The long-awaited report “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” provides well-researched answers to key questions about the abuse crisis. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice spent nearly five years conducting this unprecedented study, which was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at a cost of 1.8 million dollars.
The report does not identify a specific definitive cause for the abuse—there is no “smoking gun” for the victimization of thousands of boys and girls by Catholic clergy during the past six decades. There was, rather, a confluence of organizational, psychological and situational factors that “contributed to the vulnerability of priests” during this period that resulted in 4 percent to 6 percent of them committing acts of abuse. Why the other 94 percent to 96 percent of the priests, subjected to the same vulnerabilities, did not offend is not clear and may be beyond the limits of psychological and social research. Factors are not excuses, however, and over-dependence on external influences can lead to complacency in abuse prevention.
Those who espoused a pet theory as to why priests harmed children may disagree with the report’s findings, and skeptics may question the source data that dioceses provided. Nonetheless, this comprehensive and unbiased look at the most serious problem in the Catholic Church today answers seven key questions and will help its members to understand better what occurred and why.
1. Are all abusive priests pedophiles? Less than 5 percent of priests with abuse allegations exhibited behaviors consistent with pedophilia. This means that this small segment of abusers had an abnormal, primary sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children. That does not mean that the other 95 percent of priest-abusers had a normal attraction to adolescents, but merely that the stereotype of the “offender as pedophile” is not consistent with the type of cases that occurred between 1950 and 2010. Regardless of the researchers’ distinction between pedophiles and ephebophiles (that is, between those attracted to pubescent and post-pubescent children), the sexual acts imposed upon the minor children were criminal and not normative by any social or cultural standard.
2. Is it possible to predict which men might abuse minors? The report states that it is impossible to predict which men might abuse minors. There are no individual personality traits that differentiate clergy-abusers from non-abusers and there are no identifiable psychological characteristics that are attributed to abusers. Although priests are a heterogeneous group, there are certain factors (such as being abused as a child) and triggering events (such as high alcohol consumption) that increase a man’s risk for offending. In addition, a majority of abusers appeared to have certain “vulnerabilities” exemplified by, among other things, their “emotional congruence to adolescents or difficulty in interrelating with adults.” Vulnerability may also be the result of stress at transitional moments, for example, when moving from seminary to parish life, transferring to a new parish or becoming a pastor. The study states that this finding is equally applicable to priests trained in the United States and in foreign seminaries. Despite this comparison, given the increasing number of seminarians and clergy who transfer between dioceses and religious communities, additional research regarding the screening of these candidates would be useful.
3. Was celibacy the cause of the sexual abuse crisis? The researchers discount celibacy as a cause of abuse for several reasons. The constancy of required celibacy since the 11th century would have resulted in a greater number of cases perpetrated by a larger number, if not all, of the clergy over time. There is no evidence to suggest that every Catholic priest throughout the ages has sexually abused a minor; to the contrary, most priests have never offended in this manner. Furthermore, the sexual abuse of minors by priests in the United States “increased steadily from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, then declined in the 1980s and continues to remain low.” The unchanging rules relating to celibacy would not account for this rise and subsequent decline. It was beyond the scope of this study to determine the total number of clergy who sexually abused adults or had consensual sexual activity with adults, but the challenge of living a celibate life and intimacy deficits can cause men to act out in inappropriate ways.
4. Was homosexuality the cause of the sexual abuse crisis? Despite the fact that 81 percent of the victims of clergy abuse in the United States were males, the report states that homosexuality was not the cause of the sexual abuse crisis. The John Jay College researchers and other researchers of the subject have found no data to indicate that homosexual orientation is a cause or risk factor for abuse of children. Clergy who exhibited homosexual behavior were not significantly more likely to abuse minors than those who did not. Sexual identity is different, of course, from sexual behavior, and the study did not identify the sexual orientation of all the offenders. The report suggests that one reason the majority of victims were male may be that boys were more accessible to the predators than girls. The data show that the percentage of girls who were victims increased after girls were allowed to become altar servers.
Though not stated in the report, the fact that offenders seemed to have more difficulty relating to adults than to young people might explain some of the abuse as “sexual acting out” and “experimentation” with adolescents whom the abusers improperly perceived as their sexual peers. The researchers, however, also correctly point out that it is “not possible nor desirable to implement extensive restrictions on the mentoring and nurturing relationships between minors and priests given that most priests have not abused and are not likely to do so.”
