The Church Paid $1.8 Million, and All I Got Was This Lousy Report

When you spend US$1.8 million to identify the causes of a crisis, you expect more for your money than, “well, you know, it’s really, really complicated.” But this is the message of a five-year investigation into the sexual abuse crisis in the US Catholic Church.

“The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2002”, released this week, was commissioned by the US bishops conference but written by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, a world-renowned institution for criminological research.

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It paints a convincing statistical picture of an organisation which stumbled badly decades ago, but has successfully moved to root out systemic abuses. However, statistics and criminology are blunt tools for unravelling history, theology, and sociology.

The 144-page report’s strong suit is number-crunching. Child abuse anywhere, and especially amongst clergy, is such an appalling offence that no crime statistics can ever explain it fully. But “Causes and Context” will at least serve as a reference point for future debate. Here are some of its conclusions:

A very, very small proportion of priests was involved in child sexual abuse. Of the 109,694 priests in service in the United States between 1950 and 2002, only 4,392 were credibly accused. Of these, only 138 were convicted and only 100 served time in prison.

Most offending priests were not paedophiles. Fewer than 5 percent of the 4,392 priests accused between 1950 and 2002 can accurately be termed “paedophiles” who abuse prepubescent children. That is roughly 292 priests out of the 109,694 men – about 0.3 percent — who served in ministry during those years.

The incidence of abuse peaked in the 1970s and declined steeply after 1985. According to the report, “The count of incidents per year increased steadily from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, then declined in the 1980s and continues to remain low.” The report attributes the rise to the sexual revolution and the decline to greater discipline within the Church and less social tolerance for deviant behaviour.

What increased after 1985 — astronomically — was the number of complaints. Between 1950 and 1985, when the ghastly story of Gilbert Gauthe, an abusive priest in Louisiana, became known, only 810 incidents were reported. However, it subsequently came to light that more than 11,000 of them had taken place. Decades may pass before people who were abused as children summon up the courage to lodge complaints. But the torrent of complaints came long after the problem had been brought more or less under control.

The root of the problem is not mandatory celibacy. The report — which was not written by bishops — observes that “Celibacy has been constant in the Catholic Church since the eleventh century and could not account for the rise and subsequent decline in abuse cases from the 1960s through the 1980s.” Furthermore, the authors observe that infidelity does not mean that matrimony should be discarded. Similarly, celibacy, demanding as it may be, loses none of its value because some men fail to live it.

Catholic bishops were not mean-spirited blockheads. Admittedly, there was a lack of transparency in dealing with abuse, there was a lack of external accountability, and there was little sympathetic contact with victims before 2002. However, the impression that bishops huddled in the dark until they were forced blinking into the sunlight by the media is false.

“By 1985, diocesan leaders knew that sexual abuse of minors by priests was a problem, even though they did not know the extent of the problem at that time. As a group, their responses to abuse allegations changed substantially through the last quarter century, and they moved much more quickly, decisively, and appropriately to deal with abusers. As individual diocesan leaders, they responded with varying levels of urgency to the abuse allegations. Some, the ‘innovators,’ understood the harmfulness of the acts and moved to implement policies to reduce abuse and remove abusers early on. Others’ responses lagged behind, thus creating an image that the church generally was not responsive to victims.”

The Catholic Church is not dangerous for children. Paradoxically the Church has been criticised harshly because it has been far more open than other organisations and because people have higher expectations for it. “No other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church,” say the researchers. “Other organizations should follow suit.”

Many Protestant denominations are too small or too decentralised to report abuse. Members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been expelled for speaking out about abuse. Orthodox Jews refuse to deal with sexual abuse in the criminal justice system and investigate instead in rabbinical courts. Vigilance will always be needed to prevent sexual abuse of children, but to say that Catholic priests are dangerous is as preposterous as it is malicious.

Now for the bad news.

