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.