The truth turns out to be far more complex, according to a copy of the report by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice that was provided by a church leader who believes the findings accurately reflect the causes of the church’s sexual abuse crisis, for good and for ill.
The findings will likely unsettle both liberal and conservative critics, as well as victims’ advocates.
The 300-page report, formally called “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010,” upends a number of popular misconceptions. While some will challenge the report’s methodology — and note that U.S. bishops paid for half the estimated $1.8 million price tag — the “Causes and Context” study is clearly a landmark in the research of child sexual abuse.
The first myth challenged by the study is that priests tend to be pedophiles. Of nearly 6,000 priests accused of abuse over the past half century (about 5 percent of the total number of priests serving during that period), less than 4 percent could be considered pedophiles, the report notes — that is, men who prey on children.
“Priest-abusers were not ‘pedophile priests’,” the researchers state flatly.
Second, the researchers found no statistical evidence that gay priests were more likely than straight priests to abuse minors — a finding that undermines a favorite talking point of many conservative Catholics. The disproportionate number of adolescent male victims was about opportunity, not preference or pathology, the report states.
What’s more, researchers note that the rise in the number of gay priests from the late 1970s onward actually corresponded with “a decreased incidence of abuse — not an increased incidence of abuse.”
Similarly, celibacy remained a constant throughout peaks and valleys of abuse rates, and priests may be less likely to abuse children today than men in analogous professions. As a result, liberal Catholics who advocate a married priesthood, or those who are convinced that committing to a lifetime without sex must lead to perversion, may not have the abuse crisis to leverage their arguments.
Better preparation for a life of celibacy is key, however, and improved seminary training and education in the 1980s corresponds to a “sharp and sustained decline” in abuse since then — a dramatic improvement that has often been overlooked.
The huge spike in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s, the authors found, was essentially due to emotionally ill-equipped priests who were trained in earlier years and lost their way in the social cataclysm of the sexual revolution.