Study: Church sex-abuse scandal occurred amid permissive culture

A landmark, explosive study on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has clawed open wounds for victims and triggered debate about the church’s ability to address the full scope of the problem.

The report released Wednesday by John Jay College of Criminal Justice — the largest ever done on the crisis that left thousands of wounded children — concludes that the scandal that became public in 2002 was a temporary problem caused by poorly trained seminarians and bishops and occurred amid a permissive culture of the 1960s and 1970s that saw an increase in divorce, marijuana experimentation and robbery.

Church supporters said it would rewrite the narrative on the crisis by establishing it as
a problem of the past. Others noted current controversies and slammed the study as relying largely on data and access provided by the church.

About half the $1.8 million price tag was picked up by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Nearly $300,000 came from the National Institute of Justice, which is affiliated with the Justice Department.

It also triggered debate by arguing that most priests weren’t technically pedophiles. Others called the report “politically correct” for concluding that homosexuality wasn’t a factor in a scourge that largely affected boys.

“The ‘crisis’ of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is
an historical problem,” Diane Knight, chair of the bishops’ National Review Board that oversees the issue, said at a news conference in the District. “However, this in no way should lull us as a church into complacency.”

Jason Berry, a Catholic journalist who has written several books on the subject, said the study was important but “deeply flawed” because authors didn’t include sources such as the largest victims’ attorneys’ firms and the creators of the largest Web database on accused priests.

He also questioned why the study compared the rise and fall in cases to those of Americans experimenting with marijuana or getting divorced.

“When you get to the meat of it, they’re saying society had sexual upheavals and the church was a part of that,” he said. “What’s missing is a serious examination of why sexual crimes are translated as ‘sin’ and why the Vatican allows bishops who have concealed to remain bishops.”

Church historians, sex abuse experts and survivors’ advocates reacted swiftly to the study, which they have watched for years because of the unprecedented access the church gave John Jay to personnel files of accused priests and records from seminaries and treatment centers.

“It’s ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ Two academics, paid by bishops and using information from bishops, reach the conclusions bishops desperately want to reach themselves,” said a statement Wednesday by Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, the survivors’ advocacy group.

David Gibson, who had written books on the crisis, said the findings “will likely unsettle both liberal and conservative critics, as well as victims’ advocates.”

Addressing the often-raised question of how the Catholic Church compares on this subject, the authors included other research but said there was nothing comparable and that it’s not possible to conclude whether the Catholic Church is worse or better. It urged other organizations to fund similar work.

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.
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