Report on Catholic priests' sex abuse of minors finds no single cause
Karen Terry, the lead investigator from John Jay College, addresses the media regarding a new report on sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests.
May 18th, 2011
02:44 PM ET

Report on Catholic priests' sex abuse of minors finds no single cause

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Washington (CNN) - "No single 'cause' of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests" was identified in a wide-ranging report released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Wednesday.

The report was presented by a group of researchers from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and was commissioned by the bishops group after determining the need for an outside group to review not only the scope of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis in the United States but to try to determine the cause.

The researchers found:

- Less than 5% of the priests who faced allegations were clinically diagnosed as pedophiles.

- Most priests who received treatment following allegations of abuse of a minor also reported sexual behavior with an adult.

- Researchers found no specific markers that would have been apparent across the board to disqualify candidates for the priesthood.

- Sexual orientation, specifically gayness, was not the cause of child sexual abuse by priests.

- The majority of abuse cases happened in the 1960s and 1970s and there was a sharp decline in the number of cases that began in the 1980s and continues today.

- Guidelines set up by the church to deal with the crisis when it came to light, including calling in civil authorities, were not adequately followed by most dioceses.

"The bad news is there is no test to give to seminarians to screen out abusers," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University who read the report. "We're going to have to be vigilant. We're going to have to continue to have programs to educate both priests and clergy, but also for kids and parents so that the opportunities for abuse are severely restricted."

As the researchers prepared to speak to the press at U.S. Conference of Bishops headquarters in Washington, Becky Ianni stood outside, holding a picture of herself as a young girl. A victim herself, and Virginia and Washington director of the group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), she criticized the report and said she felt it minimized her suffering.

Ianni had not yet read the full report but closely followed early press reports about its contents. "It concentrated on the priests but didn't cover the bishops who were the enablers, those who allowed those priests to move from parish to parish, those that covered up the abuse," she said.

This was the second of two reports by John Jay College on the sexual abuse epidemic that has plagued the church. The first report, "Nature and Scope," was released in 2004 and examined the breadth of the problem. This report, "The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010," examined why it happened.

While the researchers acknowledged "the 'crisis' of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is a historical problem," they said the scope of their investigation began in 1950 because of better access to people and documents. Information pertaining to prior incidents was nearly impossible to gather, they said.

The researchers compiled data from a broad range of sources including their first report; analysis of social behavior societywide (such as crime, divorce and premarital sex); seminary attendance and curriculum; surveys of a broad range of people, including bishops, accused priests, victims' advocates and laypeople; interviews with "inactive priests with allegations of abuse," and analysis of clinical files from three residential facilities that treated priests who abused minors.

The report, in part, pointed to social upheaval in the 1960s and 1970s as one of the reasons for the uptick in abuse cases.

"The abuse is a result of a complex interaction of factors, and there are number of social forces that were taking place in the 1960s and the 1970s that had an effect on a certain number of priests who had vulnerabilities that might have led to that abusive behavior," said Karen Terry, the lead investigator from John Jay College, at a press conference about the study.

"They also were trained in seminary at a time when there was no adequate preparation to live a life of chaste celibacy and they were not sufficiently able to handle those complex social forces that were taking place," she said. The report found that celibacy was not the cause of the crisis, she added.

In regard to social upheaval, Diane Knight, the chair of the report's National Review Board, a group of lay Catholics who helped oversee the study, said, "I want to emphasize that none of the information included in this report should be interpreted as making excuses for the terrible acts of abuse that occurred. There are no excuses."

Since the crisis broke publicly in the late 1980s, there were many inside and outside the church who had suggested the abusing priests were gay or pedophiles or both. The report spends significant time on both issues.

Terry said the data showed overwhelmingly that both of those assertions proved to be untrue.

The investigators labeled the majority of abusing priests " 'generalists,' or indiscriminate offenders," as opposed to offenders with exclusive sexual preferences.

"Very few of them were driven by a pathological attraction to a type of child and instead what we see is priest abusers are very much like sex offenders in the general population and many of them regress to the abuse of minors in certain time periods," Terry said. "What we also see is opportunities for them to abuse really played a critical role in who they chose to abuse."

The figure cited in the report - that 5% of abusing priests were pedophiles - came from analysis of files from three treatment facilities that had treated abuser priests. There the mental health providers determined how many of the priests had met the guidelines for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders' (DSM) definition of pedophilia. The DSM is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental disorders.

Another issue the report pointed to was seminary education for priests. Terry said where a priest went to seminary had no direct correlation to whether or not they became an abuser. When a priest went to seminary played a much larger role.

The human formation curriculum, added in 1992, is correlated with a low incidence of reported sexual abuse, the report said. The church added the new component to help better equip priests to live a chaste, celibate life.

The church response deemed inadequate

The report took a hard look at the church's response to allegations during the time period of the study.

The focus by the church, investigators said, was often on the priest rather than the accuser.

"Common diocesan response to allegations of abuse included administrative leave and assessment and psychological treatment for priests who had been accused of abuse," Terry said.

Their investigation showed many of the accused priests were treated by mental health professionals, who deemed the priests "rehabilitated," and they were returned to ministry. She pointed out this was commonplace. "The claims of the efficacy of psychological treatment for sex offenders were not unusual at the time."

Many priests were not removed from the ministry, or laicized, because the process was viewed as too complex and required consent from the Vatican. In many cases, not all the victims of a particular abuser may have been known when any administrative punishment was meted out, Terry said.

Bishop Blase Cupich, the chair of the Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People for the bishops' conference, said, "Bishops reassigned priests on the basis of receiving reports those priests were rehabilitated. That was the science of the day. ... That was a mistake. It was a bad mistake shared by a group of professionals, shared across the board in mental health care as well as bishops. We know better now and that sort of thing should not continue today."

While the church established guidelines in response to the crisis in the mid-1990s, which included complying with "the obligations of civil law regarding reporting of the incident and cooperating with the investigation," the investigators found that often did not happen. "Diocesan leaders were more likely to respond to the sexual abuse allegations within the institution, using investigation, evaluation, and administrative leave rather than external mechanisms of the criminal law. Many diocesan leaders' actions were not transparent to those outside the church," the report states.

The investigators said despite the decline in abuse instances and church leaders' vigor in tackling abuse cases, "the church must increase the level of transparency with respect to their response to this problem."

Response from victims

Victims' advocate groups like SNAP and groups aiming for greater accountability like BishopAccountability.org both said the report did not go far enough.

"From the beginning the study was designed to let the bishops off the hook and the child molesters off the hook," said Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of Bishop Accountability.org.

Doyle said the church is still too insular institutionally when it comes to dealing with sex abuse allegations and she did not think the report went far enough to challenge that. The church has not done enough since the crisis came to light, she said.

"If they were real shepherds, if our bishops really cared about our church and children, they would post the names of abusers and would aggressively seek out victims and they would encourage whistle-blowers to blow the whistle and encourage victims to go to the police. Those would be the actions of leadership really intent on routing out this corruption in their church."

Cupich and Terry both noted that abuse instances had continued their downward trajectory since 1985 and there were far fewer instances of abuse in recent years, although reports from prior years still continue to emerge. But with dioceses still struggling with the fallout and new cases emerging, like the massive case in the Archdiocese in Philadelphia, Cupich said he recognized more needed to be done.

"Even one number is too many as far as I'm concerned," Cupich said. "But when you think of a church of 60-some million Catholics and you think of the children we serve in our schools and various programs we are doing our best to make sure this does not happen and we have procedures in place."

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bishops • Catholic Church • Christianity • DC • Sex abuse • United States

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