The Religious News Service (RNS) published an article written by Commonweal Magazine and RNS contributor, David Gibson, on the long-awaited John Jay College of Criminal Justice report on the Clergy Sex Abuse Crises. Researchers published the 300-page report Wednesday (18 May 2011), which addressed several themes, causes and myths surrounding the ongoing saga of clergy abuse of minors that was covered up by bishops and church leaders for decades. The report is described in the article as follows: “Formally called “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010,” upends a number of popular misconceptions. While some will challenge the report’s methodology—and note that U.S. bishops paid for half the estimated $1.8 million price tag—the “Causes and Context” study is clearly a landmark in the research of child sexual abuse.”

Perhaps most interesting are the several popular and misconceived myths that have circulated both within and without the Roman Catholic Church as to the cause of the instances of abuse and cover-ups. The first issue addressed is the proportion of “pedophiles” among the clergy. It is a staggering LOW number, far less than media reports since 2002 have suggested.

The first myth challenged by the study is that priests tend to be pedophiles. Of nearly 6,000 priests accused of abuse over the past half century (about 5 percent of the total number of priests serving during that period), less than 4 percent could be considered pedophiles, the report notes—that is, men who prey on children.

“Priest-abusers were not `pedophile priests’,” the researchers state flatly.

The second issue discussed in the article summarizing the report is the question of the relationship between homosexually oriented priests and sexual abuse. Now, this is something that priests and religious have known for a long time to be an illegitimate correlation for years, but within some conservative Catholic circles this narrative has proven popular and effective in advancing anti-gay agendas. The report conclusively dismisses the suggestion that there is a linkage between homosexual priests and abuse. In fact, the opposite is the case. Gibson explains:

the researchers found no statistical evidence that gay priests were more likely than straight priests to abuse minors—a finding that undermines a favorite talking point of many conservative Catholics. The disproportionate number of adolescent male victims was about opportunity, not preference or pathology, the report states.

What’s more, researchers note that the rise in the number of gay priests from the late 1970s onward actually corresponded with “a decreased incidence of abuse—not an increased incidence of abuse.”

Another major theme studied by the researches had to do with the relationship between obligatory celibacy and sexual abuse of minors. The report explains that “celibacy remained a constant throughout peaks and valleys of abuse rates, and priests may be less likely to abuse children today than men in analogous professions.”

Gibson interprets this to be a blow to the position of some within the Church that have advocated for a married clergy, noting that the researchers believe that the marital status and obligatory celibacy played nearly no role in the instances of abuse.

Better preparation for a life of celibacy is key, however, and improved seminary training and education in the 1980s corresponds to a “sharp and sustained decline” in abuse since then—a dramatic improvement that has often been overlooked.

The huge spike in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s, the authors found, was essentially due to emotionally ill-equipped priests who were trained in earlier years and lost their way in the social cataclysm of the sexual revolution.

Indeed, the John Jay researchers write, “Individual characteristics do not predict that a priest will commit sexual abuse of a minor. Rather, vulnerabilities, in combination with situational stresses and opportunities, raise the risk of abuse.”

The “situational” nature of the abuse by clergy is comparable to that of police officers who brutalize people, the authors write. The stress of the work, the perils of isolation and a lack of oversight are factors that contribute to “deviant behavior.”

The clerical culture of priests and bishops, the report explains, is also analogous to the cliquish quality of police forces that cover up and “protect their own” in instances of violations of the law and police brutality.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the report (from the perspective of within the Church) is the researchers’ assessment of the Bishops’ role in the abuse and its cover-up. The recommendation of the scholars is that the singular authority of the bishop in his respective dioceses provided the condition for the possibility of cover-up and the perpetuation of abuse.

There will undoubtedly be a barrage of coverage in the next 48 hours about this report. I look forward to having eventual access to the full text and will offer additional commentary if necessary. I am grateful to the work of David Gibson and others in the earliest assessment.

UPDATE: Here is a link to the New York Times story on the same report.



