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. Stash

    Just another coverup by the church.

    May 18, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  2. newengland2

    50% was parents caused. Never allow your kid to stay with adult alone, even a God.

    May 18, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • Faux Paws

      You got it. Parents are responsible to be absolutely certain their kids are safe, This includes at church, at school, at Boy Scouts, everywhere.

      May 19, 2011 at 4:25 am |
  3. kathleen

    here's a stab in the dark... maybe the cause was men who were in a position of power and control who abused the power? and who had supervisors who turned a blind eye to their abuse? glad they cleared up that 'gayness' wasn't a cause though

    May 18, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
  4. Colin

    Catholicism is the belief that an infinitely old, all-knowing, being, powerful enough to create the entire Universe and its billions of galaxies, has a personal interest in my $ex life.

    Atheism is the belief that the above belief is silly.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  5. Dan

    OOhh – oohh – I know, I know...
    the "cause" for abuse is:


    there, I won't even charge you money.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:51 pm |
  6. steve

    I think most people have this argument wrong. I truly believe that pedophiles seek out an environment where parents trust them with their children. What better than being a priest (at least in the past). Based on personnal experience when I was a kid (nothing happened to me) a young man who wanted to be priest asked my parents if he could take me to Disneyland. My gut feeling was that this was just a test to see what he could get away with.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
  7. Brian

    I am Catholic 36 years old Male and life long Catholic never have I ever been abused by a priest. I had a great relationship with our priest especially in our youth group when I was older. I have never known a priest or known anyone who was abused by a priest my whole life. Every Catholic I know the same thing. It is not because it is NOT talked about it is because it does not happen as often as people and the media says it does. It was not the 1960's and 1970's when this was talked about and since the 1980's it was not. It is because this is overblown in the media because the Catholic church is an easy target.
    Nor am I saying that there was not abuse by some priests. There were. What I am saying is that it is not as COMMON as the media has popularized it. It did and sometimes happen when some people are put in positions of power.
    As for the idea of letting priests marry it would stop this. No, not really. How many do Preachers have had affairs with members of their congregation? How many abused children still?
    What is sad is yes it happened. Yes, in many Dioceses did not follow procedure to let the civil authorities to take these abusers by not doing so they have let the perception that all Priests are pedophiles persist and fuel the hatred people have toward a religion.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • clergyvictim

      you say you do not know anyone who is a victim. Well, you may, they just haven't felt "comfortable" talking about it - takek Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts - he's talked about it TO A POINT – but has not named his perpetrator. If you'd like to "learn" what abuse does to a person, check the following: http://www.vimeo.com/13900438 In this cable program we produced (2 other victims and myself) we want (1) to reach out to victims and (2) to teach other non-victims what happens to someone when abused. The three of us represent male and female, abused as children and vulnerable adult, and victims of priest and college professor.

      May 20, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  8. Colin

    You know, none of the "causes" they cited would cause me to put my hand down a little boy's pants. It's pretty simple, men who swear off ever tou-ching a woman in their early 20s, when their tes-tosterone is clsoe to its lifetime high, are not interested in women. As such, one will get a greater percentage of pedophiles.

    Couple this with ready access to children and an insti-tution more interested in protecting itself and covering up and the results are almost inevitable.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
  9. Ben Thare

    This report is about as absurd as ordering a hamburger in a vegan restaurant. It's all smoke and mirrors.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
  10. YBP

    Why are we pretending not to see a pattern here? Hairdresser, Florist, Interior Designer, Chorus Boy...

    May 18, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • Correct

      Exactly, YBP, thank you....a priest is no more likely to be a pedophile statistically than any other profession. And, no, I am not Roman Catholic. I am a survivor who hates the spread of misinformation.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • Faux Paws

      You are a complete idiot. Whatever you do, don't take your head out of the sand. Your "pattern" in my neighborhood, includes pro hockey players, and pro and college football players

      May 19, 2011 at 4:28 am |
  11. leah tard

    How many other sects do you hear about this problem? LET THEM MARRY! It is a man made law. to the athiest. what you believe is up to you, your choice. Its also mine. What are you so afraid of if religion isnt reaj?

    May 18, 2011 at 8:26 pm |
    • YBP

      If priests are expected to marry, you'll need to find a whole new kind of guy to sign up. Not the current lot.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
    • trunkit

      pedophilia is a widespread problem among the leaders of all faiths and even all professions. The only difference is that the media reports more on priests pedophiles, while not discussing the frequent abuse of teachers, daycare workers and every day professions.

      Celibacy has nothing to do with pedophilia. It is a disease that affects all people, regardless of marital status or profession.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
  12. Koga001

    I know a way to test for priests who may abuse children. If they want to become a priest, then obviously there is something wrong with them.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  13. Skysearch

    How much money was wasted on this study? After simply watching this horrific mess unfold, believe I've identified the reason the RCC is plagued by pedophiles. How does this sound...

    There are no greener pastures for pedophiles on this planet than the RCC. You are given power over a flock of children, they've been indoctrinated to believe the church is infallable, and if you get caught... not only do you have the support of the bishops, but you actually get placed with a whole new flock of unsuspecting victims.

