by Frances Kissling

This past week, criminologists at the John Jay College of Criminal Law released a numbers crunching, statistically dense, spiritually troubling 144 page report which aimed to identify the causes and context of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests between 1950 to 2002. The report was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who have developed a partnership with John Jay College in their efforts to understand and prevent the sexual abuse of children by priests and sisters subsequent to the Boston Globe’s 2002 expose of the extent of sexual abuse and the inaction and cover up of the abuse by church leaders. It cost somewhere between 1.4 and 1.8 million dollars, half paid by the bishops’ conference, the other half underwritten by religious orders and Catholic organizations.

It comes almost ten years after the Globe investigative series and reading it was a bit like ripping a band-aid off a not-yet-healed wound. The Globe series shook Catholics around the world. The role Boston Cardinal Law and his fellow bishops had played in covering up the abuse, reassigning priests and stonewalling plaintiff lawyers and prosecutors was expected to cause either an exodus from the church or structural change that would lead to a clergy accountable to the faithful. Neither happened and most Catholics moved on. A few priests have gone to jail; a few dioceses have gone bankrupt; Law resigned, Pope John Paul gave him a cushy if powerless job in Rome and no other bishops or cardinals have paid any visible price.

But 2002 did set in place a corporate process designed in part to prevent future abuse and in part to protect the image of the American bishops. The causes and context study released last week is part of that process. We’d all like to know why men we had been led to believe cared about the well being of children more than anything in the world did unspeakably horrible things to them, but more importantly we’d like to know why they were allowed to do it; why so few church leaders understood what abusive behavior by the powerful and trusted does to the victims.

Jenny Holzer, United States, born 1950, Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise, ca. 1984, T-shirt with screen printing, Printed Art and Social Radicalism

The study focuses exhaustively and painfully on the priests as the locus of the problem. In doing so it was bound to fail to identify the internal and root causes of the problem of sexual abuse of children in the church. It concentrated so much on sex that it neglected the larger issue. The abuse of power by bishops and the Vatican is what permitted and will continue to permit — indeed, facilitate — sexual abuse. That abuse is experienced by children, women, priests, sisters, theologians – by anyone who is lower on the food chain than the abuser.

Sexual abuse is the extreme on the continuum of church abuse and violence. Like rape it is about power, not sex. It is seen in the silencing of theologians; in forbidding contraception which results in unintended pregnancy, maternal mortality and abortions that could have been avoided. It is about the control of local Catholic schools and parishes; evident in a history of moving priests from parishes they love simply because they were too popular; and it is seen in excessive pomp, the retention of medieval European costuming, palaces and privilege. The cause of the sexual abuse of children is ultimately the continuation of hierarchy and patriarchy; the inability to change, the stifling of the human spirit whether it is the spirit of children or the spirit of priests.

Good and decent people, extraordinary people, are in the leadership of the church; wonderful priests, great parish councils, a few decent bishops, Catholic school teachers, nurses, doctors, theologians – and almost none of them are truly free persons who speak their minds and hearts, who speak truth to power. The inability to speak truth to power – indeed, to simply speak the truth — is corrupting and is part of what leads to the sexual abuse of children.

No study, however solid, however honest and sincere, could capture that truth; could pinpoint the massive failures of justice and decency that permeate the institution of the Catholic church – and I believe the John Jay researchers did everything they thought they could do and not get fired; everything they thought they could do and still be heard by those who hold near absolute power in the American church. I am sure they had the goal of ending sexual abuse in the church.

In fact, the inability to tell it like it is probably led to the silliest hypothesis in the study, the notion that one of the reasons for the large number of sexually abused minors in the 1960’s and ‘70’s might be the sexual revolution. Suddenly, the criminologists start to sound like the Vatican – or Archie Bunker.

For the Causes and Context study, the social indicators found to be most relevant to the modeling of the change in incidence of sexual abuse are divorce, use of illegal drugs, and crime. Sexual abuse of a minor by a Catholic priest is an individual deviant act—an act by a priest that serves individual purposes and that is completely at odds or opposed to the principles of the institution. Divorce is an act also made for personal reasons that negates the institution of marriage. Illegal drug use and criminal acts violate social and legal norms of conduct, presumably at the will of
the offender. The recorded or reported incidence of each of these factors increased by 50 percent between 1960 and 1980. If the data for the annual divorce rate are compared to data for the annual rate of homicide and robbery, the time-series lines move in tandem. From stable levels in 1965, the rates increase sharply to a peak at or soon after 1980 and then begin to fall.

The authors’ turn to these social indicators after an exhaustive attempt to find clear causes other than systemic abuse of power. They do usefully demolish the causes that are favored by either those in favor of church reform or those who espouse a harsh social conservatism and unhappiness with the signs of modernism. Priest abusers they tell us are not homosexuals. “The data do not support a finding that homosexual identity and/or preordination same sex sexual behavior are significant risk factors for sexual abuse of minors.” Conservatives are bound to see pink in the very modern claim that sexual behavior and sexual identity are not the same thing. Why then were so many victims of clergy abuse boys? Because for most of the time period covered by the report – priests had more access to boys than girls. And, since most parishes in the U.S. now have altar girls as well as boys, by 2002 the proportion of sexually abused girls rose to 45% (from 12% in the 1970’s). This at a time, as the report notes, that priests ordained in the 1990’s acknowledged that the seminaries had many homosexual priests in training.

The researchers go further: “the most significant conclusion drawn from this data is that no single psychological, developmental, or behavioral characteristic differentiated priests who abused minors from those who did not.” They dismiss the reform view that mandatory celibacy contributed to the problem, noting that, “Given the continuous requirement of priestly celibacy over time, it is not clear why the commitment to or state of celibate chastity should be seen as a cause for the steady rise in incidence of sexual abuse between 1950 and 1980.”

Perhaps no one will be happy with the study. In the absence of clarity regarding the causes, prevention of future abuse is hard to assure. The researchers tell us the worst is over. The principal investigator, Karen Terry, noted that, “the peak of this abuse crisis is historical. That peak is over.” They had reviewed all reports of incidences of abuse between 1950 and 2002 and concluded that, “The count of incidences per year increased steadily from the mid 1960’s through the late 1970’s then declined in the 1980’s and continue to remain low.” Survivors groups worry that this conclusion is designed to lull us all into leaving the bishops alone, into accepting that policies are now in place that will prevent new abuse. Perhaps the worst sexual abuse of children has passed, but the climate of disregard for the dignity of the faithful and the elitism of a system that still values priests and bishops more than others can only diminish us all.

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania. She was the president of Catholics for Choice for 25 years, stepping down in 2007.