U.S. Bishops and Clergy Sex Abuse: Another Round

A new John Jay report outlines a recipe for disaster that began in the 1960s — and confirms a decline in sex abuse by clergy. Same-sex attraction was not a major role, the report says.

Members of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, are interviewed by members of the media outside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters in Washington May 18. The bishops unveiled the long-awaited study on the causes of sexual abuse committed by American priests.
Members of the U.S.-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, are interviewed by members of the media outside the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters in Washington May 18. The bishops unveiled the long-awaited study on the causes of sexual abuse committed by American priests. (photo: CNS photo/Bob Roller)

WASHINGTON — Amid fresh allegations of a clergy abuse “cover-up” in Philadelphia, and urgent preparations for a review of the 2002 Dallas Charter on sexual abuse, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a comprehensive report that challenged popular judgments about the causes of the clergy sex-abuse crisis.

Compiled and written by researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2002,” the second report produced by John Jay investigators, concluded that just 5% of clerical predators exclusively targeted prepubescent children and thus could be described as “pedophiles.”

The majority of the accused priests were “generalists” who targeted children, adolescents and adults, basing their choices of victim on opportunity rather than sexual orientation or the age and gender of the victim, according to the 122-page report.

In what is already shaping up to be the most contentious portion of the report, the authors conclude that neither celibacy nor same-sex attraction played any significant role in the crisis. The report states that a confluence of events, including the relaxation of social and moral norms during the 1960s and 1970s, and weak seminary formation that neglected to adequately address issues of emotional maturity and sexual identity, contributed to a sharp rise in clergy sexual abuse.

Seminary administrators looking for specific criteria to screen out future predators will be disappointed by the authors’ assertion that data compiled from a variety of sources, including three treatment centers for troubled priests, could not isolate any single factors that increased the likelihood that a candidate would abuse minors.

“Individual characteristics do not predict subsequent sexual abuse,” stated Karen Terry, the report’s principal investigator, at USCCB headquarters in Washington Wednesday.

Introduced at a press conference that drew a phalanx of openly skeptical reporters from television and print media, the report also provided some reassuring data that confirm a steady decline in clergy abuse, following the Church’s own reforms, as well as broader educational campaigns that clarified the devastating impact and pervasiveness of child sexual abuse.

“Keep in mind that the study released today is a report to the bishops of the United States, not from them,” said Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the USCCB, in a statement. He noted that the report had already prompted criticism, but added, “The information provided in the ‘Causes and Context’ study closely mirrors our own experience” in the Archdiocese of New York.

Zero Tolerance Remains

In separate prepared statements, Terry, Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., chairman of the USCCB Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, and Diane Knight, chairwoman of the National Review Board, emphasized that the Church had learned to effectively address the problem and that its institutional procedures could serve as a “model” for other large organizations.

“The study shows a sharp decrease in the incidence of abuse by clergy as the Church began to adopt safe-environment measures, addressed human-formation issues in preparing candidates for the priesthood and attended to new insights about child abuse developed by mental-health and law-enforcement professions,” stated Bishop Cupich. “[T]he study shows that what we are doing works.”

Bishop Cupich defended the bishops’ policy of “zero-tolerance for any cleric who sexually abuses a child. This position must remain in effect.” Asked whether those bishops who tolerated or ignored allegations of clerical abuse should be held accountable, he responded that he was accountable for his actions and every bishop should be. He did not specify, however, what penalties should be imposed on bishops that neglected their duty to protect the faithful.

Terry confirmed the researchers’ autonomy from any influence from Church authorities, as she responded to media questions about the criteria used to establish the finding that just 5% of clerical predators were “pedophiles.” In the academic literature, there is some dispute about the age range for minors designated as prepubescent — as opposed to pubescent or post-pubescent.

The researchers determined that the cutoff for prepubescent children was age 10, thus creating a larger number of older victims, mostly male children and adolescent.

Celibacy and Homosexuality

Since the scandal of clerical abuse of young people burst onto the national scene in 2002, many commentators have insisted that homosexuality has played a large role. An earlier report pointed out that most of the victims of the abuse have been adolescent boys. Homosexual-rights advocates have expressed alarm that the Church may seek to scapegoat priests with same-sex attraction.

