CARA study indicates decline in abuse reports. Is the worst behind us?

Mariana Hernandez prays during a prayer service for repentance and healing for clergy sexual abuse which included prayers for victims, abusers and the church, Aug. 22 at Our Lady of the Brook in Northbrook, Ill. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)Mariana Hernandez prays during a prayer service for repentance and healing for clergy sexual abuse which included prayers for victims, abusers and the church, Aug. 22 at Our Lady of the Brook in Northbrook, Ill. (CNS photo/Karen Callaway, Chicago Catholic)

This post originally appeared on Aug. 28 on 1964, a research blog published by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. It has since been updated with new information, as noted below.

As a survey researcher who has studied Catholic reactions to news of allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors since 2002, I have noticed that there is a detail about the crisis that seems to get distorted at times. In 2012, the last time we asked Catholics about the crisis in a national poll, 21 percent of adult Catholics could correctly identify that the abuse cases were more common before 1985 than since. The fact that any abuse occurred at all, regardless of when, is horrifying to me, and the victims deserve justice and anything that could help them with the damages that resulted from these criminal acts. Yet this detail is important in understanding the causes of the scandal, what legal actions are possible and the steps that can be taken to prevent any future abuse.

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Only 21 percent of adult Catholics could correctly identify that the abuse cases were more common before 1985 than since.

The authors of the Pennsylvania grand jury report were careful to note, “We know that the bulk of the discussion in this report concerns events that occurred before the early 2000’s” (see Page 6). At the same time they correctly note that abuse “has not yet disappeared” and there are a couple of more recent allegations detailed in their findings.

The most common decade of birth for alleged abusers was the 1930s. (CARA)

As they note, “Many of the priests who we profile here are dead” (Page 12). Dates for birth, year of ordination and death are not available for all the accused in the report (some are seminarians or brothers and were never ordained). But 44 percent of the accused in the report are known to be dead (five were born in the 19th century). Their average age at death was 73. Among the accused who are still alive or presumed alive, the average age today is 71. Priests accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, on average, were born in 1933 and ordained as priests in 1961. Outside of Pennsylvania, allegations of abuse have also been levied recently against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He was similarly born in 1930 and ordained a priest in 1958.

There is something to this generational pattern, and this finding was first uncovered in the scientific study of the abuse crisis in 2004 by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. They noted in 2004, “The majority of men in this study were born between 1920 and 1950 and were ordained in their mid- to late-twenties.” The most common decade of birth for alleged abusers was the 1930s and the most common decade of ordination was the 1960s. This profile has not changed in allegations that emerged in the 14 years that have followed—including the recent grand jury report. No new wave of abuse has emerged in the United States.

The same scandal with new details

The clergy sex abuse scandal unfolding in the news today is the same public scandal that erupted with national media reports in 2002 (beginning in Boston). It is likely, but no one can be sure, that the cases in the grand jury report have already been present in existing allegation totals (reports to the John Jay researchers are cited as a source for information about allegations in the grand jury report). Just as then, the abuse in the headlines most often occurred in the 1960s through the 1980s.

What is new in the Pennsylvania grand jury report is a level of detail that previous investigations have not often included. The authors report on a “playbook” that church leaders allegedly used to handle allegations of clergy sex abuse in the state prior to 2002. “It seemed as if there was a script. Through the end of the 20th century, the dioceses developed consistent strategies for hiding child sex abuse” (Page 297). This strategy included the use of euphemisms in documentation that minimized abuse as conduct that was “inappropriate” or related to “boundary issues.” The dioceses’ investigations appeared to be deficient or biased, according to the grand jury. Many accused priests were sent for treatment in a clinical approach to the abuse rather than what should have occurred—criminal reporting. Once these treatments were considered complete, abusers were often returned to ministry in new assignments. The allegations were rarely, if ever, disclosed publicly. Victims rarely received the care they needed, let alone justice. The grand jury concludes, “The repeating pattern of the bishops’ behavior left us with no doubt that, even decades ago, the church understood that the problem was prevalent” (Page 300). Further, “The bishops weren’t just aware of what was going on; they were immersed in it. And they went to great lengths to keep it secret. The secrecy helped spread the disease” (Page 300).

“It seemed as if there was a script. Through the end of the 20th century, the dioceses developed consistent strategies for hiding child sex abuse.”

