Catholic News Service - May 18, 2011
Causes and context report released on clergy sexual abuse of minors
By David Gibson
WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Because potential sexual abusers of minors cannot be pinpointed through "identifiable psychological characteristics," it is "very important" to prevent abuse by limiting the "situational factors" associated with it, according to a long-awaited report on the causes and context of sexual abuse by priests in the United States. [read the report online]
The report, released in Washington May 18, said there is "no single identifiable 'cause' of sexually abusive behavior toward minors." It encouraged steps to deny abusers "the opportunity to abuse."
Titled "The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010," it reports the findings of a study mandated in 2002 under the U.S. Catholic bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People."
The charter, adopted by the bishops during a historic meeting in Dallas, created a National Review Board and directed the lay consultative body to commission studies of the abuse problem's "nature and scope" and its "causes and context." The John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York conducted both studies.
The nature and scope study appeared in February 2004. The causes and context study commenced in 2006.
The new report addressed several misperceptions about the sexual abuse of minors by priests. It said:
-- Priestly celibacy does not explain this problem. "Constant in the Catholic Church since the 11th century," celibacy cannot "account for the rise and subsequent decline in abuse cases from the 1960s through the 1980s."
-- Despite "widespread speculation," priests with a homosexual identity "were not significantly more likely to abuse minors" than heterosexual priests. Sexual "identity" should be differentiated from "behavior." A possible reason so many male minors were abused is that priests had greater access to them.
-- Less than 5 percent of priests with abuse allegations exhibited behavior consistent with pedophilia. Few victims were prepubescent children.
Seventy percent of priests referred for abusing a minor "had also had sexual behavior with adults," the study found. The majority of priest-abusers did not "specialize" in abusing "particular types of victims."
The new study's goal was to understand what factors "led to a sexual abuse 'crisis' in the Catholic Church" and "make recommendations to Catholic leadership" for reducing abuse, the John Jay College researchers explained.
They said their report also "provides a framework" for understanding "sexual victimization of children in any institution" and how organizations respond.
No other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse like this one, they said.
Priests who abused minors were not carbon copies of one another. The report said they constituted a "heterogeneous population." The majority "appear to have had certain vulnerabilities," such as "emotional congruence to adolescents" or difficulty interrelating with adults.
Some priest-abusers were abused as youths. "Having been sexually abused by an adult while a minor increased the risk that priests would later abuse a child," the report said.
The stress priests may experience at transitional moments -- moving from seminary to parish life; transferring to new parishes; becoming pastors -- was cited as a factor that can increase "vulnerability to abuse."
The report indicated that "situational stressors" do not cause abuse, but may serve "as triggers." High alcohol consumption during stressful times can lower inhibitions, it noted.
"The peak of the crisis has passed," the report observed. It said the church "responded," and abuse cases decreased substantially.
A "system of change" has begun in the church, according to the report. However, it said, "organizational changes take years, and often decades, to fully implement."
The report called sexual abuse of minors "a long-term societal problem," one "likely to persist, particularly in organizations that nurture and mentor adolescents." It said diocesan leaders "must continue to deal with abuse allegations appropriately."
Priest-abusers represented only a small percentage of all priests. The researchers judged it "neither possible nor desirable to implement extensive restrictions on the mentoring and nurturing relationships between minors and priests, given that most priests have not sexually abused minors and are not likely to do so."
Because so many abuse cases first were reported to authorities in the early 2000s, some people suspect the abuse remains "at peak levels," the report said. The reality is otherwise.
Sexual abuse of minors by priests "increased steadily from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, then declined in the 1980s and continues to remain low," the report showed. "Most abuse incidents occurred decades ago."
And "the majority of abusers (70 percent) were ordained prior to the 1970s," the study noted; 44 percent of those accused entered the priesthood before 1960.
Social factors influenced the increase of abuse incidents during the 1960s and 1970s, the report said. It found this increase consistent with "the rise of other types of 'deviant' behavior, such as drug use and crime," and changes in social behavior such as the "increase in premarital sexual behavior and divorce."
