Thomas G. Plante

The study of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy in the United States since 1950, which was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, is scheduled for release during February 2004. This comprehensive study surveyed all Catholic dioceses in the United States about sexual abuse by members of the clergy. The report will likely cause another sizable earthquake in the church, as it will reveal many disturbing details about sexual abuse by Catholic clergymen. The report should receive a great deal of media and public attention as well as highlight the extent of the problem. It may be shocking and upsetting to read. In the spirit of earthquake preparedness (I am writing this from California, after all), I would like to outline five reasons for hope in anticipation of the release of this important report. But before doing so, it may be helpful to review briefly the recent earthquake activity in the Catholic Church in the United States.

The Catholic Church in the United States experienced a remarkably powerful and long-lasting earthquake that began on Jan. 6, 2002, when The Boston Globe published its first front-page news story about sexual abuse by clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston. The quake was one of the strongest, most destructive and long-lasting earth-shaking events that the Catholic Church in the United States has ever experienced. While the epicenter was Boston, a flurry of aftershocks hit various dioceses throughout the land. Before the year was over, about 350 American priests, including several bishops, were confronted with credible accusations of having sexually abused a child. Many of these men resigned. Many were sued. A number went to prison. A few even committed suicide or were murdered.

Throughout the ordeal, many Catholics have been shocked, angered, despondent, disgusted and demoralized over the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct among priests, as well as the manner in which many of these cases were mismanaged by bishops and other church leaders. Many priests have admitted that they feel uncomfortable wearing a Roman collar in public. Suddenly the Catholic Church seems to be stripped of moral authority and has become an organization that cannot be trusted to behave in an ethical, moral and compassionate manner. Some reports say that donations have decreased and attendance has fallen off in some places. Numerous lawsuits have been filed. Following this enormous earthquake, many are dazed, confused and angry.

I have been involved with the evaluation and treatment of priest sex offenders and their victims for about 15 years as a psychologist in professional clinical practice in Menlo Park, Calif. I have also published a number of academic papers, op-ed pieces and several edited books on this topic as a psychology professor at Santa Clara University. I have spoken to numerous academic, clerical and lay groups, as well as countless people in the print and television media about the clergy sexual abuse problem. I would like to suggest that there are five good reasons for hope that the Catholic Church and its members can look forward to recovery, healing and far fewer incidents of clergy abuse in the years ahead. I think that it is important to state these reasons for hope in anticipation of the release of the John Jay Report. Among the ruins, there is hope.

1. We are not alone.

Tragically, the sexual abuse of children is not a new phenomenon, and perpetrators are not limited to Catholic priests. The best available data from a variety of reliable sources suggest that approximately 2 percent of Catholic priests have had a sexual encounter with a minor. The majority of victims were teenage boys who were fondled. There are about 60,000 active and retired priests and brothers in the United States at the present time. Over the past 50 years, the total amounts to approximately 150,000.

Research from St. Lukes Institute in Maryland suggests that the average number of victims per clergy offender is about eight. Therefore, we should expect that during the past 50 years in the United States there have been about 3,000 offending priests or brothers and a total of about 24,000 victims. That is a big number. It appears, however, that this figure of 2 percent also applies to male clergy from other religious traditions and is likely lower than the number of sex-offending men in the general population who have ready access to minors.

Research conducted with other occupational groups who have both unsupervised power over and access to children (e.g., teachers, coaches, scout leaders) suggests that sexual abuse of children occurs in these groups at a frequency comparable to that among Catholic priests. Furthermore, quality research has demonstrated consistently that about 20 percent of American women and about 15 percent of American men report that they were victims of sexual abuse when they were children. We can expect, then, that approximately 48 million Americans (of the total 281 million) have been (or will be) sexually victimized as children. Research further informs us that there are about 100,000 new cases of child sexual abuse reported to authorities each year. The vast majority of cases, of course, are never reported to authorities.

Obviously, any sexual abuse of minors is horrific, immoral, unethical and illegal. To assume, however, that priests are much more likely to be sex offenders than men from other groups or from the general population is not supported by solid and current research data. Yet the general population, according to recent research, overestimates to a significant degree the number of priest sex offenders. It is true that we expect better behavior from priests than from other men. Still, while a small percentage of Catholic clergy have sexually engaged with minors, they have not done so in greater proportion than other men.