This strategy is not entirely dissimilar to the responses of other institutions when faced with any accusations of sexual abuse of minors, whether it has been scouting groups, public schools, prep schools, universities or youth athletics. These types of institutions seem to attract sexual abusers of minors who seek positions of trust and respect with access to young people. The John Jay researchers noted in 2011: “Sexual victimization of children is a serious and pervasive issue in society. It is present in families, and it is not uncommon in institutions where adults form mentoring and nurturing relationships with adolescents, including schools and religious, sports, and social organizations” (Page 5).

The church failed in responding to accusations of abuse and more often chose to cover up the criminal activity than disclose and report it. The church in some cases sought nondisclosure agreements in civil settlements with victims—a practice that the grand jury believes should be abolished. What was often different in the church than elsewhere, especially prior to 2000, was the clinical response to abuse—sending abusers for treatment and allowing them to return to ministry after this was completed. These were grave errors in judgment. This allowed abusers the potential to return to work and continue to abuse. It also ignored the legal obligation to seek justice for crimes committed.

That playbook, to the degree it was used broadly, appears to have changed in 2002. The grand jury report’s authors note, “On the whole, the 2002 [Dallas] Charter did move things in the right direction” and that “external forces have also generated much of the change” (Page 302). They note with concern that the church’s 2002 Dallas Charter—officially called The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People—still leaves too much of the decision making to diocesan bishops. But the external changes brought by mandated abuse reporter laws, longer statutes of limitations and increased public awareness have created a new reality. They write, “Today we sense some progress is made” (p. 303), often by actors external to the church rather than from within it.

New allegations of abuse

Have new allegations of abuse declined as a result? The John Jay researchers aggregated the number of allegations of clergy sexual abuse of minors from 1950 to 2002. Their study included allegations made by 10,667 individuals. CARA has collected the numbers of new allegations of sexual abuse by clergy since 2004. CARA’s studies, through 2017, include 8,694 allegations. The distribution of cases reported to CARA are nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results. We know the year that each alleged abuse began for 8,206 cases. For 488, this is not known. The chart below left shows the cases where we can place these in time.

New abuse allegations have not disappeared, but they have become far less common.

New abuse allegations have not disappeared. In the last three years, 22 allegations of abuse occurring during 2015-2017 have been made. This is an average of about seven per year nationwide in the church. That is far too many. Nothing is acceptable other than zero. At the same time, to put those reports in some context, 42 teachers in the state of Pennsylvania, where the grand jury reported from, lost their licenses to educate for sexual misconduct in 2017. As recently as 2015, 65 teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (L.A.U.S.D.) were in “teacher jail” for accusations of sexual abuse or harassment in that county alone. The current wave of educator sexual misconduct has yet to receive the same aggregation and attention that clergy sexual abuse has by the media (although The Washington Post has rung a warning bell and Carol Shakeshaft has written extensively on it in academic work). As the John Jay researchers note, “No other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church” (Page 5).

The current wave of educator sexual misconduct has yet to receive the same aggregation and attention that clergy sexual abuse has by the media.

“It is happening in other institutions” is by no means any sort of excuse and that is not what is intended by referring to these realities. Instead, these other cases provide a context, which becomes important when someone who reads news of abuse occurring decades ago in churches in Pennsylvania decides to attack a priest today in Indiana or when a parent feels their children will be less safe in a Catholic school than a public school. It also points to the dangers of thinking that incidents of sexual abuse are unique to Catholic institutions.

As the grand jury report authors note, the church has changed in the last 15 years. But you cannot “fix” the past nor can it be erased. This won’t all fade away. It’s nothing that can ever be outrun. You have to deal with it. The church did not sufficiently do so in 2002 and the years that followed. Creating new policies to prevent future abuse are not a sufficient response to the legacy of what happened. Now, in 2018, it is time to lift the veil of any secrecy that remains. If not, the same cases will emerge again and again as if these were a wound that scabs but never heals. Every time that scab is removed it will bleed again and again. As painful as it is now, it is the time to deal with this great injury the church brought upon itself. If anything, the re-emergence of these cases again and again should reveal that this wound has potentially deadly consequences if it is not dealt with completely once and for all.

Update (Aug. 29): Some reactions to this post have asked about the impact of known delays in reporting by victims. There has been no substantial shifting forward in time of the alleged abuse trend between 2002 and 2017. The accusations continue to fit the historical pattern. We would expect the trend to move forward in the last 15 years if reporting delays were evident, but this has not been the case. No new wave of allegations similar to the past has occurred to date. It is also likely that most, if not all, the Pennsylvania cases are already in existing reported accusation totals.

