaluate its more complex analysis, but we can only wish that other institutions will follow the Catholic Church in authorizing and funding such studies.
Since 149 priests were serial abusers (with more than 10 allegations against them) and were responsible for 27 percent of the allegations, I would have liked a separate analysis of them. How were they different from the non-serial abusers? How were they different from priests in general?
While less than 5 percent of the priests were true pedophiles, 51 percent of the victims were between the ages of 11 and 14, which is still quite young. Why? My guess is because of access and vulnerability, but I would like to hear from the researchers.