The largest study ever done on youth sexual abuse by Catholic clergy concludes that the scandal which exploded in 2002 was a temporary problem caused by poorly trained seminarians, bishops who focused too little on victims and a permissive culture in the 1960s and 1970s that saw the rise of divorce, marijuana experimentation and robbery.
Four years long and done with funding and cooperation from the church, the $2 million study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice has been watched closely by experts, historians and advocates for both victims and accused priests. It follows a landmark John Jay study in 2004 that established that at least 4 percent of all priests had been accused and that the vast majority of victims were boys.
The Post has not seen the full report, which is titled “The Causes and Contexts of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.”
The weight of the study and its release at a news conference at the U.S. headquarters of the Catholic Church will undoubtedly reignite debate. The clergy sex abuse issue is at the intersection of American culture wars, with various sides blaming homosexuality, celibacy, church secrecy and societal turmoil.
“Who else has studied child sex abuse at this level? No other organization has anything similar. If we’re really serious about keeping kids safe, other organizations have to follow suit: the public schools, the Boy Scouts, sporting organizations,” said Tom Plante, a psychologist who works with Catholic clergy and consulted the bishops for this study. “People have crazy ideas about Catholic clergy abuse and this helps negate that.”
With its unprecedented access to accused priests’ personnel files and psychosexual testing, as well as data from treatment centers and other public sources, John Jay’s report will include new analyses of what kind of priests became abusers, researchers said. It finds that for a period of time, Catholic dioceses “showed concern for the well-being of the priest, but there was little evidence of concern for victims,” lead researcher Karen Terry said in a 2009 presentation to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which footed about half the $2 million bill.
Experts generally agree that sex crimes against children have declined in recent decades, in the church and in U.S. society. The report, however, comes as details are just surfacing of a major scandal in the Philadelphia archdiocese that saw about two dozen accused priests removed earlier this year after a grand jury criticized the church for leaving them in place.
Some warned against a report that would argue too strongly that the problems — of abuse or cover-up — are waning.
“There is still evidence that in some places it’s not being handled in a way that suggests full compliance with higher authorities and adequate concern about children. That’s an area that still needs researching,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Some survivors’ advocates were skeptical of the research, noting the church’s role in funding and providing data on itself. Terence McKiernan, who runs the largest independent database of public records on accused priests, said it was wrong to portray abusers as “just nice guys who were confused by the ’60s.”