Though there was a spike in the early 1990s of allegations about past sexual abuse, most reports have been made after 2002, regardless of when the abuse was said to have occurred. (CARA)

Update (Aug. 30): We continue to hear feedback about the delays in reporting related to the age of the victim. The data regarding accusations in the Catholic Church specifically appear to be much more event-driven than age-driven. Rather than victims reaching a certain age and coming forward, it has more often been the case that abuse being in the news has led victims to come forward in large numbers. The chart at left is from the John Jay research (Page 9) and shows when allegations were reported up to 2002. One can see the spike in the 1990s, after a series of cases in the news and again in a larger magnitude in 2002 in the wake of news of abuse cases in Boston. Since 2004, new allegations have averaged 618 per year (438 in 2017). Regardless of when reports are made, the accusations often fit the existing pattern described above for when the abuse occurred. Four allegations of abuse occurring in 2017 were made in 2017.

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A Fielder
2 months 2 weeks ago

I have 4 questions. First, are more priests celibate today, or are they just having sex with adults instead of children? Also, if CARA knows about 8,694 allegations and 1,000 of them are in 6 dioceses of PA, are the actual cases nationwide much more numerous? And if the percentage of gay priests could also be visually depicted on this graph, what would that look like? Finally, what is the ratio of educators to priests in PA? Maybe 60:1.

Danny Collins
2 months 2 weeks ago

@A Fielder, Excellent point. McCarrick simply switched from children to seminarians after he became bishop. He was then a kingmaker with his protoges like Tobin, Wuerl and Farrell and his allies like Cupich becoming cardinals. Just because Harvey Weinstein didn't abuse children like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen doesn't make him any less a monster.

Anyone who thinks that pointing to child abuse rates going down is going to end the anger of Child Molester McCarrick becoming a cardinal and bringing along a cadre of endablers to sexual abuse is deluded.

Also, the article doesn't address the role of seminary reform in the 1980's in the US. We are in danger of having those reforms reversed as good priests are again turned away in favor of the self-centered and hedonistic priests whom seem to hold so much sway these days.

Trent Shannon
2 months 1 week ago

Cultural attitudes will change, with education of the issue beginning (and likely already begun) in seminaries with younger cadres of priests - the bishops of the future - already well educated and well aware of the implications of covering up

I sincerely doubt "hedonists" as being such a force next to the homophobic clericalists are steering the discussion away from survivors and indeed away from positive changes made by the church since 2002 and what's going on now and will be into the future

Don't fret good priests being turned away, there's already a whole bunch of them leading services and a whole lot more of them already in seminary

BILL HOBBS
2 months 2 weeks ago

While the number of abuse cases of minors may be diminishing, what about the sexual practices of seminarians and clergy with other adults - either lay or clerical. Just today, the headlines recounted the news of two Chicago priests caught having sex in a car in public in Miami. Both Swipe and Cozzens in their studies point to the fact that Catholic clergy in great numbers do not observe their promise of celibacy or vow of chastity. We need a holy fire through the clerical ranks...

My own experience in religious life was there was too much of a “wink-wink; nod-nod” acceptance of the sexual activity of seminarians and priests. For many reasons, religious superiors fail to act and we are living with the consequences. I have had conversations with a number of individuals who were considering religious life or the priesthood - but confronted with the immoral behavior that we are daily confronted with - rule out the possibilty. The number of “abusers” may be a small and diminishing number, but I do not accept that the overall sexual activity in religious life and the priesthood is in decline.

Trent Shannon
2 months 1 week ago

same deal with them - reveal. they've made the temple a den of iniquity, doing good celibate priests and even married priests who come in from other denominations a disservice.

I know celibacy is difficult, its meant to be difficult. but it's not impossible even before the urge to sin of the flesh manifests. We can't turn a blind eye to above board breaking of vows either - because yes, it does bring into question talk of moral superiority of the Church over other faiths or on position of sin in general or in homily, you can't be pious if you're impious. And how do we know, if its private or hidden away?

Short answer, lets stop holding priests and bishops as any less flawed, and any superior, to we in the pews. And remind them, that after all, given the right prayers, some wine, some bread, and unyielding faith that youre partaking the body and blood of Christ, we can lead a Eucharist for ourselves and friends/families, and we can protest confession by simply not going and confessing directly to the guy upstairs, or withholding donations until the curtain in front of impiety is torn down.

Even with reforms against abuse, cover ups, or impiety, they've turned the church into a den of iniquity. How do we know who is upholding their vows (to give praise to) and who is making a mockery of things (who we can boycott)?