2. Cohort effect suggests fewer cases.

The New York Times conducted a remarkable investigation, published in January 2003, that examined all the credible allegations of sexual abuse by clergy in the American Catholic Church. One striking finding of this investigation was that the bulk of clerical sex offenders were ordained around the early 1970s. The vast majority of the priests accused of sexually abusing children during the past several years tend to be in their late 50s and 60s, and the reported abuse occurred over 20 years ago. Sexual abuse by priests and others has occurred for centuries and, tragically, will not stop abruptly now or in the future. The data suggest, however, that there may be a cohort effect or something distinctive about priests who were ordained during the early 1970s that puts these men at higher risk.

Why might this be? There are several possible reasons. First, many of these men, like generations before them, entered the seminary when they were youngsters. In the seminary environment they were unable to work through the complex issues of sexual development and expression in the same way that laypersons could. Sexual development and issues about sexual expression were generally not adequately evaluated before they were admitted into the seminary or dealt with once in formation. If someone had concerns about sexual impulses, he was generally told to take a cold shower, work harder and pray about it.

These men also entered religious life during the time of the Second Vatican Council and the sexual revolution in the United States. Many seminarians and priests were leaving religious life during this time as well. In fact, 1973 was the peak year for priests and seminarians leaving their vocation. It was a major turning point in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States and in American culture. Traditional boundaries and rules were broken overnight. Research suggests, for example, that about 23 percent of male psychotherapists were sexually involved with at least one of their patients during these years. This figure is closer to 2 percent today. It is probably not a random event that the majority of clergy accused of sexual misconduct are now about 60 years old and committed their offenses in the 1970s. In fact, The New York Times investigation reported that abuse cases dropped off dramatically by the mid- to late 1980s and 1990s. A confluence of factors emerged during the 1970s in the church and in American society that created an environment that placed these young men at higher risk for potential sexual misconduct. The good news about the cohort effect theory is that if it is true, we can expect a lower proportion of new abuse cases in the future.

3. Productive changes in church policy and practice

Long before the sexual abuse crisis dominated the press, many important and significant changes occurred in the selection and training of priests. Minor seminaries are no longer part of the American landscape. In the more than 150 psychological evaluations I have conducted during the past 15 years for people who wished to enter religious life, the average age of entry was about 30. Many of these men have had successful and satisfying intimate relationships and have grown and matured before seeking religious life. Seminaries, dioceses and religious orders now routinely hire qualified psychologists to conduct thorough psychological evaluations of applicants. Investigation of criminal records and other background checks are now standard operating procedure. Seminaries now offer training in sexuality, strategies for maintaining appropriate professional boundaries and ways to best manage problems and issues related to impulse control. Troubled seminarians and priests are typically referred for psychological evaluation and treatment by their religious superiors when symptoms first appear.

The current crisis has forced all dioceses to follow new national guidelines from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including participation and cooperation with the John Jay study, about managing sexual abuse allegations against clergy, as well as procedures for the evaluation and treatment of both abuse victims and perpetrators. Religious orders have followed suit. All the dioceses and religious orders now have committees, comprised mostly of laypeople, that evaluate allegations of clergy misconduct. Many of these committees now include women, parents, victims of clergy abuse and people who have a great deal of professional expertise in treating cases of sexual abuse of children as psychologists, psychiatric nurses, police officers, criminal lawyers or family lawyers. I serve on several of these committees and consult with others. I am very pleased that the committees I am involved with include some members who are not Catholics, as well as the police chief of a large city, several canon lawyers and civil lawyers and many women and parents. These committees are advisory to the local bishop or religious superior. Church leaders would be imprudent to ignore their thoughtful collective wisdom. Finally, recent comprehensive research projects, like the John Jay study, provide much-needed data to guide child abuse prevention and future policy decisions. Although these numerous changes cannot eliminate all possibility of sexual abuse of a child by a priest, they clearly are significant steps in the right direction that will at least greatly minimize the possibility of future abuse.

4. Voice of the Faithful is here to stay.

The recent abuse crisis has ignited the sleeping Catholic laity in the United States. Voice of the Faithful is an excellent example. V.O.T.F. began as a grass-roots organization of Catholic laypeople in the Boston area following the clergy abuse crisis in that diocese. It quickly developed member branches across the United States and throughout the world that now represent about 40,000 members in 40 states and 21 countries. The growth, influence and active engagement of V.O.T.F. have been remarkable. Church structures and policies that concentrate decision making among the clergy and offer only advisory roles for the laity certainly do not encourage active engagement among rank and file Catholics. The recent crisis forced the laity to be more assertive with their church, and groups like Voice of the Faithful appear to be here to stay. This is good news, since it provides at least some degree of checks and balances on church authorities. A lively, active and involved laity can, in the end, only be productive for the church.