Those generations of priest-abusers also lacked "careful preparation for a celibate life," the report noted. Moreover, they failed to recognize the harm done to victims.
Awareness of the harm of sexual abuse to minors grew in society and the church during the 20th century's last decades. An increasing reluctance over time to reinstate priests in parishes after a first accusation may reflect the growth of this awareness, the report suggested.
In the 1990s, it said, "the failure of some diocesan leaders to take responsibility for the harms of the abuse by priests was egregious in some cases."
The report accented the critical role of what today is called "human formation" in seminaries. It said a gradually intensifying focus on human-formation concerns coincided with a decline of abuse cases.
Human formation addresses matters such as the future priest's relationships and friendships, his self-knowledge, integrity and celibate chastity. The report recommended that human formation continue after ordination.
Can seminaries screen-out priesthood candidates who will abuse minors? While encouraging further research, the report said "personality tests did not show statistically significant differences on major clinical scales" between priest-abusers and others without abuse allegations.
Nonetheless, it said screening tools remain "critically important" for identifying "other psychological problems not necessarily related" to abuse of minors.
Removing opportunities to abuse minors, making abuse more difficult and increasing its risks are among prevention steps the report recommended. Excuses priest-abusers make need to be recognized for what they are, it advised.
The report affirmed the safe environment programs implemented throughout the church in the U.S. These programs educate potential victims, abusers, parents and others, increasing the likelihood that abusers "will be identified" and "have more to lose."
Priests need "outlets to form social friendships and suitable bonds with age-appropriate persons," the report said. It encouraged attention to priests' health and well-being, including factors such as stress.
It recommended that dioceses periodically evaluate priests' performance. Evaluation is "an established element of most complex organizations," it noted.
The church has taken many steps "to reduce opportunities for abuse," the report said. It recommended that these efforts "be maintained and continually evaluated for efficacy."
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Gibson was the founding editor of Origins, Catholic News Service's documentary service. He retired in 2007 after holding that post for 36 years.
Church Report Cites Social Tumult in Priest Scandals
A five-year study commissioned by the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops to provide a definitive answer to what caused the church’s sexual abuse crisis has concluded that neither the all-male celibate priesthood nor homosexuality were to blame.
Instead, the report says, the abuse occurred because priests who were poorly prepared and monitored, and were under stress, landed amid the social and sexual turmoil of the 1960s and ’70s.
Known occurrences of sexual abuse of minors by priests rose sharply during those decades, the report found, and the problem grew worse when the church’s hierarchy responded by showing more care for the perpetrators than the victims.
The “blame Woodstock” explanation has been floated by bishops since the church was engulfed by scandal in the United States in 2002 and by Pope Benedict XVI after it erupted in Europe in 2010.
But this study is likely to be regarded as the most authoritative analysis of the scandal in the Catholic Church in America. The study, initiated in 2006, was conducted by a team of researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City at a cost of $1.8 million. About half was provided by the bishops, with additional money contributed by Catholic organizations and foundations. The National Institute of Justice, the research agency of the United States Department of Justice, supplied about $280,000.
The report was released Wednesday by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, but the Religion News Service published an account of the report on its Web site on Tuesday. A copy of the report was also obtained by The New York Times. The bishops have said they hope the report will advance the understanding and prevention of child sexual abuse in society at large.
The researchers concluded that it was not possible for the church, or for anyone, to identify abusive priests in advance. Priests who abused minors have no particular “psychological characteristics,” “developmental histories” or mood disorders that distinguished them from priests who had not abused, the researchers found.
Since the scandal broke, conservatives in the church have blamed gay priests for perpetrating the abuse, while liberals have argued that the all-male, celibate culture of the priesthood was the cause. This report will satisfy neither flank.
The report notes that homosexual men began entering the seminaries “in noticeable numbers” from the late 1970s through the 1980s. By the time this cohort entered the priesthood, in the mid-1980s, the reports of sexual abuse of minors by priests began to drop and then to level off. If anything, the report says, the abuse decreased as more gay priests began serving the church.