However, the report and Terry’s subsequent remarks argued that there was “no single cause of the sexual-abuse ‘crisis.’” Rather, the “deviant” practices of clerical predators were “consistent with patterns of increased deviance of society during that time. The social influence intersected with vulnerabilities of some individual priests whose preparation for a life of celibacy was inadequate at that time. Church-specific factors that were constant during that time, such as celibacy, were not causes of the abuse crisis.”

Both the report and Terry’s explanatory remarks challenged two specific explanations for the crisis: the collapse of traditional formation at some seminaries in specific regions or cities and the negative impact of minor seminaries on the emotional and sexual maturity of high-school boys sequestered from mainstream culture.

Asked to comment on the finding that same-sex attraction played no significant role in the crisis, Bishop Cupich echoed the report’s conclusion and said that the “gender” of the victims had more to do with the convergence of three historical factors: opportunity, wider social developments and weak preparation. The predators “had more access to victims that were altar boys or members of youth groups.”

That finding is likely to remain controversial, however. In a yet-to-be-published article, Richard Fitzgibbons and Dale O’Leary argue that “studies used to support the view [that] the abuse of minors is not related to homosexuality are not applicable to the problem of clergy SSA [same-sex attraction]. The data in John Jay reports strongly suggests that homosexual abuse of adolescent males is at the heart of the crisis.”

While Terry states that the perpetrators’ access to boys helps to explain the large number of male victims, Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist based in Pennsylvania, noted that access alone cannot explain the striking data, particularly given the general understanding that male victims remain less likely to report child sexual abuse, and thus crimes against them often go underreported. “[I]n an often referenced study by Finkelhor and associates, 27% of women and 16% of men reported childhood sexual abuse. In contrast, the John Jay report found that 81% of the alleged victims of clergy abuse were male,” he said.

The authors of the John Jay report buttress their conclusion that same-sex attraction played no role in the clergy-abuse crisis with their observation that the decline in abuse cases paralleled an increase in the number of homosexual clergy. But Fitzgibbons suggests that the decline in abuse was, in part, the direct result of new Church policies.

Jesuit Father James Martin, an editor at America magazine, took a different view, underscoring a concern in some Church circles that homosexual priests would be used as scapegoats for the abuse crisis. He embraced the report’s conclusion that same-sex attraction does not increase the likelihood that a priest will sexually abuse minors. “[H]omosexuality and pedophilia are not the same thing. . . . They also know that there are many celibate homosexual men in the priesthood and chaste men in religious orders who have never abused anyone and who, moreover, lead generous, dedicated, and even holy lives,” Father Martin wrote in a blog post.

New Vatican Guidelines

The dispute over the role of same-sex attraction in the priesthood will likely resurface at the U.S. bishops’ upcoming meeting in June, where a thorough review of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” is on the agenda.

The ongoing scandal in the Philadelphia archdiocese has made that discussion especially urgent. Although Knight confirmed during an interview that the bishops would examine the issues raised by the Philadelphia scandal, the archdiocese’s internal investigation has not been completed.

The bishops will also review new guidelines issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which uphold a local bishop’s primary role in responding to allegations of clergy sexual abuse and establishing procedures that protect the faithful.

The outlines of the Vatican document cover familiar terrain for the U.S. bishops; the guidelines are primarily designed for other national episcopal conferences that have only begun to grapple with the global scourge of child sexual abuse.

But as the Philadelphia scandal confirmed, the challenge of protecting minors and weeding out sexual predators in a vast institution like the Catholic Church remains formidable.

Still, the John Jay report provides reasons for Catholics to applaud the impact of the Dallas Charter, which has led to a dramatic improvement in the Church’s prevention outcomes: Just seven new cases of abuse in 2010 were reported last year.

Father Brett Brannen, vice rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., also took heart in the report’s conclusion that changes in seminary formation have helped to screen out risky candidates and nurture emotionally grounded future priests.

“The whole program of vocations today is much more balanced and holistic than 25 years ago,” said Father Brannen, following the release of the John Jay report. “By the time they arrive at seminary, we already have a good read on their affective maturity, coping skills, sexual integration or lack thereof, basic human formation, family relationships, substance abuse history, etc. And the program of priestly formation addresses all of these things under the four pillars of academic, human, spiritual and pastoral,” he said.

“In addition, the whole issue of celibacy and how to live celibacy in chastity, in tranquility of mind and heart, is treated in great detail, much more even than when I was in the seminary in the 1990s.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.