5. What role did formation play in the incidence of sexual abuse of minors? Formation, that is, the manner in which seminarians are trained to become priests, seems to have played a significant role in the likelihood of a man becoming an abuser. The majority of offenders during the 60-year period of the study were ordained prior to the 1970s; 44 percent of offenders entered the priesthood before 1960. Several generations of priest-abusers lacked careful preparation for celibate life, as demonstrated by the fact that 70 percent of them engaged in sexual activity with adults as well as children.
Moreover, these abusers failed to recognize the harm they did to their victims. When most of these offenders were in seminary, the training was focused on academics, theology and spirituality with little attention paid to seminarians’ growth as mature adults. In recent years, formation programs have emphasized relationships and friendships, self-knowledge, integrity and celibate chastity. As seminaries gradually intensified the focus of formation on the “human” aspect of development, the number of incidents of abuse began to diminish.
6. Was there an organizational failure or a failure of leadership that contributed to the crisis? The report bluntly states, “The failure of some diocesan leaders to take responsibility for the harms caused by priestly abuse was egregious in some cases.” Instances of bishops and other church officials who allowed known offenders to be re-assigned to positions where they could continue to have unsupervised contact with children are well known. The study fairly notes that some bishops were “innovators” in dealing with the issue of abuse well before 2002 and some, the “laggards,” were not. Although not cited in the study, the recent grand jury report and criminal charges against a church official in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia may reflect a growing awareness by civil authorities as to the serious impact of poor personnel decisions.
7. Did societal conditions contribute to or influence the incidence of sexual abuse of minors? The study found that the increase of abuse incidents during the 1960s and 1970s was consistent with “the rise of other types of ‘deviant’ behavior such as drug use, crime and changes in social behavior such as the increase in premarital sexual behavior and divorce.” This finding may be dangerously misinterpreted by some as a “cause” of the abuse. While the sexual activities of clergy members with consenting adults during this time may reflect a sexually liberated society, at no time was the sexual abuse of minors legal, moral or justified. As adult followers of the Catholic faith, these offenders knew, or should have known, that their behaviors violated and injured the young.
The Report’s Recommendations
The researchers note that the “peak of the crisis has passed” in the United States, but they also emphasize that the sexual abuse of minors is a long-term societal problem that is likely to persist, particularly in organizations that nurture and mentor adolescents. As such, the church will have to deal with abuse allegations for many decades to come. The report’s recommendations reinforce the value of the actions undertaken by bishops and religious superiors to prevent future abuse—actions that can and should be replicated in other countries and by other organizations.
The suggested prevention policies focus on three areas: education, situational prevention models and oversight and accountability. The emphasis on “human formation” in seminaries has already been found to be effective in reducing the number of abusers, but continuing education for priests has been lacking. The report encourages bishops to provide the resources needed for lifelong learning for priests and to clearly delineate standards of behavior in keeping with a life of celibacy.
The study also warns that prevention programs must be adaptable to changes in a society where new and unforeseen opportunities for abuse can arise. The safe environment programs underway in all dioceses and many religious communities have already proven successful in heightening awareness of what constitutes abuse and how to avoid it. Zero-tolerance policies, combined with regular evaluations of priest performance, are also critical for preventing boundary violations and harmful behavior.
The researchers urge church leaders to focus on the well-being of their priests and to offer alternate outlets for them to form close bonds with others. This includes allowing clergy to develop social friendships with age-appropriate persons. Bishops and superiors can also reduce stress on priests by providing time for them to participate in support groups and increase their personal contact with others.
Last, the researchers emphasize a need for bishops and other church leaders to be transparent and accountable in reporting and dealing with abuse. Catholics and all who observe the church need to have a better understanding of what has occurred, and is occurring, with regard to allegations of abuse. Compliance reviews and annual reports to the public are essential for this.
The causes and context study provides new and vital knowledge about the crisis of sexual abuse, the horrible acts that occurred and the context in which they took place. It does not obviate the evil of those acts, nor does it take away the pain of the victims or retrieve their innocence. That takes a true shepherd.