  1. Thanks for commenting about this report; it is, indeed, a major milestone in understanding both the structural conditions and personal culpabilities at play within cases of clergy sexual abuse. I am please to hear that several myths used to bolster political positions, whether conservative or liberal, have been fundamentally challenged. Too often in recent have gay men — especially those serving in faithfulness their ordained and/or vowed religious lives — been the scapegoats. Still, it seems to me (and I will need to read the report and delve more deeply into the coverage) that one myth persists: that the perpetrators in such sexual abuse cases were priests. While there have been abuse cases with lay ministers and parish professionals, what remains true is that certain structural elements within the hierarchic Church enable, willing or not, such abusive situations. In this respect, I don’t want us to loose sight of that fact that deacons, too, have been sexual abusers. Although perhaps obvious, I think it remains important to attend to our language, recalling that it is better to speak of “clergy sexual abuse” or “sexual abuse of minors” (or some such) and not focus too narrowly too soon on one subset, i.e., priests. I also think that by deploying a rhetoric highlighting the singular involvement of priests can, at least in some narratives, serve to localize the criminality, thereby attempting to exonerate the Church’s enabling structures. Just some initial thoughts from someone with more than a passing knowledge of such a terrible feature of the contemporary church. It will be interesting to see how this report plays out in the news cycle, especially in the reactions of the USCCB.

  2. For me the most important part of this report is this :
    “The clerical culture of priests and bishops, the report explains, is also analogous to the cliquish quality of police forces that cover up and “protect their own” in instances of violations of the law and police brutality.

    looked up the book on clericalism mentioned in the Commonweal article and this is one review of it which again is not easy reading but makes a lot of sense (IMHO.) This is what we need to change in the church.

    I hope you can discuss in a future post the ways that the culture of clericalism can be changed. It’s not just clericalism that has perpetuated the covering up of sexual abuse .

    It is an all pervading sickness that has other stultifying and life denying effects on the church.

    1. Thanks, Phil! I agree. What I think is hopeful is that there are groups of clergy, particularly within religious communities (I think of my own as a good example), where clericalism does not exist as it does elsewhere. I wonder if the seminary visitation report that criticized only institutions where religious study (no diocesan seminaries among them) was reacting to this positive reality. My personal experience has been very different from my friends who are young diocesan priests, particularly in the close working relationships that we have with lay women and men in ministry and in graduate school — we are, to quote a USCCB document, “co-workers in the vineyard” in practice and not simply in name.

      I can see future discussions about this emerging here on the blog and elsewhere! Thanks again for your comments and support of the blog!

      Peace and good!

  3. Praise be to your god that there was 1.8 billion dollars spent to study paedophilia and priests. That money was best used towards research to determine why some priests molest and to debunk myths. Who cares about the victims and their families, let’s raise money for a study instead. Afterall, there isn’t already an abundance of research on paedophilia available and multiple experts to consult for free. Justly spent.

    1. Actually, No, there are not experts who can do the research and investigation on this scale for free. Scholars and researchers deserve to be paid. I take it you are not involved in higher education. This study, the first of its kind, is very important and will prove even more so as historians, scholars and others continue to assess this phenomenon of the 50s-70s and the subsequent cover-ups later in the 20th Century. To your point about victims and families: you are making a very unsubstantiated assertion and generalization that reflects opinion and not fact.

      2 points of clarification to your comment:
      A) $1.8 million (real number) is very different than the $1.8 BILLION you wrote.
      B) The abusive priests, with the exception of less-than 4% of the total number of abusers, are not pedophiles, which is a technical term and classification that should not be tossed around flippantly.

  4. Excuse me for the error in regards to the billion I wrote, I knew it was million but I suppose my mind was elsewhere.

    As to the experts I talked about, I did type consult. Let me clarify. There ARE experts on paedophilia that one could CONSULT to obtain information on paedophiles.

    This study is only the first of its kind because it focuses on priests and not paedophilies in general. It is not that hard to find hundreds of other studies on paedophiles focusing on themes from why they do it to the techniques they use. Need to find a study on homosexuality and peadophilia: . Done. That took me all of about 2 minutes and cost me nothing.

