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

soundoff (183 Responses)
  1. masterbloggerblogs

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    October 21, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
  2. Slavica

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    September 6, 2012 at 6:30 pm |
  3. Bucky Ball


    May 31, 2011 at 1:54 pm |
  4. Mark

    They don't pay attention to their own teachings. Matthew 18:6 'Anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck.' Apparently even Jesus said to be personally responsible for all you do. The clergy, and any catholic involved in this, should look like a giant herd of lemmings sprinting toward the ocean if they truly followed the word of their Lord God.

    May 27, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  5. Holly F.

    New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore. These are only a FEW of the places that have multiple child abuses by priests. Orlando Florida Orlando diocese has covered up many such cases by moving the offenders around. The "get out of Jail free" pass is handed out to the offending priest by the bishops who are supposed to be the pastor of thier "lay" people, the worker bees of the Church. Instead of helping the many families they offer psychological counseling long after the damage has been done while lives of families are shattered. The cost of helping these abused children often is like that of slow murder of the entire family. Being a Catholic in Orlando is like serving a lifetime of hell once the abused person comes forward for help. In the few years I have known about my child being abused decades ago, I feel like I'm being tortured. I"m being told to give up my suffering to God, but my adult child has been severely affected and I DID NOT KNOW until fairly recently when it could no longer be held in. MY child still hurts inside and the mother is living in her own hell because nothing is being done to help the shattered family come together. Come on everyone, it takes more than tallk to heal the hurts of the child within!!!

    May 23, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  6. WiserThanEwe (not a sheep)

    Sorry, MindsOpen. I meant my last comment to be a general post, not a reply to you. Excellent points, however.

    May 22, 2011 at 11:12 pm |
  7. MindsOpen

    Doesn't the law require (in most states in the US) that s*x offenders be listed in an offender registry? How is it possible that these men are not named? That is an outrage. These men, regardless of their religious offices or affiliations must be made to comply with civil law.

    Furthermore, why did this study not include evaluation under DSM definitions for sociopathy? Those who abuse children often present with sociopathic mental illness, at least this is often an evaluation used for sociopaths who s*xually abuse children in the home (or within trusted settings). Certainly this form of evaluation can be used for people entering trusted roles within the church.

    While I am not a victim of clergy abuse and I cannot speak about the unique violation of trust felt by such victims, as a CSA survivor in a family setting I can feel tremendous empathy for the "not good enough" emotions they must feel following from the shallowness of this report.

    May 19, 2011 at 10:19 pm |
  8. Finger Puppet

    Seriously Mr Marrapodi, "gayness" ? LMAO. Is your editor out this week ? Come on.

    May 19, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  9. redking2

    This 'report' is ridiculous. It is obviously biased and self-serving. The Catholic church is so deeply and sadly out of touch with the modern world. It keeps on trying to sweep this issue under the rug as if it didn't happen. It is sad that the church cannot truly take responsibility for its' actions like any good Christian should do...

    May 19, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Petel

      Bishops are protecting themselves, no one else.

      May 19, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  10. Realist

    I recommend people take time to look at ChildRescueBill. org
    Understand the root cause in society, we all pay dearly. Whether it is in over $200 billion a year in taxes, threats to our personal safety and/or destruction to loved ones – we pay.

    May 19, 2011 at 9:30 am |
    • MindsOpen

      @Realist... good site. More needs to be done. Are you aware of any federal iniatives like this?

      May 19, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
  11. Lisa

    Outrageous and unacceptable.

    For the church to decide only children 10 and under can be molested is equivalent to saying any child older than that "asked for it". This is continued and ongoing abuse.

    For the church to recommend but not mandate report of these crimes should suffice for the church to be closed until they agree to comply with the laws of the land on both age & reporting of these crimes.

    May 19, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • Petel

      Healing is in the truth. The victims have been denied the truth. Why is there no report on the cover ups. In NYS the politicians fear losing cathiolic votes as the bishops pay top notch lobbyist to stop laws that would help the victims and families.
      So many mothers cried to their deaths, for their children who comitted suicide and those mentally ill. Yet the RCC and politicians don't care.
      Imagine being denied the truth? Justice? Because the RCC hires top notch lobbyists and continues to create reports as this one to deflect from the truth. Most reasonably thinking people knew it was not gays, but pedos.
      More so, the real numbers are not even out. With the high 5% defined as abusers, none of mine are on any list. One is a bishop who participates in these, deflections, reports.
      FACT: The most violent pedos will traumatize children for a near lifetime. This is why many do not come forward until so long, mental illness. Some will wake from their trauma in thier 50's and 60's and others never. A life of pain and many don't know why.

      May 19, 2011 at 9:40 am |
    • thessalonian

      "For the church to decide only children 10 and under can be molested "

      What? Were did you draw this nonsense from? They didn't say anyone should be molested. They were talking about the definitions of what is considered pedophilia. Nowhere does it say that anyone outside that age range or in it is okay to molest. The point of it I am sure was looking at what is really pedophilia and seeing if a cause can be found in that group of incidents.

      May 19, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
    • clergyvictim

      Thessalonian - but they changed the ground rules when they worked the numbers.

      The American Psychiatric Association clearly states that children THIRTEEN (13) and under are pre-pubescent. The John Jay and Cardinals dropped that age to TEN (10) years - that makes a BIG discrepancy since a majority of abuse cases fell in the 10-13 age group! The Bishops had the number manipulated to make themselves look good and to pass the blame on to others.