5. What is now in the light must stay in the light.

Now that the problem of sexual abuse by clergy has dominated the press, and words like "pedophile" and "ephebophile" have become familiar terms, it appears almost impossible for priests to find themselves in situations where sexual abuse can occur. Parents and others are much less trusting of a priest alone with a young person. Furthermore, the media, V.O.T.F. and others are watching much more closely now. In a nutshell, priests simply do not have the kind of unlimited trust and access to children they once had. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. We clearly live in different times and with different sensitivities. Now that the spotlight has focused on sexual abuse by clergy, these issues cannot be hidden any longer. We have clearly come to realize that some priests and bishops behave badly, and we will not forget that the priesthood, like all human groups, is not immune from troubled men who can inflict harm on others.

Although the Catholic Church in the United States experienced a shattering earthquake, with many aftershocks and a great deal of destruction and damage, the church and those in it are rebuilding and recovering in a manner that will likely result in a much better, yet still far from perfect, church and community. Rebuilding after an earthquake takes time and patience. It does not happen overnight, and it does not happen smoothly. Recovery also provides a unique opportunity to rebuild in a way that gets it right this time. The sexual abuse crisis, although horrific and painful, ultimately will make for a better church, with far less possibility of future abuse of children by priests.

There is indeed hope for a better tomorrow for the Catholic Church in the United States and for the many people who are involved with or touched by this remarkable organization. Keeping a close eye on Jesus and the lessons of the Gospel will also surely help us all to do the right thing as we rebuild and heal together.

Thomas G. Plante is a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, Calif.

Comments

Barbara Cortese | 1/4/2004 - 2:17am
Thomas Plante’s five reasons for hope after the sexual abuse scandal are much too optimistic.

Point 1: It is good to know that the percentage of pedophiles among priests does not exceed that of the general public; however the real scandal is that bishops put the institutional needs of the church ahead of the welfare of children. This issue has still not been addressed.

Point 2: The cohort effect may be exaggerated if the recent victims are still too young to admit to abuse. When I think of the teachers and coaches in a nearby Catholic high school who were dismissed (without reason given to parents) over the last ten years, I see that a disproportionate number of their favorite students are those with problems.

Point 3: The June 2002 policy of the American bishops is helpful but it allows bishops to ignore the recommendations of their advisory review boards, even though the actions of bishops are the source of the scandal! The Vatican’s November 2002 limitations on the American policy return the opportunity to judge priests to Rome, where the standard of proof makes it difficult to remove pedophiles.

Point 4: The Voice of the Faithful may be here to stay but the vast majority of Catholics do not affiliate with organized opposition groups. In many places there were no parish meetings for two-way discussion of the scandal. Pastors are reluctant even to announce the measures taken to protect children lest they remind people of the scandal–a patriarchal approach far from the goals of VOTF.

Point 5: What is now in the light may not stay in the light. I have spoken to many Catholics who were in denial even six months into the scandal; I can also imagine a number of people who would allow their children to be alone with a priest for fear of offending innocent clergy. Finally, statements like the California bishops’ letter were effectively nuanced to encourage denial.

I would like to think there is hope, but I fear what everyone really hopes is that the problem will fade away. We have far to go before we turn the corner with solutions that address the multiple sources of the scandal.

Jim Conniff | 1/1/2004 - 1:16pm
The writer misuses the idiom with his last-paragraph piety about "Keeping a close eye on Jesus." It's not on Jesus we need to keep that kind of "a close eye."

What we need to do to get this mess cleared up once and for all is keep a much closer eye on those who hijacked Jesus. That means institutionalizing far more generously Christlike ways to have them accept help from the co-pilot's seat.

Tom Hill | 2/7/2007 - 4:57pm
I found Thomas G. Plante’s article very interesting and yet very naïve. His five reasons for hope missed the mark in my opinion. In fact, his article never identifies the real problem in the church today, “that of poor and even corrupt leadership.” Let me address each of his points:

1. We are not in this alone. For me, there is little hope associated with the argument that we as Catholics are no worse than the rest of the world in having approximately two percent of our priests involved in a sexual encounter with a minor. Richard Sipe, in his book Sex, Priests and Power, gives a much higher estimate of 6 percent, and it is not difficult to find other experts who put the number as high as 8 percent. In any case, what business professional working for a company that practices General Electric’s “Six Sigma” (zero defects) would find hope in being average?