    The only differences between this study and the hundreds of others out there is that its main focus is on priests and that the Catholic people can pat themselves on the back because they feel like they’ve done something to make the situation better. Oh wait, my apologies, the study has already been done. . I guess that only leaves one explanation.

    You claim that I am making an ‘unsubstantiated assertion… that reflects opinion and not fact.’ Do enlighten me because all I see is a random statement that I cannot follow in regards to the text. A couple of questions: what claim? What opinion? Where are you going with this? Oh, before you answer those questions and if my asumptions on said answers are true, then first will you state for me what the study was focused on?

    Now let’s play semantics, my favorite game. Paedophile is simply defined as an adult who is sexually attracted to children. Seeing as this study is related to priests who have molested children, I think its safe to say they are paedophiles. Always a fun game. You can word it as you want, but as they say if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck its a paedophile. Or something like that.

    1. Your opinion: “Who cares about the victims and their families, let’s raise money for a study instead.” I’m pretty sure, I speak authoritatively here, that leaders in the church care about victims and families. Don’t conflate the horrendous crimes committed decades ago and the abhorrent cover-up by bishops with what ministers and leaders in the church feel today. Most of these crimes happened before I was born — to suggest that I and my religious and diocesan colleagues do not care about victims and their families is, as I said above, a very unsubstantiated assertion and a generalization that reflects [your] opinion and not fact.

      As to the study you cite — yes, of course there are other academic studies. But not of this phenomenon in the American Church. The title of report explains it well, this covers the “nature and scope” of this phenomenon — no other study does that, certainly not with as much depth and detail.

      As to your continued colloquial and flippant use of the term “pedophilia” the DSM-IV is very clear on its technical and precise diagnosis. Your use, popular though it may be, is not accurate pure and simple. Furthermore, abuse does not necessarily mean “sexual attraction” as you suggest. Yes, victims were children. No, sexual attraction is not always the reason. Read the report, read the DSM-IV, read the newspaper stories and other records of this phenomenon. Most of the abuse was the result of convenience, not sexual preference.

  5. Personally and even professionally, I view this as a very flawed “study” – on several counts, in large part due to artificially limiting the time-frame as well as the definition of pedophilia but also because the data the bishops release has, over and over, been shown to be carefully screened so as to severely limit the cases shown from the cases hidden. (Look at Philadelphia for the most recent perfect example.)


    1. We can’t be sure of how many cases the bishops hid from the researchers.

    2. Not everyone reports so we can’t be sure of the true incidence of child molestation within the church.

    3. To artificially limit the incidence of underage persons who were sexually assaulted to those under 10 does not even accord with how criminal law defines the sexual abuse of children and adolescents (which is always a crime!)

    4. By artificially redefining the population of sexually abused minors, the report artificially LOWERS the true incidence of priests who abused minors. (This is on top of whatever cases were hidden or never reported at all!)

    5. To limit the time-fame which the researchers could make use of was to prejudice the “causality” of the “crisis” – and to make it appear time-limited and affected by social turmoil (which may have led to “free love” among adults but did not include molestation of minors!). Indeed, this behavior has been endemic in the church across the centuries – back to at least the third century, when monks were disciplined (severely!) for such behavior with children.

    To my mind it is unethical for researchers to agree to a study which so markedly and artificially defines the terms, the time-frame, and so on. I doubt I could have made it through the vetting process of a research proposal such as this entailed! And if the proposal is flawed, the study simply should not have preceded as originally designed. It reminds me of how the information used to go to war with Iraq was “fixed” around the desired outcome, rather than evaluated honestly from the get-go.

    It troubles me greatly that this flawed research will now be used over and over, as if it’s “scientific” – when it’s not! Used to excuse! In other words if you can’t trust the data and the research design, you surely must question the “conclusions” reached.

    I’m not convinced!

    1. TheraP, you have summed it quite thoroughly – actually left at least me with nothing to do but agree with you. This is not a scientific study, and the JJ people will be and should be embarrassed over it for years. Several years ago I asked the JJ scientists in a public forum if they would have enough hard data to do a valid scientific study. They said yes, but were apparently wrong.

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