The persistent crisis

The reaction to the long-awaited John Jay report on the causes and context of the clergy sexual abuse crisis may lead to a new adage: No responsible deed goes unpunished. 

In 2002, as the Boston debacle unfolded and the U.S. bishops rushed to Dallas to make iron-clad what in 1992 had only been suggestions for how dioceses should handle sex abuse allegations, the bishops committed themselves to studies of both the abuse crisis itself and the underlying reasons for it. 

To make sure the study was objective and useful, the bishops brought in social research organizations, including the John Jay College for Criminal Justice in New York. 

The John Jay study took five years and almost $2 million to complete, with half of the funding provided by the U.S. bishops. 

Yet what could have been seen as a groundbreaking example of institutional transparency and self-criticism has instead been dismissed, ridiculed, and even seen as further evidence of a cover-up. 

Many of the initial headlines and stories in the secular press emphasized that the study had been funded by the Church itself, a perfect Catch-22, since without such funding, it would never have been done. 

And if anyone really believes such funding corrupted the report’s authors, then the real newspaper headlines should have been, “World-famous criminal justice college bribed to participate in a whitewash.” 

Critics of the report, which is available on the bishops’ website, focus on several issues: 

◗ It relies on the self-reporting of the bishops: Well, yes it does. But the large number of cases studied, and the trend lines for the patterns of abuse, peaking in the 1970s and declining by the late 1980s, all suggest a solid sampling, even if it were not exhaustive. 

◗ It does not examine the role of the bishops: In fact, the report does comment on the bishops — their effort to focus on treatment for the priest-abusers while remaining oblivious, unfortunately, to the victims for too long. But the report notes that society as a whole was slow to this same realization regarding sexual abuse. 

◗ It makes too much of the fact that only 5 percent of priests were true pedophiles: But this is true. The sexual abuse crisis is not fundamentally a pedophile crisis, although the most horrific stories do involve pedophiles. 

◗ The report seeks to blame popular culture and the changing mores of the 1960s and 1970s rather than corruption in the Church: The study makes a strong case that one factor in the scandal was a cultural sea change that took place in terms of sexual practice and society. Priests who were poorly trained in sexual matters, increasingly isolated and without intimate (not sexual) human friendships were swept along in the same cultural tidal wave that led to spiraling rates of divorce, pre-marital and extramarital sex, pornography and child abuse throughout America. 

At the end of the day, the Church responded to allegations of sexual abuse like many other institutions. 

But it appears to be unlike other institutions in one crucial aspect, the report’s authors note: “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.”  

This is the headline we still hope to see some day: That other institutions in society — let’s start with schools — take the same steps as the Church in auditing and studying the abuse in their midst. 

Unless one is willing to argue that the 200,000 children who are abused every year in this country are only victims of Catholic priests, then the persistent scandal is that we are blind to the persistent crisis. 

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.