Some vital statistics in “Causes and Context” are unreliable. The lurid figure which obsesses everyone is the number of “paedophile priests”, men who have abused prepubescent children. Obviously this will increase as the age increases. “Causes and Context” uses the age of 10, which implies that 22 percent of the victims were prepubescent. If it had used age 13, the percentage of paedophiles would be higher. But the report says that “Though development happens at varying ages for children, the literature generally refers to eleven and older as an age of pubescence or postpubescence”. What literature? This crucial point is not even footnoted. This leaves a gaping hole in the report’s credibility — which the Laurie Goodstein, of the New York Timesimmediately pounced on.

How about the vital statistic in the report’s title? Who is a “minor”? Presumably anyone who has not yet turned 18. But this is not made explicit and the term is not even defined in the report’s glossary. What about a mentally retarded man of 28? Isn’t he a minor?

As far as the causes go, “Causes and Context” is agnostic. There was no single cause. There was the Swinging 60s; there was a relaxation of discipline in the priesthood; there was inadequate formation in seminaries; there was dissent over celibacy. But the issue is too tangled for a simple solution. Priests who abused were no different, statistically speaking, from priests who did not abuse.

Nonetheless, one shaft of light pierces the cloud of unknowing: the crisis had nothing whatsoever to do with homosexual priests. “The data do not support a finding that homosexual identity and/or preordination same-sex sexual behaviour are significant risk factors for the sexual abuse of minors.”

If this is true, why were so many boys abused? Simply because abusive priests had more access to boys, says “Causes and Context”. One statistic that supports this is that although the number of incidents of abuse dropped substantially in the last decade, the proportion of abused girls rose from about 12 percent in the 70s to 45 percent in 2002. This presumably happened because predatory clergy now had access to altar girls.

Nonetheless, airbrushing homosexuality from the crisis strikes a non-academic reader as counter-intuitive, not to say loopy. Catholic League President Bill Donohue sputtered: “81 percent of the victims were male and 78 percent were postpubescent. Since 100 percent of the abusers were male, that’s called homosexuality, not paedophilia or heterosexuality.” “Causes and Context” fails to dispell this scepticism.

Two unresolved debates lie behind the report’s view of homosexuality. The first is academic: what is sexual identity? The authors of the report stress that “It is important to note that sexual behavior does not necessarily correspond to a particular sexual identity”. In other words, committing homosexual acts does not necessarily mean that a person is a homosexual. This highly controversial contention is accepted without demur.

The second is pastoral: whether homosexuals ought to be priests. The law of the Church used to refer to homosexual acts by priests as the “crimen pessimum“, the worst crime. In 2004 the Vatican clarified that men with “deep-seated homosexual tendencies” should not become priests. The bar of holiness is being set very low if a priest is scrupulous about avoiding minors but spends his day off cruising gay bars.

But some Catholics still believe that homosexuals should be welcomed to the priesthood. The editor of the magazine America, Jesuit Father James Martin, for example, argued this week that the Church needs more openly homosexual, albeit celibate, priests:

“One of the main reasons that many persist in thinking that homosexuality is the root cause of the abuse crisis, and that homosexual priests are mainly pedophiles, is because there are almost no ‘public’ models of healthy, mature, loving celibate homosexual priests to rebut that stereotype.”

The report also puts forward another counter-intuitive argument to prove that homosexual priests were not responsible. In the 1980s and 90s, precisely when abuse dropped so sharply, the seminaries were pink palaces full of homosexuals. It even cites some rather thin research which suggests that “40 percent of the priests aged thirty-six to fifty-five, who would have been seminarians in the 1980s and 1990s, reported that there was a clear homosexual subculture in the seminaries they had attended”. One suspects that “Causes and Context” is subtly supporting the case for welcoming homosexuals into the priesthood.

In the end, despite its sheaves of figures and table, “Causes and Context” raises more questions than it answers and will make no one happy. Of the three most popular explanations for the reeking stench of child abuse — bad bishops, bad celibacy, and bad gays, the report ticks “none of the above”. But when a crime has destroyed the lives of thousands of innocent children, bankrupted dioceses, and blackened the reputation of the Church, “stuff happens” is not good enough.

Can the bishops get a refund?


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  • Michael Cook

    Michael Cook is the editor of He earned a BA at Harvard University and later moved to Australia where he pursued a career in journalism.

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