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A report prepared by researchers from New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the abuse of children by Catholic priests in the United States between 1950 and 2000 offers a complex portrait of the “causes and context” behind decades of sexual abuse and the sometimes ineffective or even negligent response of U.S. bishops to the problem. Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., and Chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, said the exhaustive study, five years in the making, offers an explanation, but not an excuse for the abuse scandal that first engulfed the United States before surfacing throughout the global church. Still some of its conclusions have already drawn passionate criticism, and the report will surely not satisfy anyone looking for simple answers or easy targets to blame. In fact in some ways it may only lead to further confusion and outrage.

Karen Terry, dean of research at John Jay and principal investigator for the study, told reporters at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on May 18: “There is no single cause of the sexual abuse crisis. The increased frequency of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s is consistent with the patterns of increased deviance of society at that time. The social influences intersected with vulnerabilities of some individual priests whose preparation for a life of celibacy was inadequate.”

According to the study, a comprehensive analysis of abusers did not shed any light on behavior or characteristics that could be conclusively predictive, though abusers generally suffered from “intimacy deficits” and maintained no close personal relationships before and during their years in seminary. A significant percentage had been abused themselves as children. Researchers pointed out that most of the abusers were graduates of seminaries in the 1940s and 1950s who were inadequately prepared for the emotional rigors of their lives as priests and the challenge of lifelong celibacy.

The study sweeps away the suspicion that an influx of homosexual men into the priesthood helped propel the crisis. The researchers pointed out that reports of abuse began an abrupt decline even as more gay men became priests. Despite repeated emphasis on problems of isolation and loneliness as contributors to the crisis, the study still asserts that celibacy was not a contributing factor. What was?

Here the report heads into perhaps its most controversial direction, suggesting that a broad increase in deviant behavior throughout the United States—higher rates of crime, drug use, divorce and sexual experimentation and activity—was the backdrop to the growing problem of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s.

Bishop Cupich cautioned that the study’s commentary on the cultural milieu of the crisis was an attempt merely to offer context. “I don’t think John Jay is saying that it’s a cause of what happened,” he said. “We’re not trying to make excuses; we’re not even trying to say we know what the causes are. We’re trying to understand it and the context helps us understand it. Explanations are not excuses.”

Perhaps the only unequivocally good news reported is that the church may have already been through the worst of the sex abuse crisis. John Jay researchers say the distribution of reports of abuse accelerated through the 1960s and 1970s but peaked in the years before the first media reports of sexual assaults by clerics broke in 1985. Terry repeatedly spoke of the crisis as a “historical” phenomenon. Despite the apparent breakdown of norms in Philadelphia, Terry said that efforts to contain the crisis through new procedures and elevated vigilance were working to reduce sexual abuse. She insisted that the diminishing reports of abuse do not reflect a timing anomaly, that is, that contemporary victims will emerge in a new wave of reports when they reach adulthood.

More rigorous diocesan and parish training appear to be paying off coupled with improved screening of candidates for the priesthood and seminary coursework that now includes a greater emphasis on “human formation,” schooling candidates for the priesthood in human sexuality, “self understanding” and in the development of emotional and psychological competence. Despite such positive signs, Bishop Cupich and Diane Knight, chair of the National Review Board, cautioned against complacency. “There is no room for fatigue or feeling that people have heard enough when it comes to efforts to protect children,” said Bishop Cupich.

Knight warned that the threat to children and the requirement of vigilance will always remain. “There will always be adults who are attracted to children in society and in the church,” Knight said. “Thus, we must always be on guard and do all that is possible to prevent sexual abuse.”

The study included some criticism of the bishops but generally suggested that many of their failures in addressing the problem were a reflection of the times and its limited understanding of the nature and scope of the problem coupled with poor advice from psychological clinicians who thought abusing priests could be treated. That perspective has incensed advocates of the survivors of abuse. The report is already under fire by critics who charge that the results are suspect not only because the narrative it depicts puts bishops in the most favorable light possible, such as it is, but also because half of the study’s $1.8 million dollar budget came from the bishops.

In a scathing rejection of the analysis, David Clohessy, the executive director of SNAP, 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. It gives bishops even more reasons to avoid what they desperately want to avoid: questioning celibacy, married priests, secular laws, serious reforms or their own virtually limitless power as kings in a medieval monarchy.” Clohessy said the report threatened to help derail needed structural reforms and was “dangerously misleading” about the contemporary safety of children.

Terry adamantly denied that the report had been vetted or otherwise manipulated by U.S. bishops. “We did the writing; this is our report,” she said. “All of the work was ours; all of the writing was ours; and none of the bishops had any influence on the conclusions of the study.”

The study, commissioned by the bishops as a sequel to a 2004 report, also from John Jay, on the nature and scope of the problem of the sexual abuse of children by clergy, reports that, despite media depictions of pedophile priests, less than 5 percent of abusing priests could be clinically described as pedophiles. Researchers said, in fact, the majority of abusers, were just as likely to engage in inappropriate behaviors with adults and with children of both sexes and might best be described as “generalists” among sexual offenders. The study reports the abusers were driven to the violation of children, mostly male and but also female, not so much by clinical pathology as by stress and isolation. Children were merely the targets of opportunity, and poor monitoring by superiors facilitated the crimes. Muddying the clinical diagnoses of these men is the fact that the majority of them were simultaneously engaged in inappropriate relationships with adults.

Study authors seemed to make efforts to note that the nature and scale of abuse within the ranks of Catholic clerics was not distinguishable from the profile of abuse in society in general. Unfortunately similar studies that support that conclusion could not be cited. They don’t exist, Terry said. Bishop Cupich suggested that more could be learned about the problem and the John Jay results corroborated if parallel studies were launched. “I would encourage, in fact, a study by other churches like the one we did,” he said, “so we could have at least some sort of a control by which we measure the results here. But as John Jay has said no other group dealing with children across the board, from public schools to other churches and other youth organizations, wanted to become involved and have a study like this done.”

John Jay’s research suggests that many of the basic assumptions about the nature of the crisis need to be reevaluated. One of the primary questions pivots on whether the perpetrators could be accurately described as pedophiles in the first place since so many did not prey exclusively on children. The American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes pedophilia as a syndrome targeting prepubescent children, “generally 13 years or younger.” John Jay researchers used a definition for pedophilia as a sexual assault on a child 10 and younger.

Following that parameter, the study authors reach the counterintuitive conclusion that less than 22 percent of the attacks on children could be described as instances of pedophilia, a downgrading of the scandal, if it can be described as such, that will not likely provide any consolation to victims themselves and the parents and families of the slightly older children in the 11 to 14 age bracket who account for about 51 percent of the cases of sexual assault. More than 70 percent of the abuse was perpetrated on boys under the age of 14, according to the study.

Bishops were faulted by John Jay researchers for focusing on restoring priests instead of healing victims, and the study reports that at least in the early years of the crisis, as has been well documented, diocesan officials took great, if ultimately disastrous, pains to deal with the scandal internally. Not an atypical response of institutions to deviance, the study dryly notes. The researchers also report that the procedures for formal canonical responses, such as laicization, were deemed complicated and time-consuming and as a result often avoided.

Bishop Cupich said American bishops had much work to do to restore their relationship with lay people. He suggested that transparency in decision-making could the key to that restoration. He said, “The report shows that that’s an important factor, and I have found that’s the best way to rebuild trust.

“We want people to trust us,” he said. “We have to show that we’re trusting them even with difficult information at times.”

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