When the American bishops commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York to study sex abuse of children by priests, the emphasis was on getting answers to questions. The researchers’ final report provides many answers, but in doing it may also raise at least two more large questions.
First, how persuasive will people find its answers regarding the root causes of clergy sex abuse, in particular the role that homosexuality did — or didn’t — play?
Second, did the study ask and answer all the big questions about the scandal, especially about the coverup of abuse by bishops and other church authorities?
The John Jay College report, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, was released May 18 at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Filling 143 oversized double-column pages and accompanied by 481 footnotes, the $1.8 million study is a product of extensive research, much of it done in otherwise closed diocesan files.
According to previous studies, American dioceses have received claims of abuse from more than 15,700 people against about 6,000 priests since 1950. Against this background, the picture painted by the John Jay report is sobering but, on the whole, relatively encouraging for the Church.
Sex abuse of minors by Catholic priests spiked sharply in the 1960s and 1970s but, starting in the 1980s, went into a sharp decline. As matters stand, more than 90 percent of the known cases of sex abuse occurred over 20 years ago.
The John Jay report links clergy sex abuse to a complex of underlying social factors reflected in other forms of “deviant” behavior that include sharp rises in the ‘60s and ‘70s in drug use, crime, premarital sex, and divorce.
Dismissing some commonplace explanations, the researchers conclude that an all-male priesthood and celibacy “are not causes” of the abuse problem. As for the dropoff in the last 25 years, Causes and Context describes it as “earlier and sharper” than declines in other deviant behaviors, and attributes it to activism by abuse victims, continued attention to the issue by the national bishops’ conference, and new diocesan responses.
In sum — to use an expression repeated several times by the researchers — the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the United States is “a historical problem” — the increase in abuse and the decrease in abuse both occurred in the past.
So what about the new questions raised by Causes and Context?
Start with the first: What was the underlying cause of abuse? In particular, what role did homosexuality play? According to the researchers, it’s a misrepresentation to speak of “pedophile priests,” since only about 5 percent of the abusive clergy were men with an attraction to young children.
But the situation is very different with an older age group, since a full 81 percent abuse victims were teenage boys. The John Jay people nevertheless insist that they found no evidence that homosexual orientation was a predictor of abusive behavior.
Instead, the report speaks of men with confused sexual identity and difficulties in forming relationships whose seminary training in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s ill equipped them to cope with the pressures of the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s. That most abuse involved teenage boys is attributed to the fact that the priests had more contact with boys than with girls. Will people find that persuasive? Perhaps. But the argument could go on for years.
Almost as a throwaway line, the report mentions another factor: “Many priests let go of the practice of spiritual direction after only a few years of ordained ministry.” As the discussion continues, that’s a thought worth exploring.
Question number two: How about the coverup?
This is not a major focus for Causes and Context, but the document does make some relevant points.
Years back, society generally had little understanding of the harm that sex abuse does to children. Bishops tended to concentrate instead on rehabilitating offending priests. Starting in 1985, however, the conference of bishops devoted ongoing attention to this problem. By 1992, it had in place a set of five sound principles for dioceses to use in addressing it.
Some did. Others didn’t. Ten years later the facts of the coverup exploded and did irreparable harm to the Church. And, despite the Causes and Context study and ongoing remedial efforts in dioceses nationwide, there is no telling when that will end.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.