June 3, 2011


The report on clergy sex abuse

There’s good news and bad news in the report prepared by New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice following its five-year study of the “causes and context” of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the United States from 1950 to 2010.

The good news is that incidents of such abuse have been rare in recent years. Ninety-four percent of the abuse incidents from 1950 through 2009 took place before 1990, the report says, and there have been few cases since. Most of those cases from earlier decades weren’t reported to authorities until the early 2000s.

The bad news is that the investigation determined that there is no single cause among priests of the sexual abuse crisis. That’s bad news because, if there were a single cause, it could be more easily addressed.

The report says that few of the offenders were pedophiles, defined as abusers of children under 11 years old; four out of five victims were older than 11, and 70 percent of the abusers also had sexual relations with adults.

It also says that priests with a homosexual identity weren’t more likely to sexually abuse minors. The abusers just had more access to boys than to girls.

And, it says that the Church’s rule of priestly celibacy isn’t a factor since the Church had the same rule both before and after the increase of such incidents.

So why did sexual abuse of minors spike in the 1960s and 1970s?

The report seems to blame society and the fact that priests ordained in the 1940s and 1950s weren’t properly trained to confront the sexual revolution that occurred in the 1960s.

Karen Terry, dean of research at John Jay and principal investigator for the study, put it this way: “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.”

We should hardly be surprised at that. Who was prepared for the sexual revolution in the 1960s? The advent of the birth control pill and other radical changes in male-female relationships led to today’s sexually permissive culture throughout society.

The John Jay report’s main conclusion was, “There’s no indication in our data that priests are any more likely to abuse children than anyone else in society.” That may be true, but shouldn’t we expect priests to be much less likely to abuse children than others in society?

It also says that the sexual abuse of minors “is not a phenomenon unique to the Catholic Church.” It is often found in organizations where “mentoring and nurturing relationships develop between adults and young people.” Schools must constantly be alert for incidents of sexual abuse by teachers or coaches.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) was quick to criticize the report, calling it “garbage in, garbage out” because the U.S. bishops authorized the study. That’s a slap, though, at the objectivity of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. SNAP apparently wanted the report to blame the Church’s rules concerning celibacy or perhaps on priests with a homosexual orientation.

Since the sexual-abuse crisis first attracted attention, the bishops have often been criticized for not doing enough to prevent priests from abusing children, and for simply moving priests who have abused children to another parish. In most cases, that doesn’t seem to be fair criticism.

Those of us who attended annual meetings of the U.S. bishops during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s know that it was only in the early 1990s that they began to hear reports about the increase in sex-abuse allegations. They also heard from psychiatrists who assured them that the priests could be cured, and it was safe for bishops to reassign them after they received treatment. We know now that that is not true.

Since the extent of the crisis became known, the U.S. bishops have put into place guidelines for handling sex-abuse cases that have become a model for other bishops throughout the world.

—John F. Fink

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