As predicted, the release on Feb. 27 of the report prepared by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy created another sizable aftershock in the series that has shaken the Catholic Church in the United States since Jan. 6, 2002. This new report stated that 4,392 priests (or 4 percent of the total) were alleged to have sexually victimized 10,667 children (mostly young boys) during the past 52 years. Most of the abuse appears to have occured during the 1970’s, with significant declines reported by the mid-1980’s and 1990’s.
Many subsequent news accounts stated that the number of Roman Catholic clergy sex offenders far exceeded the number earlier predicted. As we have come to expect with each aftershock, representatives of victim advocacy groups claimed that these numbers greatly underestimate the true number of victims and demanded more respect and accountability from church leaders. Church officials appeared contrite and said that effective new policies, procedures and lay review boards will help to eliminate clergy sexual abuse now and in the future. The National Review Board representatives strongly chastised the bishops for the manner in which many of them had dealt with these allegations over the years. Many of the 96 percent of priests who have never victimized children, as well as many rank-and-file Catholics, again felt demoralized and saddened as they entered Lent, a season for reflection and repentance. The controversy over the release of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ just two days before the release of the John Jay report has kept the Catholic Church in the headlines on several controversial fronts.
Although Feb. 27 was not a good day for the American Catholic Church, it is important to reflect on the John Jay report and ask what we have really learned from this much- anticipated document. In an earlier article (Am., 1/5), I suggested that we must brace ourselves for the release of the report, yet also remain hopeful. After this most recent aftershock, there is still reason to be hopeful.
What have we learned from the report?
Actually, not much. Although many in the media reported that the numbers far exceeded the predicted estimates, this is not true. Throughout the 1990’s and as recently as spring 2002, many of my colleagues and I who have been actively engaged in both research and clinical practice regarding sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and their victims in the American Catholic Church estimated that about 5 percent of all priests and brothers in the United States had a sexual encounter with a minor. This was documented in numerous publications, including books, professional articles, op-ed pieces and elsewhere. After the remarkable earthquake that hit the church during January 2002 with The Boston Globe’s reports about the Archdiocese of Boston (as well as the subsequent analysis by The New York Times and others), many of our predictions about the number of offending clergy were reduced to about 2 percent. So the figure that emerged from the John Jay report is well within the range of predictions and best estimates offered by many experts during the past decade.
Curiously, the reported number of clergy sexual abuse victims is much lower than we expected. According to the John Jay report, the average number of victims per offender is about three, with half of all abusing priests having one victim. This is lower than was predicted on the basis of previous research and clinical practice. In fact, we predicted, using research from the St. Luke’s Institute and elsewhere, that there were likely to be about eight victims per perpetrator. In 1993, the Rev. Andrew Greeley had predicted about 100,000 victims of sexual abuse by clergy. The 10,667 victim figure is certainly much lower than nearly every estimate. This may be because the most egregious cases, like the one in Boston that ignited the recent crisis, are those mostly likely to come to the attention of both the media and treatment facilities. Representatives of victim advocacy groups maintain that the number does not include victims who have not yet identified themselves. While it is impossible to know exactly how many victims of clergy sexual abuse exist, the best available data suggest that the John Jay report figure is probably a reasonable one.
Where do we go from here?
The frequent reminders of the problem of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the United States are difficult for all of us. Victims and their families are often retraumatized and thwarted in their attempts to heal and move on with their lives. The many innocent priests and brothers, as well as ordinary Catholics, must find ways to defend their church and faith tradition from frequent attacks, ridicule and tasteless jokes.
Recovering from this powerful earthquake is a frustrating process. Rebuilding seems to occur in fits and starts. What might appear like steady progress one day can often feel like backtracking the next. But in time, when the recovery is as complete as it can be, we can look forward to a better church, in which there will be less risk of sexual misconduct by priests. In fact, when this rebuilding project is complete, the Catholic Church will have a model program for policies and procedures that could be adopted by other groups to protect children and families from potential exploitation. And there are other positive outcomes: the awakened laity (evidenced by the emergence of such groups as Voice of the Faithful), the lay review boards that now operate in all dioceses and at the national level, the watchdog activities of the media and victim advocacy groups, the new church policies and procedures to manage clergy activities as well as deal with complaints about clergy misconduct. All these will help strengthen the church in the United States.
The best available research suggests that sexual victimization of children is also committed at levels similar to those of priests by male clergy of other religious traditions, as well as by schoolteachers, scout leaders, coaches and other men who have access to and control over children. The figure of 4 percent released by the John Jay report probably applies to other groups as well. Ideally, similar studies should be conducted with these groups to obtain a clearer picture of the level of sexual abuse of children in society in general. If 20 percent of women and 15 percent of men consistently report that they were victims of sexual abuse as children, with about 80 percent saying that the abuse was perpetrated by a family member, then we still have a great deal of work to do to prevent sexual abuse of children. If we are truly interested in eliminating this evil, we have no choice but to examine closely all groups that are entrusted with children both inside and outside the Catholic Church.
The Catholic Church has an opportunity to make use of state-of-the-art research and clinical practice to minimize the number of potential sex offenders entering ministry and to act quickly when someone engages in sexual misconduct. There are many professionals, both Catholic and non-Catholic, who are willing to help. The church has a chance to get it right this time and to draw from the best that our tradition has to offer in order to behave in an ethical, moral and Gospel-inspired manner. Only then can the church regain its moral authority and voice to be a light in a world that is often very dark.