Trent Shannon
2 months 1 week ago

And furthering the argument that confession was used to give penance and prayer to abusers, who keeps giving absolution to the lustful, the greedy, the wrathful amongst the clergy? A lot of public humility would go a long way there, too!

Stefan Svilich
2 months 2 weeks ago

Mark, You're joking right? This train wreck is just getting started. Other than finding Jesus' bones in an ossuary tucked between Mary & Joseph in a corner of the Vatican Library, I can't imagine how much more damage the clergy & their management could do. Now we have priests from Chicago, going for a quickie in Florida - in public. At least get a room. This is becoming Pythonesque.

Jake Gallerano
2 months 2 weeks ago

Thanks for the perspective.

arthur mccaffrey
2 months 2 weeks ago

beware of extrapolating trends from data that are verbally reported, as was the casein the JJ study for the USCCB. The dynamics of abuse of children has its own timeline--Prof Marci Hamilton of UPenn reported recently on NPR and NYT that the average age of victims being able to go public with their secret is 52--which means that if I was born in 1980 and abused in 1990, you won't hear from me until 2032--there are still plenty of stories left so don't put your slide rule away just yet.

Trent Shannon
2 months 1 week ago

Average, or weighted average (aka, mean)? Always be careful when extrapolating averages. And overall, or in relation to past abuse as being investigated by AGs and others? Always be careful at what data you're referring to.

With all the knowledge and reporting of child sexual abuse, the average age would be lower now compared to, say, survivors of the 1950s to 1980s being focused on now.

Yes, there will be others coming forward in relation to past abuse, and past abuse revelations are far from over (NY is next, other states are likely following), just be careful of how you interpret the data

Tim O'Leary
2 months 2 weeks ago

Mark - this is excellent. Full of data. Steven O'Keefe (link below) did a detailed analysis of the PA Grand Jury report and it shows the identical pattern. Steven shows mathematically that the drop in cases is major and real. There was a mountain in the 60s-80s of children abused, and it has subsided to below 1950s since 2002. The decline was already occurring before the Dallas Charter in 2002, so something in addition must explain the peak & trough. It is hard to blame celibacy or clericalism, unless one can come up with an argument that these have declined since the 1990s. I am open to alternative suggestions, but it seems to me the sexual revolution coupled with a psychological explanation of sin matches the beginning of the peak. A possible reason for the decline is that many would-be priests left the Church in the years of Pope JP II, primarily because they didn't like the conservative turn. http://actsapologist.blogspot.com/2018/08/the-philadelphia-report-by-nu…

Danny Collins
2 months 1 week ago

The seminary reform begun under JP II in the early 1980's is underrated in the decline, IMO. Before that, many seminaries had become pink palaces which turned out sexual abusers with stunning regularity. If America was really interested in doing journalistic work, they might try to document the seminaries abusers attended and the social connections they maintained.

Open homosexuality had led to networks of gay priests sharing victims. For all the problems in the public schools with abuse rates, when was the last time one heard about teachers passing victims back and forth, gathering other teachers around to pose children for child porn, and getting lifetime stipends after getting out of jail as a reward not going public with their knowledge of other abusers? The PA Grand Jury report documents a level of evil almost unparalleled in modern societies. A teacher might screw a pupil, but they don't brag about it and bring other teachers in on the action as priests were doing (e.g., Bach, Pease & others of Harrisburg; Zirwas, Luddy, Zully, Pucci, and Wolk in Pittsburgh; Jones and Kean of Allentown). Abusive teachers don't advance and become head administrators who continue to abuse very young teachers in training with the full knowledge of their fellow administrators who then issue lies and obfuscations about their knowledge when every first year teacher within 5 states knew about the abuse (e.g., McCarrick and his enablers). Prominent journalists don't then claim that they had heard reliable rumors of this from multiple sources but never investigated and even honored the abuser because it was all second hand knowledge (e.g., James Martin and America Magazine). What happened in the Catholic Church really was unique in several aspects. It involved a nearly unparalleled depth of evil and the complicity of the Catholic hierarchy and press.

Crystal Watson
2 months 2 weeks ago

If there are indeed less cases of clergy abuse here in the US and Europe, that is because civil authorities are finally taking a role in investigating and prosecuting them. But I predict there will be a future wave of sex abuse cases brought to light in developing countries where Catholicism has recently started to grow, like Africa and parts of Asia.

