Clergy sex crisis: A 'historical problem' that still haunts Church

Back in June 2002, the American bishops hoped they were putting the scandal of sex abuse of children by priests behind them by adopting a strong “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” Nine years later, as they prepare to revise the charter, the image of scandal still haunts the bishops and the rest of the Church. 

Not that things haven’t gotten better. The latest survey of U.S. dioceses found only seven credible allegations of new sex abuse against seven priests in 2010. Another 338 allegations, many from decades ago and some cases involving priests now dead, were reported for the first time. 

The numbers, collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, provide part of the background for the June 15-17 spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Seattle. Amending the charter is its main business item. 

Further input for the bishops’ deliberations comes from a major new study carried out by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and released May 18 at USCCB headquarters in Washington, D.C. 

“The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” says the abuse soared starting in the 1960s, peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and after 1985 began a “marked decline in incidents” in all regions of the country. The researchers attribute the decline to activism by victims, attention given to the problem by the bishops’ conference and steps taken in many dioceses. 

In a statement, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of USCCB, expressed hope that the experience of the Church in America would be a model for the Church elsewhere and for “all of society.” The John Jay study is thought to be the most extensive professional probe of sex abuse of children carried out by any group so far. 

‘Historical problem’ 

Since 1950, U.S. dioceses are said to have received abuse claims from more than 15,700 people directed against about 6,000 priests. The scandal has cost the Church more than $2 billion in payments to victims and related costs. Seven dioceses, the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus and the Christian Brothers of North America have filed for bankruptcy. 

Although sex abuse of minors by priests had been reported earlier, the problem took on the dimensions of a national scandal only in 2002. That was when reports — first in the Boston Globe, then in many other media — showed that clergy sex abuse had often been hushed up, with offending priests routinely reassigned after receiving ineffective treatment. 

The John Jay study takes a sobering look at this episode in recent Church history and may in time be accepted as the standard account of what happened. But no sooner was it published than several of its conclusions came under fire. 

Based on analysis of the data, the study says neither celibacy nor homosexuality was the cause of the abuse. Conservative Catholics hailed the first finding, but some expressed skepticism about the second, since more than 80 percent of the abuse victims were boys. 

On homosexuality, the study, in part, says this: 

“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.” 

The study also found that only about 5 percent of the abusive priests were pedophiles — men whose sexual orientation focused on young children. 

As to the source of the abuse, the study cites a convergence of factors, including seminary education of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s that failed to give seminarians “human formation,” thus leaving some ill-equipped to cope with the cultural and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. In that era, it notes, other forms of “deviant” behavior like drug use, crime, premarital sex and divorce also shot up. 

In the last several decades, it adds, seminary programs have been revamped to provide the kind of formation that was missing earlier. 

Summing up, researchers called abuse by priests “a historical problem” — in other words, its increase and its decrease both took place in the past. 

Suspected cover-up 

This is good news for the bishops. As has happened before, however, the good news finds itself having to compete with bad news that keeps suspicions of cover-up by the Church alive. 

In this instance, the bad news comes especially from Philadelphia. Last February, a grand jury there accused the archdiocese of mishandling the cases of 37 priests accused of abuse or other inappropriate behavior but not removed from ministry. The archdiocese subsequently placed 26 priests on administrative leave. Court cases are pending against several priests, as well as against a former chancery official who handled clergy assignments. 

Asked about Philadelphia during a news conference that accompanied the study’s release, Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., chairman of the USCCB committee on protection of children and young people, called the situation there an “anomaly.” 

Anomaly it may be. But as they head for Seattle to work on revising their child abuse charter, the bishops, like the rest of the Church, have yet to put the sex abuse scandal behind them. 

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.