A report prepared by researchers from New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the abuse of children by Catholic priests in the United States offers a complex portrait of the reasons that led to the sexual assaults that will probably not satisfy anyone looking for simple answers or easy targets to blame. In fact in some ways the report may only lead to further confusion and outrage. Accounts of outcomes of the five-year-old study come tonight from Laurie Goodstein, writing in the New York Times, and David Gibson of the Religious News Service, in two articles based on advance copies of the report. (The study had been embargoed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops until 2 p.m. Wednesday May 18.) They say the ultimate blame for the phenomenon of clergy sexual assault of children is attributable to the stress and isolation many priests endured and poor oversight and monitoring by the hierarchy. Gibson writes: "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."
John Jay researchers used a definition for pedophilia as a sexual assault on a child younger than 10. Following that measure, the study authors reach the counterintuitive conclusion that only five percent of the priests who assaulted children over decades throughout the United States could be called pedophiles. According to Goodstein and Gibson’s account of the report, John Jay researchers say in fact that less than 22 percent of the attacks on children could be described as cases of pedophilia, a downgrading of the scandal, if it can be described as such, that will not likely provide any consolation to victims themselves and the parents and families of the slightly older children in the 11 to 13 age bracket who account for the vast majority of the cases of assault. John Jay had been hired by the bishops in 2006 to conduct the exhaustive study. The U.S. bishops paid half of its $1.8 million cost; the rest of the money was raised from private sources and a federal criminology grant.
In his RNS report, Gibson says the new study will not provide ammunition for conservative Catholics hoping to blame gay priests for the crisis which has engulfed first the U.S. church and now the church around the world, nor will it help propel the argument for voluntary celibacy or ordination of women and married men advanced by Catholic progressives. Gibson reports that John Jay researches assert that the crisis cannot be attributed to the rising number of gay priests nor can the problem be associated with mandatory celibacy.
He writes: “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.” Gibson writes 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.” He adds, “Similarly, 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,” undermining a case for voluntary celibacy.
So what was the compulsion that led to perhaps the greatest scandal in church history? What was driving members of the clergy to so violate children in their charge and families which trusted them?
In the N.Y. Times Goodstein writes: “[T]he report says, the abuse occurred because priests who were poorly prepared and monitored, and were under stress, landed amid the social and sexual turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s. Known occurrences of sexual abuse of minors by priests rose sharply during those decades, the report found, and the problem grew worse when the church’s hierarchy responded by showing more care for the perpetrators than the victims.”
Gibson reports: “The ‘situational’ nature of the abuse by clergy is comparable to that of police officers who brutalize people…The stress of the work, the perils of isolation and a lack of oversight are factors that contribute to ‘deviant behavior.’”
We’ll have more on this soon, but it’s not hard to guess how blaming an act of sexual assault on a child, whether he is 9, 10 or 11 on deviant behavior propelled by isolation and stress—or the 1960s—is going to go over among … I was going to say among survivors of abuse and their families, but I’m guessing there’s room for more jaw dropping than that.