WASHINGTON — The U.S. bishops are commissioning a study on the causes of sex abuse by clergy. And they are looking at the problem in terms of an epidemic.   

At their annual meeting in November in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved plans by its National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People to commission a study on the “causes and context” of the crisis.

The board has asked leading universities and private research firms to submit proposals for conducting the study. Nicholas Cafardi, dean of the Duquesne University Law School and chairman of the National Review Board, said Jan. 14 that he and other board members will begin reviewing proposals and interviewing top contenders in February. The study could take several years and cost millions of dollars, he said, and the bishops’ conference is seeking grants to pay for it.

An earlier study, concluded in February 2004 by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, reported that 4,392 clergymen — almost all priests — were accused of sexually abusing 10,667 minors between 1950 and 2002.

Indeed, sex abuse has infected a wide swath of society, spreading through the ranks of groups as varied as teachers, medical and mental-health professionals, and youth-group leaders.

“The numbers support the idea that this was an epidemic,” Cafardi said. That’s why the proposed new research will resemble an epidemiological study, Cafardi told the Register. He hopes the findings will help Church leaders end the epidemic for good.

“This epidemic started in the ‘50s and ‘60s and peaked in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, and now it’s on a downswing,” Cafardi said. “In a real epidemiological study, you’d look at the infecting agent, the host and the environment. We’re going to be looking at priest-perpetrator, the victim and the environment.”

Almost 10% of public school students, about 4.5 million children, have been abused by public school employees or adult volunteers, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and presented to Congress last June.

The Catholic Church remains the only organization that has undertaken a thorough approach to ending the problem.

Interfering Ideology?

But some experts are concerned about who will be chosen to conduct the research and the possibility that ideology might color the findings.

“The basic problem is homosexual behavior between priests and adolescent males,” said Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist and co-author of the Catholic Medical Association’s handbook “Homosexuality and Hope” (cathmed.org/publications/homosexuality). “The John Jay report showed that 80% of the abuse by priests occurred with adolescent males, not young children.”

Fitzgibbons, of Philadelphia, said existing research and his own professional experiences tell him a major cause of child sexual abuse is “weak masculine identity combined with profound loneliness” among the ranks of perpetrators. Those same factors, he believes, lead men to choose homosexuality.

“The challenge to getting accurate study results is that most in the mental-health field do not accept homosexuality as having an emotional origin,” Fitzgibbons said. “They see it as genetic. So I hope they can find researchers who would be open to the fact that there are emotional causes of homosexual behavior between adult males and adolescents. There’s also the principle of evil, sin and lust. Researchers who believe homosexuality is a genetic condition are going to minimize some important factors that need to be studied.”

Fitzgibbons said he’d be surprised if the study examines the practice of allowing homosexuals into seminaries as a potential cause of the abuse crisis.

“You’re going to get results that reflect the researchers’ views on homosexuality,” Fitzgibbons said. “The results of the John Jay study, by showing that 80% of the victims were adolescent males, is a source of embarrassment to the homosexual community, and there’s a tremendous effort afoot to distance homosexuality from the sexual-abuse crisis. The challenge will be to find a university or research team that can resist social pressures and pursue the truth.”

Implication for Seminaries?

Fitzgibbons isn’t alone in his concern that the study may reflect political agendas of the day, rather than potentially unpopular truths.

“It’s not a big secret. The heart of the problem is that homosexuals, all the way back to the ancient Greeks, have preferred boys and young men as sexual partners,” said Paul Vitz, a psychologist and former psychology professor at New York University. “It’s a well-documented fact. Given this knowledge, the bishops should be very concerned with homosexuality in the seminaries. If this study doesn’t tell them that, then the results will be questionable.”

The matter of allowing homosexuals to study for the priesthood is expected to come up when the Vatican conducts an apostolic visitation of U.S. seminaries this year. Sometime before the process begins this fall, the Vatican expects to publish a document on whether candidates with homosexual inclinations should be admitted to the priesthood.

As for the review board’s new study, Vitz said it’s unlikely the board will end up with objective results, because researchers don’t like to be at the center of controversial findings.

“Will the people conducting this research be in it to be nice, or will they be in it to find facts?” Vitz asked. “It will be very difficult to find the level of objectivity the bishops need, especially at the university level. There’s some chance they could find a private research firm that could do this objectively, but it’s not likely.”

Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the National Review Board, said that’s not true. The outgoing director, who leaves office Feb. 25, insists the results will be accurate without regard for sociopolitical sensitivity.

“I’m not a bit worried about that,” McChesney told the Register. “There are very high standards for research in this country, especially research involving human subjects, and there are all sorts of federal statutes and so forth that regulate it. Furthermore, if an institution does research that’s biased or promotes an agenda, it loses its reputation. There are a lot of checks and balances in place.”

McChesney said those who blame the sexual-abuse crisis on homosexual priests probably engage in oversimplification, and she suspects the study will show that.

“It’s a very strong possibility we’ll find that there are multiple causes for the sexual-abuse crisis,” McChesney said. “Not every incident involved a boy, or a girl, or a 5-year-old or a 17-year-old. That leads you, as a behaviorist, to say it’s quite likely we have different kinds of offenders and a variety of causes.”

‘It’s Real Simple’

McChesney said the study will look into issues of sexual orientation, but she emphasized that pedophilia cannot be associated with homosexuality.

“You can’t say that some of the problem is pedophilia and some is homosexuality, because the two aren’t corollary,” McChesney said. “Heterosexuality and homosexuality are corollary, and pedophilia (sexual abuse of young children) is corollary with ephebophilia — the attraction to adolescents.”

Vitz, however, said it’s believed in medical and psychological communities that the majority of pedophiles and ephebophiles are also homosexual.

A. Dean Byrd, a clinical professor at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said a number of studies concur. He said peer-reviewed studies indicate a disproportionate percentage of homosexuals were sexually molested as boys or teens by homosexual men.

Byrd cited a study by R. Shrier and D. Johnson in the Journal of Adolescent Healthcare. Shrier and Johnson interviewed 300 boys as part of a general health history at an adolescent outpatient clinic. Forty of the adolescents disclosed an experience of being sexually assaulted by a male before puberty. These 40 were compared to an age-matched control group from the same sample of boys who did not report abuse. The study found that while 90% of the control group reported that they were heterosexual, only 42.5% of those reporting sexual molestation said they were heterosexual, with 47.5% self-identifying as homosexual and 10% as bisexual.

Using data from the general Social Survey, the National Health and Social Life Survey and the U.S. Census Bureau, Demography magazine estimated that 2.5% of the population is homosexual. Yet a study of 457 male sex offenders against children, published in the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, found that “approximately one-third (33.3%) of the sexual offenders directed their sexual activity against males.”

Fitzgibbons added: “My clinical experience is that most men involved in pedophilia are also involved in homosexual relationships with adults.”

Furthermore, Vitz said, the majority of sexual-abuse instances identified in the John Jay study involved adult males with post-pubescent boys.

“Look, it’s real simple,” Vitz said. “If you screen homosexuals from entering seminaries, like the Church used to do, you eliminate the vast majority of pedophiles in the priesthood. Period.”

Cafardi said “standards of objectivity” will be the highest priority when he and other board members choose a research organization. Homosexuality, he promised, will not be ignored because of political pressure.

“Nobody wants to get involved in gay bashing,” Cafardi said. “The Church has made it very clear, in many statements on the pastoral care of homosexual persons, that discrimination against homosexuals is completely inappropriate. But that doesn’t mean you ignore the issue. You have to go where the facts take you. And when we say we’re going to look at the perpetrator, it seems we have to look at that issue.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1986 sent a letter to the world’s bishops on “The Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,” reaffirming the Church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality. The letter also said it was “gravely erroneous” to think that the Bible’s injunctions against homosexuality are so culture-bound that they are not applicable to modern life (vatican.va/roman curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc con cfaith doc 19861001 homosexual-persons en.html).

Though Fitzgibbons and Vitz insist homosexuality is the primary cause of the crisis, Cafardi said it may not be that simple.

“We know from the John Jay study that most of the victims and perpetrators were of the same sex,” Cafardi said. “But some would say that’s because the priests spend most of their time with boys, and very little time with girls, so it’s perhaps a matter of availability. I’m not saying I agree with that, but it’s one of many possibilities that will have to be studied.”

Cafardi and McChesney say the study results, whatever they turn out to be, will help the Church and the rest of society drastically reduce the scourge of sexual abuse of children.

“This study is the Church acting like a church, doing the right thing without concern for the public-relations ramifications of casting more attention on an embarrassing scandal,” Cafardi said. “All of society will benefit.”

Wayne Laugesen writes

from Boulder, Colorado.