How could it happen?
The terrible revelations of sexual abuse in Ireland and Germany have confirmed the reality that the abuse of children by clergy is not a phenomenon confined to the United States. Nor, as Kieran Conroy, the bishop of Arundel and Brighton in the U.K., stated recently, is the crisis a media creation. "It is real," he said. "It is a reality." Outrage among the Irish and German public is the predominant, natural and justified response. But buried beneath the shock and anger, especially for Catholics, however, is a searing question: How could this happen?
There is an important resource that may begin to answer this question: the detailed analysis of the roots of clerical abuse in this country, which was conducted by The National Review Board, the group of lay people who researched and reported to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2003. Some questioned the independence of the board, but I think that their situational analysis, carried out by committed and highly qualified lay Catholics, is accurate.
Looking at what the National Review Board viewed as the root causes of the crisis in this country may shed light on what happened in Ireland and Germany and elsewhere. On the whole, the board's analysis is about the most accurate and insightful that we have about the American situation. Of course, these are presented by the board as reasons, not excuses. There are no excuses for these crimes.
The board asked two main questions. First, Why did so many priests abuse minors in the U.S.? Second, how could the U.S. bishops have dealt with the issue so poorly, or not at all? Regarding the first question, as I far as I understand, roughly 4% of U.S. priests from 1950 to 2000 were accused of abuse. This is slightly higher than that in other professions, including those who deal with children, like schoolteachers. (Most abuse of course takes place within families). But any number is too high and leads to the question of how, especially in a religious organization committed to helping others and living out what Christians call Gospel values, this could happen.
The board answers how so many priests could have been abusive by looking at two causes. (Their responses are in boldface. My own comments follow their points.)