    Sort of like a fox deciding it wants to work at KFC. Not really that hard to figure out.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  14. justmy2cents

    one reason... hmmm maybe when the pope banned marriage just so the church didnt have to worry about losing property in family wills.. where did that get them oh yeah bankruptcy

    May 18, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  15. carolyn

    The money they spent on this study could have been given to their victims. Why anybody would stay in the Catholic church is beyond me. They are nothing but a bunch of hypocrits and perverts.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
  16. Stop hating

    Get rid of celebacy and allow priests to marry.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • YBP

      Then the faithful will have to keep their daughters away from Father, rather than their sons. Marriage doesn't solve the problem entirely. It only changes the dynamic.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
  17. Charlotte

    Oh, come on. I'd say there is a single undeerlying reason that the Church has a staggeringly high rate of these incidents – far greater than the population in general. It's the stupid requirement of celibacy and not marrying for the clergy. Much as we would like to think we are creatures of intellect (and 'spiritual' if you believe in that), fundamentally a human being is still a mammal with hormones and hard-wired survival and behavoir urges that can be overwhelmingly strong at times. A healthy, normal lifestyle for an adult male, which includes having a mate (usually female, i.e., a wife, but not necessarily) goes a long way toward reducing the likelihood of inappropriate behavior of this sort. That's why in the rest of the population, these sorts of abuse incidents are much less per capita (yes, they still occur, but not at nearly the rate).

    May 18, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • wzrd1

      That doesn't explain the pedophilia or the little boys.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • YBP

      @wzrd: We aren't really talking about little boys. We're talking about teens and young men...some victims, some confused, some engaging willfully, all looking to cash in.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • Incorrect


      It is estimated that 4% of the general population suffers from a s#x-ual orientation towards children so less than 5% of priests is in keeping with the national average. Over 50% of all reported cases of abuse involve one of the parents so clearly marriage has nothing to do with it. Another 18 – 20% of abusers are other family members of which some of those are married as well. Being married has nothing to do with r@ping a child. My childhood r@pist is married with children of his own. My own brother is a registered offender with a wife and two kids.

      Having a strong s3x-ual urge has nothing to do with pedophilia either. Please do some basic research before you post "facts" such as this type of abuse occurs more with priests than the rest of society. Kids are much, much more likely to be abused in their own home than in church.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • wt

      If the percentages are about equal, as you stated, then a child is not more likely to be abused in the home. The percentage relates the national average of all abuse to that of abuse occurring within the Catholic Church. The abuse inside the home with a family member is below the 4% because that abuse is just part of the national average, which ironically includes the 5% church abuse that you stated. You need to address your math issues in using this argument to attempt to debunk. It is plainly not supportive of your assertion.

      May 18, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  18. dude

    Breaking News: The Bishops find no single reason for abuse... But, 99% connected to to those are attracted to celibate priesthood and who often have stunned emotional/relational maturity.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • wzrd1

      Celibacy started over the church becoming concerned about priests sons inheriting church property. Period.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • some guy

      While I agree that the Catholic church has weak reasons for celibacy, it is a weak argument for pedophilia. Pedophilia happens in school districts and there is no celibacy rule there. It also happens in churches other than the Catholic church that allow married priests. The bottom line is that nomatter what you believe in, humans are inherently broken, and things like this happen. This is not an excuse, but we each have a responsibility to be attentive to all people who deal with our children – clergy and laity.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  19. midwestmatt

    Pedophilia is the single root cause for all adult on minor abuse. To assert otherwise is absurd and is nothing more than than the church trying to cloud the issue and sidestep their complicity.

    The 60s and 70s were part of the problem??? Who are you trying to kid?

    Some priests are molesters and the church did not deal with them for what they were, criminals. By not calling in the authorities when they should have, the church administrators became criminals themselves. Shame on them.

    May 18, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • wzrd1

      The 60's and 70's was when people finally spoke up about it! My PARENTS knew about such things, but literally feared excommunication from the church, which WAS what the church did to victims and their families if they spoke out earlier in the century and before. Things have changed a lot since my parents were born in 1930 and 1932.
      Centuries ago, an excommunicated person was an outlaw, literally. Nobody was permitted to do business with them, sell food or even speak to them. The lords that owned the land could kill them on sight.
      It wasn't until the 1960's onward that society grew up enough to realize the empty threat and start taking the church to task.
      Pity that the church failed to police their own ranks, internationally. Perhaps the US should start serving search warrants on Catholic churches as some European nations have.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  20. Daryl

    There is one single cause for sodom and abuse of children in the Catholic church,,,,,,,,,SIN!

    May 18, 2011 at 8:04 pm |
    • YBP

      Thanks, Daryl for shedding light on this very simple matter. Now we all understand it much better.

      May 18, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • trunkit

      Here are the facts about pedophilia and the Catholic Church. Make of it what you will:

      1) Pedophilia is a disorder that exists within people of all walks of life, but especially occurs or is acted upon by men.
      It doesn't matter if one is a celibate priest, a married baptist preacher or a police officer with a steady girlfriend. They all are just as likely to molest a child.
      2) The 60s and 70s were a problematic time because there was a new interest in psychology as a way of treating people, from alcoholism to pedophilia. Priests work for their local bishop, not the Vatican, and many bishops bought into the idea that priests could be treated through psychological counselling. Men would get 'treated' only to be returned to ministry and harm more children. We know now that pedophiles cannot be treated and should never be released back into the world.

      Before the 60s and 70s, priests would be removed from ministry immediately. Afterwards, there were more psychological testing of potential priests and bishops were not buying into the idea that priests can be treated. That is why they report a sharp decline.

      May 18, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
    • Faux Paws

      You realize what you're saying about yourself when you say that ? So your experience of that stuff is "temptation" and 'sin " ? That's how you experience it ? OMG. Isn't that TMI ?

      May 19, 2011 at 4:33 am |
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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.