Priest sex abuse scandal was temporary problem, study finds
The largest study ever done on youth sexual abuse by Catholic clergy concludes that the scandal that became public 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 an increase in divorce, marijuana experimentation and robbery.
The $2 million four-year study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that gay priests were not more likely than heterosexual ones to abuse and that a small minority of accused priests meet the clinical definition of pedophiles.
The Washington Post saw a copy of the report, which will be publicly released Wednesday.
It has been closely watched by experts, historians and advocates for victims and accused priests. This is because John Jay was given unprecedented access by the church — which paid for about half the study — to priests’ personnel files and psychosexual testing, as well as seminary records. The subject of clergy sex abuse ignites multiple culture war flames, with various sides blaming homosexuality, celibacy, church secrecy and societal turmoil.
Supporters and critics of the church were already speaking out about the study, whose general contours researchers have publicly described over the years.
“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.
“This report misses the boat. What deserves the most scrutiny are not child sex crimes but continued clergy cover-ups of child sex crimes,” the advocacy group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said Tuesday in a statement.
The report, titled “The Causes and Contexts of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010,” characterizes the church’s response as “typically focused on the priest-abusers rather than on the victims. . . . There is little evidence that diocesan leaders met directly with victims before 2002.”
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 in which about two dozen accused priests were 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 and 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 who had not seen the full report 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.”
The Rev. James Martin, SJ, culture editor of America Magazine, said the report’s finding that gay priests were no more likely to abuse others than straight priests was accurate.
“In fact, the rise in the number of gay priests corresponds with a ‘decreased incident of abuse — not an increased incidence.’ So why have gay priests consistently been blamed for the abuse crisis? One reason is that there are so few public models of celibate gay priests.”
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said: “Predictably and conveniently, the bishops have funded a report that tells them precisely what they want to hear: It was all unforeseeable, long ago, wasn’t that bad and wasn’t their fault. It gives bishops even more reasons to avoid what they desperately want to avoid — questioning celibacy, married priests, secular laws, serious reforms or their own virtually limitless power as kings in a medieval monarchy.”
The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, SJ, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University, said that “those looking for a simple explanation of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church will be disappointed by the latest report.”