Scandal Déjà Vu

A religion writer for a secular news organization and a retired church official were comparing notes on developments relating to clergy sex abuse. At the time, the Vatican was preparing to issue guidelines for bishops’ conferences in handling the problem (the American conference has had guidelines for nine years). The U.S. bishops were getting ready to release a long-awaited study of the causes. And, in just a few weeks, the bishops as a group were to debate amendments to their abuse policy.

“And this,” the former church official remarked, “is what we call putting the issue behind us.”

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As noted, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will again be working on putting the issue behind it at its June 15-17 general assembly in Seattle. The major item of business on the agenda is amending the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” adopted by the USCCB at its Dallas meeting in June 2002 — at the height of the outcry over disclosures of cover-up of sex abuse of children by Catholic priests, which had been appearing in the Boston Globe and other media for months.

As further noted, the bishops’ deliberations in Seattle will take place against the background of yet another flurry of interest in the abuse issue generated by new events. Possibly the most notable of these is the May 18 release of a study commissioned back in 2002 by the bishops’ conference.

The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, is the work of researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Carried out at a cost of $1.8 million, filling 143 oversized double-column pages, and accompanied by 481 footnotes, the study may in time be accepted as the authoritative account of what happened and why. But — predictably — its appearance was greeted with skepticism or worse by victims’ groups and a variety of sources on the Catholic left and right.

On the whole, Causes and Context is relatively good news for the Church. As has been reported before, sexual abuse by minors rose sharply in the 1960s, peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then went into a sharp and continuing decline starting in 1985. By 2010 (according to figures collected for USCCB by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate), only seven credible allegations of new sex abuse by priests were reported to American dioceses.

Although new abuse is down, however, abuse in the past unquestionably left tragedy and disaster in its wake. Since 1950, American dioceses are said to have received abuse claims from more than 15,700 people directed against about 6,000 priests. American Catholics have paid out well over $2 billion in settlements and related costs. Seven dioceses, the Oregon province of the Society of Jesus, and the Christian Brothers of North America have filed for bankruptcy.


What caused clergy sex abuse?

The John Jay study rejects the idea that it was celibacy. But it also rejects the idea that the cause was homosexuality — even though more than 80 percent of the abuse victims were boys. The researchers sum up this way: “The clinical data do not support the hypothesis that priests with a homosexual identity or those who committed same-sex sexual behavior with adults are significantly more likely to abuse children than those with a heterosexual orientation or behavior.” Similarly, the problem wasn’t pedophilia. Only 5 percent of the abusive priests were pedophiles – -men attracted to young children.

So what did cause the trouble? The study sees a combination of causes at work. Seminary education in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s typically provided seminarians with little or nothing in the way of “human formation” (an omission that has since been corrected). As a result, some of these priests faced the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s psychologically unprepared to handle the pressure — and some of them succumbed.

This explanation does not satisfy conservatives who are sure homosexuality was the problem. The argument will go on.

Meanwhile, the uncovering of old cases of abuse and cover-up continues to bedevil the Church. The most conspicuous case in point lately has been Philadelphia, where a grand jury report in February accused the archdiocese of mishandling the cases of 37 priests. The archdiocese then placed 26 priests on administrative leave. Several priests and a monsignor formerly in charge of clergy assignments are facing trial.

The chairman of the USCCB committee on protecting children calls the Philadelphia situation an “anomaly.” There is another anomaly in the latest report on compliance with the national policy, which found two small dioceses — Lincoln, Nebraska, and Baker, Oregon — continuing to refuse cooperation with these annual surveys. Several jurisdictions of Eastern Churches are in the same boat, but their problem appears to be lack of resources. With Lincoln and Baker, it’s a matter of principle.

It also was a matter of principle in 1992 for bishops who refused to accept and implement five sensible principles for the handling of sexual abuse, promulgated on a voluntary basis by the conference of bishops. “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do in my diocese” was the typical rationale. And so the stage was set for the calamities of 2002.

Of the many lessons in the sex-abuse scandal, the most important may concern accountability. The Causes and Context study closes on that note. Declaring that “transparency/accountability” should be part of the “ordinary practice and culture” of every diocese, the document notes that this happy state of affairs “has not yet been realized.”

How much more harm and embarrassment will the Church have to suffer before it is? As the bishops go about their work in Seattle, that question should be at the very top of their list. And let us hope the deliberations of the USCCB, instead of taking place in executive sessions as they so often do, are a model of transparency and accountability for a change.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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