Many more boys than girls were victimized, the report says, not because the perpetrators were gay, but simply because the priests had more access to boys than to girls, in parishes, schools and extracurricular activities.
In one of the most counterintuitive findings, the report says that fewer than 5 percent of the abusive priests exhibited behavior consistent with pedophilia, which it defines as a “psychiatric disorder that is characterized by recurrent fantasies, urges and behaviors about prepubescent children.
“Thus, it is inaccurate to refer to abusers as ‘pedophile priests,’ ” the report says.
That finding is likely to prove controversial, in part because the report employs a definition of “prepubescent” children as those age 10 and under. Using this cutoff, the report found that only 22 percent of the priests’ victims were prepubescent.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies a prepubescent child as generally age 13 or younger. If the John Jay researchers had used that cutoff, a vast majority of the abusers’ victims would have been considered prepubescent.
The report, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2002,” is the second produced by researchers at John Jay College. The first, on the “nature and scope” of the problem, was released in 2004.
Even before seeing it, victims advocates attacked the report as suspect because it relies on data provided by the church’s dioceses and religious orders.
Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a Web site that compiles reports on abuse cases, said, “There aren’t many dioceses where prosecutors have gotten involved, but in every single instance there’s a vast gap — a multiplier of two, three or four times — between the numbers of perpetrators that the prosecutors find and what the bishops released.”
David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said that while the report contained no surprises, it had nonetheless been a disappointment because it did not include recommendations for far-reaching reforms, including limiting the power of bishops. Mr. Clohessy said this was critical because bishops had covered up many instances of sexual abuse by priests in the past.
“Predictably and conveniently, the bishops have funded a report that says what they’ve said all along, and what they wanted to hear back,” he said. “Fundamentally, they’ve found that they needn’t even consider any substantive changes.”
Robert M. Hoatson, a priest and a founder of Road to Recovery, which offers counseling and referrals to victims, said the idea that the sexual and social upheavals of past decades were to blame for the abuse of children was an attempt to shift responsibility from church leaders. Mr. Hoatson said he had been among those who had been abused.“It deflects responsibility from the bishops and puts it on to a sociological problem,” he said. “This is a people problem. It wasn’t because of the ’70s, and it wasn’t the ’60s, and it wasn’t because of the 1450s. This was something individuals did.”
Kristine Ward, the chairwoman of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition, said the cultural explanation did not appear to explain why abuse cases within the Catholic church have shaken places from Australia and Ireland to South America. “Does the culture of the U.S. in the 1960s explain that? It’s hard to believe,” she said.
William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a conservative Catholic group, however said he believes permissiveness in the church in the 1960s and 1970s - particularly at seminaries - had been a significant reason for the rise in sexual abuse. Mr. Donohue said that while he generally supported the report’s findings, he believed that the study seemed to have purposefully avoided linking abuse cases with the increase in the number of gay men who became priests during the 1960s and 1970s. “The authors go through all sorts of contortions to deny the obvious - that obviously, homosexuality was at work,” Mr. Donohue said.
In Philadelphia, where a grand jury in February found that as many as 37 priests suspected of behavior ranging from sexual abuse to inappropriate actions were still serving in ministry. The archdiocese initially rejected the grand jury’s findings, but soon suspended 26 priests from ministry.
An essay in the Catholic magazine Commonweal last week by Ana Maria Catanzaro, who heads the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s sexual-abuse review board, which is supposed to advise the archdiocese on how to handle abuse cases, said that the board was shocked to learn about the dozens of cases uncovered by the grand jury. Her essay raised questions about whether bishops provide accurate data even to their own, in-house review boards.
Still, the John Jay report says that when it comes to analyzing the incidence and causes of sexual abuse, “No organization has undertaken a study of itself in the manner of the Catholic Church.”
Because there are no comparable studies conducted by other institutions, religious or secular, the report says, “It is impossible to accurately compare the rate of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church to rates of abuse in other organizations.”
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