The role of homosexuality in the American clergy sex abuse scandal has been ripe for debate in the weeks after a John Jay College of Criminal Justice report said it found no evidence that homosexual priests were to blame for the crisis.
Commentators have accused the researchers who drafted the $1.8 million report for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops of intellectual dishonesty, suggesting that they were afraid to criticize homosexuality because of possible repercussions in the academic world.
“The conclusion the authors come to is not supported by their own data,” said William A. Donohue, who has a doctorate in sociology and is president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
He wrote a 24-page analysis on the John Jay report, available on the Catholic League’s website, in which he said the report had some good findings, but he took the study’s authors to task for being disingenuous about the topic of homosexuality.
“These John Jay professors were basically intimidated from telling the truth about what’s going on,” he told Our Sunday Visitor.
Not so, said Margaret Smith, a criminologist and data analyst who served on the John Jay research team. She said the political correctness accusations were “imaginary,” and told OSV that it is simplistic to say that homosexual priests were abusing victims because more than 81 percent of abuse cases from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s involved male victims, with 78 percent of those victims being postpubescent.
Issues of emotional maturity, the loosening social mores during the 1960s, the inability of some priests to handle the shifting social landscape and greater access to males, especially altar servers, all contributed to the crisis, Smith said. She noted the case of Father Marcial Maciel, the disgraced Legion of Christ founder who is known to have had abused young seminarians and had sexual relationships with at least two women.
“Was Father Maciel a homosexual?” Smith asked rhetorically. “If you want to say anyone who has sexual contact with someone of the same sex is a homosexual, well, that’s not the definition of a homosexual.”
Matter of opportunity
The report — titled “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” — found no evidence that celibacy or homosexuality contributed to abuse.
While more boys than girls were abused, the researchers said that happened because priests had greater access to boys. The disproportionate number of male victims was actually about opportunity, not preference or pathology.
The researchers said they found that priests who had same-sex sexual experiences either before or during seminary were more likely to have sex after ordination, but with adults, not minors. They also noted that as more self-described homosexuals began entering seminaries in the 1970s, the incidence of abuse began to decline.
Sexual identity was a key factor for the John Jay researchers to say that homosexuality was not a direct factor in abuse, even though the vast majority of victims were males. The only significant risk factor related to sexual identity and behavior was a “confused” sexual identity, which was found most commonly among abusers who were ordained before the 1960s.
“The question is this: If you define them as homosexual by their deviant, abusive behavior, then you say that it doesn’t matter what they thought of themselves or what they did later on in life. It doesn’t make sense,” Smith said. “The men who committed the majority of the abuse cannot be called homosexual unless you stretch the definition really thin.”
However, Donohue said researchers were trying to dodge an obvious conclusion with a “fanciful notion of sexual identity.”
“It doesn’t matter if they didn’t know they were homosexual,” he said.
He also found fault with the argument that the priest-abusers targeted males more often because they had greater access to them.
“I spent four years in the United States Air Force, and never once did I, or any of the guys I knew, except the homosexuals, try to have sex with other men,” he said.
Donohue argues in his analysis of the John Jay report that four related events emerged that can explain the abuse crisis:
After the Second Vatican Council, there was an exodus of heterosexual priests. That left behind a greater percentage of homosexual priests at a time where tolerance for sexual expression was becoming evident in the seminaries. That led many previously celibate homosexual priests to act out, Donohue said, adding that there was “a surge” in homosexuals entering the seminary.
With the advent of the AIDS crisis during the 1980s, the “party was over,” and the abuse began declining precipitously, Donohue said, and added that homosexuality does not automatically make someone a predator, but argued that it could not be overlooked.
“Not a single scholar or pundit can say that what I’m saying is not true,” Donohue told OSV. “The behavioral and social scientists oversold their authority and competency in this area.”
Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a leading expert on clerical sex abuse and the director of the Institute for Marital Healing, located in West Conshohocken, Pa., agreed that there appeared to be an ideological resistance to criticize homosexuality, and that criminologists did not have the training or expertise to dismiss homosexuality as a factor.
“This is a question for the mental health professionals. The fundamental issue to be looked at here is to determine what causes a man to act out in ways contrary to his nature as a man and his vocation as a priest,” he told OSV.
Fitzgibbons, who has treated several priests who abused adolescent males, said all the priests he counseled had experienced same-sex attraction early in their lives. The assertion that the abuse was a crime of opportunity does not explain the cause of predatory behavior.
“It’s a severe, psychological disorder within the priest with same-sex attractions, who also carries significant emotional conflicts and narcissism,” Fitzgibbons said.
“The attempted explanations in the John Jay report are blatantly inadequate. Priests have a right to know the conflicts inside a man that would cause him to victimize adolescent males,” he told OSV. “Healthy men want to protect adolescent males and help them. Healthy men do not abuse adolescent males.
“The bishops should ask for an analysis from psychologists and psychiatrists who are above the influence of political correctness,” Fitzgibbons said. “It’s very important to have a second opinion on this data.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts
[Updated 6/17/11 at 2 p.m. Eastern time: For greater clarity, two instances in the penultimate paragraph of the word "men" were changed to "adolescent males" at Dr. Fitzgibbons' request.]
An Issue of Power (sidebar)
According to Elizabeth Scalia, a Catholic writer who blogs as The Anchoress, the homosexuality debate has clouded over what she said are the real causes of abuse.
“Sexual abuse ... is not about sexuality or sexual urgings. It is about power, and control,” Scalia wrote in a May 19 post.
Scalia said the homosexuality-as-culprit was a weak argument and added that not all homosexuals are incapable of making and keeping vows of celibacy.
Scalia, who has written about being abused by her father as a young girl, wrote that sexual abuse “is the provenance of a malformed, immature and cowardly mind that, as this report suggests, pulls its prey from what is available to it, what it has access to, and all you have to do is talk to male and female siblings who have suffered abuse by the same hand, to recognize the truth of it.”
By the Numbers (sidebar)
Age, gender breakdown of clergy sex abuse victims
1-7 years old - 203 boys, 287 girls
8-10 years old - 992 boys, 398 girls
11-14 years old - 4,282 boys, 734 girls
15-17 years old - 2,892 boys, 505 girls