2. Cohort effect suggests fewer cases. Everyone knows that the vast majority of young people who are sexually abused never come forward. This is especially true of young men living in a seminary and dependent on the protection of their superiors. With few exceptions, these victims, who are church leaders today, have never spoken out for fear of losing their jobs, their reputations, their support network. I take no hope in a church leadership that hides the crimes in which they have been involved.

3. Productive changes in church policy and practice. Here again Thomas Plante is trying to deliver good news before the story is written. Many excellent steps have been suggested and a few even implemented. The weakness is that all the good committees mentioned are only advisory to the local bishop or religious superior. We have no built-in checks or balances to guarantee further abuses will be handled correctly.

4. Voice of the Faithful is here to stay. I guess our author was trying to be politically correct by not mentioning older and more active Catholic lay groups that have long carried the message that the faithful are the church. Yes, there is great hope that Catholics are finally getting it. Our church is far too precious to allow a relatively few incompetent leaders to make all the decisions without consulting the sense of the faithful.

5. What is now in the light must stay in the light. Here I agree with Thomas Plante entirely. Now let’s expand the discussion and look at how the church treats its employees, women, reproductive sexuality, priests who have left the priesthood, Catholic theologians, etc.

Andy Galligan | 2/7/2007 - 4:56pm
Thomas G. Plante’s “five reasons for hope after the sexual abuse scandal” (“After the Earthquake,” 1/5), are not persuasive. The author cites research that suggests that sexual abuse of children among such groups as teachers, coaches and scout leaders occurred “in these groups at a frequency comparable to that among Catholic priests.” Is this a sign of hope for Catholics? Does any research indicate that those who oversaw teachers, coaches and scout leaders suspected of such abusive behavior concealed that fact or transferred their charges to other districts without a word of warning? In my view this was the worst malady of our Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal, and no ecclesiastical penalty ever seems to have been sought or exacted for it.

The hierarchy has now severely censured the clerics guilty of abuse, but what has been done to ecclesiastics who allowed it to continue? Each diocese now has an advisory board that is consultative, not deliberative, appointed by the bishop himself to aid him in matters of sexual abuse. Considering the circumstances, there are many who do not believe such measures go far enough to restore hope and trust in our system of church authority.

Barbara Cortese | 1/4/2004 - 2:17am
Thomas Plante’s five reasons for hope after the sexual abuse scandal are much too optimistic.

Point 1: It is good to know that the percentage of pedophiles among priests does not exceed that of the general public; however the real scandal is that bishops put the institutional needs of the church ahead of the welfare of children. This issue has still not been addressed.

Point 2: The cohort effect may be exaggerated if the recent victims are still too young to admit to abuse. When I think of the teachers and coaches in a nearby Catholic high school who were dismissed (without reason given to parents) over the last ten years, I see that a disproportionate number of their favorite students are those with problems.

Point 3: The June 2002 policy of the American bishops is helpful but it allows bishops to ignore the recommendations of their advisory review boards, even though the actions of bishops are the source of the scandal! The Vatican’s November 2002 limitations on the American policy return the opportunity to judge priests to Rome, where the standard of proof makes it difficult to remove pedophiles.

Point 4: The Voice of the Faithful may be here to stay but the vast majority of Catholics do not affiliate with organized opposition groups. In many places there were no parish meetings for two-way discussion of the scandal. Pastors are reluctant even to announce the measures taken to protect children lest they remind people of the scandal–a patriarchal approach far from the goals of VOTF.

Point 5: What is now in the light may not stay in the light. I have spoken to many Catholics who were in denial even six months into the scandal; I can also imagine a number of people who would allow their children to be alone with a priest for fear of offending innocent clergy. Finally, statements like the California bishops’ letter were effectively nuanced to encourage denial.

I would like to think there is hope, but I fear what everyone really hopes is that the problem will fade away. We have far to go before we turn the corner with solutions that address the multiple sources of the scandal.

Jim Conniff | 1/1/2004 - 1:16pm
The writer misuses the idiom with his last-paragraph piety about "Keeping a close eye on Jesus." It's not on Jesus we need to keep that kind of "a close eye."

What we need to do to get this mess cleared up once and for all is keep a much closer eye on those who hijacked Jesus. That means institutionalizing far more generously Christlike ways to have them accept help from the co-pilot's seat.