Tim O'Leary
2 months 2 weeks ago

Crystal - the police & psychologists were part of the problem before the 90s (Spotlight). The incidence had already come down long before before the civil authorities began to investigate. Other institutions had similar pattern. Larry Nasser was abusing for decades (over 300 victims). The settlement against Michigan State is $500M (link below). The HHS website says 20% girls & 5% boys is a victim of child sexual abuse. The Church problem is different in 3 ways: 1) 4:1 same-sex, 3) peak and trough pattern, 3) worst of all because it is also a sacrilege and leads to religious despair.
1. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/larry-nassar-latest-v….
2. http://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/child-s…

Stefan Svilich
2 months 2 weeks ago

Mr. O'Leary, The cops were 'part of the problem' - really? Roger Mahoney was notorious for transferring priests under investigation out of LAPD jurisdiction as soon as he learned they were under suspicion. That's conspiracy to hider a police investigation. The only police 'problem' was that Mahoney didn't cooperate.

Tim O'Leary
2 months 2 weeks ago

Stefan - The point is not to blame them especially. It was just not handled well across the board. The Boston investigation found that the police went along with the psychologists and the bishops in "keeping things quite" and doing everything behind the scene. It might have been different in LA. The NYT reported the same in Ireland. "The report said the Irish police allowed the church to act with impunity and often referred abuse complaints back to the archdiocese for internal investigations. The police said Thursday that they regretted their failure to act...Ireland's police commissioner, Fachta Murphy, said, adding he was 'deeply sorry.'"
https://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/27/world/europe/27ireland.html

Donald McCrabb
2 months 2 weeks ago

Any research on the victims - particularly the path towards healing, justice and, please God, reconciliation?

Donald McCrabb
2 months 2 weeks ago

Any research on the victims - particularly the path towards healing, justice and, please God, reconciliation?

Stanley Kopacz
2 months 2 weeks ago

Ascribe a possible drop to this or that if you want. More probably it has to do with parents now seeing a priest as a possible sexual weirdo instead of someone who levitates one meter above the ground. After all, making a vow to never ever have sexual intimacy is a little strange to start with. No more blank check for clergy. That'll knock down the case load.

Rhett Segall
2 months 1 week ago

The John Jay researchers noted in 2004: “Sexual victimization of children is a serious and pervasive issue in society. It is present in families,"
It seems to me that there is no way to literally root out the abuse; it can only be limited. From a scriptural perspective two points come to mind: one, make clear who the culprits are (Eph. 5:11-13) and two: turn the culprits over to the criminal justice system (1 Cor. 5:5)
Obviously all the points regarding supervision, ease of reporting and vetting of persons in anyway connected with this issue, goes without saying.

Jorge Luis Luaces Rabaza
2 months 1 week ago

“no way to literally root out the abuse”
Rhett, there has always been, still is and always will be abuse by man against self, against God and against man. The human condition is one of sin. Look at the comments on these forums.... abuse everywhere. So we pray, minister, evangelize, be holy and be filled with humility just like we are shown by the Vicar of Christ: ““This is the first decisive step of Peter along the path of discipleship, of the disciple of Jesus, accusing himself: ‘I am a sinner.’ This is Peter’s first step; and also the first step for each one of us, if you want to go forward in the spiritual life, in the life of Jesus, serving Jesus, following Jesus, must be this, accusing oneself: without accusing oneself you cannot walk in the Christian life.”
https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope-francis/mass-casa-santa-marta.html

Rhett Segall
2 months 1 week ago

As we pray in the Confiteor, Guillermo: "Through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault". Yes, the sense of personal sin is critical here. But sexual abuse sins and their cover up are also criminal acts and mandate a societal response. Hopefully this will bring a deterrent factor to the crisis.

John Chuchman
2 months 1 week ago

Someone, please nail Dolan for his corruption in Wisconsin.

Stan Zorin
2 months 1 week ago

And Wuerl and Cupich and others as well.

Stan Zorin
2 months 1 week ago

Baloney. The worst is yet to come.

arthur mccaffrey
2 months 1 week ago

one further observation-- the civil authority side of this whole mess needs closer examination and accountability. Too many state DAs have dragged their feet on pursuing possible criminal charges against abusive clergy identified by victims, effectively giving RCC a pass too often, instead of vigorously pursuing justice. A much better job of policing has been done by our Fourth Estate--our national media, beginning with the Boston Globe in 2002. Newspapers and Victim attorneys have done the heavy lifting in getting the story of clergy abuse out to an ignorant public.

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