When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in June 2002, they adopted the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” One of the goals of the charter was for a nationally reputable research entity to collect information from the Catholic dioceses in order to develop a database for assessing the extent of past priest sexual abuse. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York was given that responsibility and in 2004 they released their findings to the bishops and the public in their report titled “Nature and Scope of the Sexual Abuse Crisis.”
As this report was largely descriptive in nature, two years later, a supplementary report was also issued by the researchers at John Jay that presented more analysis of the data. Derived from these findings was a series of research led by one of the prominent researchers at John Jay College, Karen Terry, all of which was recently published in the May issue of the journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior (Vol. 35, No. 5).
The findings from these newly published articles present key information related to the offenses, how they were reported, the characteristics of both victim and offender, the organizational behavior exhibited by the Catholic Church, and they suggest ways in which policies can be implemented to help reduce sexual abuse.
Terry leads this new collection of articles with a review of the findings from the “Nature and Scope” study, which consisted of abuse data from 97% of the Catholic dioceses (representing 99% of the diocesan priests) and 64% of the religious communities (representing 83% of religious priests).
She found that 4,392 priests had allegations made against them by 10,667 victims between the years 1950 and 2002, representing 4% of the total number of priests for this time period.
The majority of accused were found to be diocesan priests, between the ages of 25 and 39, ordained in the late 1960s and early 1970s, accused of acts committed in their residences. The victims were mostly boys between the ages of 11 and 14, and the majority of cases of abuse started between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. When abuse was alleged, 40% of the priests were treated, mostly with psychotherapy and specialized programs for clergy sex offenders.
While the findings of the original study presented the best understanding of the extent of the problem, it did not delve into explaining the findings. These new articles attempt to do just that. One of the research articles found that there was a steady increase in cases through the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the peak year for each diocese being sometime in the 1970s. However, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s and then in 2002, that the majority of these cases were reported to the dioceses.
This finding held, regardless of the geographical region or the size of each diocese.
Hence, largely men in their 40s and 50s came forward in either the 1990s or 2002 to report their victimization. In addition, this study and another found that the priests, on average, did not begin their abuse until 11 years past their ordination and the time frame of their victimization tended to be limited to a five-year period.
This is highlighted by the fact that the median age for the first offense was 39 years of age.
All of this would suggest that the priest abuse cannot be summarized as simply a result of individual behavior or some type of psychoses, but rather, is the result of either a societal problem arising in the 1960s and 1970s, a change in the way in which priests were educated and trained during this time period, or both.
Additional research looked at those factors which were predictors for the priests to commit sexual abuse.
The study found such factors as the age of the priest, the presence of all-male victims, a history of substance abuse, a history of sexual victimization, a history of behavioral problems, and use of threats all suggested that these contributed to the priest committing the sex abuse.
Since we know that the median age for beginning abuse was 39 and age was a predictive factor, this may suggest that something, perhaps mid-life problems, are causing previously non-abusers to become abusers. In addition, the presence of all males or being in situations with all males, contributed to priests becoming abusers.
Although it is not surprising to learn that substance abuse, behavioral problems, and their own sexual victimization increased the odds that a priest would become an abuser, what it does suggest is that careful screening and perhaps refusal to admit individuals with these types of past problems into the priesthood might be a good idea.
Finally, the finding that when priests made threats they were more likely to end up abusing would suggest that we must educate our children that priests do not make threats to parishioners, and that if they exhibit such behavior, which would by its very nature be wrong to begin with, they should be reported.
Further research separated the priests into two categories: those who desired a particular type of victim (specialists), and those who did not seem to care (generalists). Only 693 out of 4,392 priests fell into the former category, the rest in the latter.
Those that specialized tended to come from religious orders, not dioceses, began their abuse much later than generalists, and tended to serve primarily in a teacher role. Generalists tended to start earlier, have more victims, and abuse over longer periods of time.
In addition, the study found that priests who victimized pre-pubescent boys abused over longer periods of time than those victimizing post-pubescent boys. Also, those who were victims of a generalist were more likely to delay their reporting than those who were victimized by specialists.
These particular findings, though greatly mixed, tell us a number of things about the behaviors of abusive priests.
Although the media talks of pedophile priests, those who victimize pre-pubescent boys, this is the exception, not the rule. Pedophiles made up only 2.2% of the priest abusers.
And, while we often hear in the media that child sex abusers have proclivities toward a certain type of victim, that is not true among the priest sex abusers. The behaviors of these abusers are too widely dispersed to categorize a particular “type” of abuser. The most important implication of this study is that prevention programs should not be geared toward a particular “type” of abuser, but rather should address all types of potential abusers.
In fact, when it comes to prevention, another study highlighted the fact that many of the incidents of abuse were situational in nature.
In other words, the priest found himself in a situation with the victim where he should have exhibited self-control, but failed to do so, and found himself committing the offense. Avoiding those types of situations altogether should be the responsibility of all parishioners in the Church. And a final article highlighted the fact that this was not the case of a few “bad apples,” but rather, the case of an institution that wanted to control the abuse, and often by the nature of its structure, contributed to the problem. Avoiding these types of situations, then, is the responsibility of the Church.
This collection of research articles is beneficial in helping to understand this particular population of abusers and begin to explain the pattern of abuse over the 52-year period studied.
By understanding how the offenses occur, how they get reported, the characteristics of both the offender and the victim, as well as the organizational behavior of the Church itself, it allows some insight into the problem and allows for the creation of better policies to reduce future child sexual abuse.
This is certainly, however, not the end of the research and insight that can be gathered on this problem, and the bishops have not eschewed their duties in trying to achieve this end. The U.S. bishops have commissioned the John Jay researchers to conduct a second study, one that would present the causes and context within which the abuse occurred, and it is scheduled to be completed and delivered to the bishops at their annual meeting in 2009.
A better understanding of the causes and context will serve to create better programs for the prevention and response regarding future abuse.
Willard M. Oliver is an associate professor
of criminal justice at Sam Houston State
University in Huntsville, Texas.