      May 20, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  12. Reality

    Christianity/Catholicism should not even exist since it is based on flawed history and theology. Without these flaws, there would be no RCC and therefore no priests and therefore no cases of priestly pedophilia. Ditto for all the other Christian sects like the Southern Baptist Convention and Seven Day Adventists where pedophilia and coverups have been a major issue. Judaism with its flawed history and theology is in the same situation. Correct the flaws and there would be no Judaism and therefore no rabbis and therefore no cases of rabbinic pedophilia.=========================

    May 19, 2011 at 8:02 am |
  13. lucky chucky

    It's funny how in the movies that have came out lately. Priests are heros stopping Satan by exercising demons or fighting vampires. In reality they touch children with the hand of god.

    May 19, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  14. petel2

    No doubt, it is good people, not a bible or religion, that ultimately caused good things to happen. Religion and the bible have tainted this world with regression and disasters. Good people, atheist included, have come to humanity's rescue.

    Please good people, many mothers cried to their death for the loss of their children due to the abuses. The RCC didn't care, they cared of reputation first. And the bishops who create deflections as this? One abused me, a present bishop in NYS, when I was only 8. He protected others. The bottom line is that there are many more than 5% in NY, that is fact.

    May 19, 2011 at 7:32 am |
  15. petel2

    And when does the US government hod this organization accountable for the worst crimes against humanity?

    The majority of victims never received justice. In NY, lawmakers stop laws that would preserve victims justice. Many victims committed suicideee and others mentally ill due to the abuses. Had these children received care instead of demanded threats as dictated from the pope down, many children would have lived to their potential. The actions of this religion are disgusting and putrid

    May 19, 2011 at 7:27 am |
    • Reality

      The Twenty (or so) Worst Crimes Against Humanity:

      http://necrometrics.com/warstatz.htm#u (a "must read)

      o The Muslim Conquest of India

      "The likely death toll is somewhere between 2 million and 80 million. The geometric mean of those two limits is 12.7 million. "

      Rank <<<Death Toll <Cause <<Centuries<<<(Religions/Groups involved)*

      1. 63 million Second World War 20C (Christians et al and Communists/atheists vs. Christians et al, Nazi-Pagan and "Shintoists")

      2. 40 million Mao Zedong (mostly famine) 20C (Communism)

      3. 40 million Genghis Khan 13C (Shamanism or Tengriism)

      4. 27 million British India (mostly famine) 19C (Anglican)

      5. 25 million Fall of the Ming Dynasty 17C (Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Chinese folk religion)

      6. 20 million Taiping Rebellion 19C ( Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese folk religion vs. a form of Christianity)

      7. 20 million Joseph Stalin 20C (Communism)

      8. 19 million Mideast Slave Trade 7C-19C (Islam)

      9. 17 million Timur Lenk 14C-15C

      10. 16 million Atlantic Slave Trade 15C-19C (Christianity)

      11. 15 million First World War 20C (Christians vs. Christians)

      12. 15 million Conquest of the Americas 15C-19C (Christians vs. Pagans)

      13. 13 million Muslim Conquest of India 11C-18C

      14. 10 million An Lushan Revolt 8C

      15. 10 million Xin Dynasty 1C

      16. 9 million Russian Civil War 20C (Christians vs Communists)

      17. 8 million Fall of Rome 5C (Pagans vs. Pagans)

      18. 8 million Congo Free State 19C-20C (Christians)

      19. 7½ million Thirty Years War 17C (Christians vs Christians)

      20. 7½ million Fall of the Yuan Dynasty 14C

      *:" Is religion responsible for more violent deaths than any other cause?

      A: No, of course not – unless you define religion so broadly as to be meaningless. Just take the four deadliest events of the 20th Century – Two World Wars, Red China and the Soviet Union – no religious motivation there, unless you consider every belief system to be a religion."

      Q: So, what you're saying is that religion has never killed anyone.

      A: Arrgh... You all-or-nothing people drive me crazy. There are many doc-umented examples where members of one religion try to exterminate the members of another religion. Causation is always complex, but if the only difference between two warring groups is religion, then that certainly sounds like a religious conflict to me. Is it the number one cause of mass homicide in human history? No. Of the 22 worst episodes of mass killing, maybe four were primarily religious. Is that a lot? Well, it's more than the number of wars fought over soccer, or s-ex (The Trojan and Sabine Wars don't even make the list.), but less than the number fought over land, money, glory or prestige.

      In my Index, I list 41 religious conflicts compared with 27 oppressions under "Communism", 24 under Colonialism, 2 under "Railroads" and 2 under "Scapegoats". Make of that what you will."

      May 19, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • Realist

      Better educate yourself. In fact child trauma is #1 for the destruction of mankind. Most those in control who have caused destruction to mankind were traumatized as children <- this group externalized. Most mentally ill and those who committed suicide, not born as such, were most likely traumatized as children. <- those who internalized.
      The root cause to over 84% of all chaos in society is directly and indirectly related to childhood trauma.
      You miss the root cause. In fact all your 'crimes against humanity' are likely contributed to childhood trauma.
      Now the REAL disasters are the cover ups, threats and lobbying the RCC does to stop laws from exposing crimes and preventing society from taking action against the worst criminals.

      Who are the worst criminals?
      Ans. It can be said that those who harm were mentally ill. However those who caused the cover ups, were not. This group could have saved the child and even helped the one who harmed, but reputation was far more important. Yes, those who covered it up and did nothing ARE the worst criminals of all. They cared of themselves over the lives of small children.

      Who could stoop so low?
      Politicians that protect the RCC and the RCC hierarchy, from the pope down.

      May 19, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Reality


      The scientific references to support your statements are?

      May 19, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Petel

      Going through the scientific studies at childrescuebill. org on the right hand side. WOW.I suggest you read it.. Good site

      May 19, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.