Part of The Revealer’s series on the John Jay report,The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.”

by Jack Downey

Last month, a team of researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, led by Dr. Karen Terry, published a 150-page report entitled The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010 .  The report is the second installment of  research into the scandal that has crushed the American Church for the past two decades as reports of abuse and its administrative cover-up came to light, the high-water mark being the 2003 prison murder of convicted abuser priest John GeoghanCauses and Context is the culmination of five years of research initiated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) National Review Board, to the tune of $1.8 million, approximately half of which was funded by the USCCB itself.  Its preceding document, The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, was meant to be a descriptive analysis of the phenomenon – cataloguing the 10,667 individual reports of sexual abuse by clergy from 1950 through early 2003 – with Causes and Context providing more analytical reflection.  However, the study’s immediate legacy has been marred by allegations—and threats–from critics of all stripes that the research itself was crippled in some way by ethical bias, aggravating the already tectonic divisions within American Catholicism on the subject.

Almost since the very beginning the debate on this phenomenon has been polarized, not in terms of whether sexual abuse is fundamentally vile, but rather on two courses of action to address it:  identify and punish the “bad apple” priests, or the structural challenges within the church that fostered an environment of abuse and cover-up.   Many, particularly outside the church, have been asking: what is the problem behind “the problem?”  To just about everyone’s chagrin, Causes and Context provides no easy answers, and, frankly, not that much unanticipated novel insight.  Anyone who was hoping for actionable answers and a prescription for reform will likely not find much comfort in this report, which states:

No single “cause” of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is identified as a result of our research.  Social and cultural changes in the 1960s and 1970s manifested in increased levels of deviant behavior in the general society and also among priests of the Catholic Church in the United States.  Organizational, psychological, and situational factors contributed to the vulnerability of individual priests in this period of normative change…  The priests who engaged in abuse of minors were not found, on the basis of their developmental histories or their psychological characteristics, to be statistically distinguishable from other priests who did not have allegations of sexual abuse against minors.

However, to John Jay’s credit, Causes and Context does attempt to put to rest much of the polemical speculation that has consumed the conversation thus far.  Kathleen McChesney, former executive director of the USCCB’s Office for Child and Youth Protection, has provided a very helpful synopsis of the study’s findings over at America.  For anyone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to slog through the entire report, here are the abridged hits:

1) Not all abusive priests are pedophiles, according to the criteria established by the researchers’ clinical standards.  There is dispute over what qualifies as “prepubescent.”  In the report, the cutoff is the 11th birthday, a difficult distinction to accept.  Yet, dispute over the definition of “prepubescent” isn’t particularly fruitful, not because the definition is unimportant but rather because it operates as a generalization and misses the mark on the individual level…sexual child abuse is immoral, as is sexual abuse.

2) It’s not possible to accurately predict if a priest or seminarian will become an abuser.

3) No, celibacy isn’t the problem.

4) No, homosexuality isn’t the problem either.  Newsflash.

5) A lack of ongoing spiritual formation among seminarians and priests, and its systematic induction, played a major role in the incidence of abuse, but also, when addressed, its decline.

6) Yes, Church leaders at various levels failed to respond appropriately or effectively.

7) “Societal conditions” contributed to the rise of abuse cases in the 1960s and ‘70s.  However, as McChesney notes: “This finding may be dangerously misinterpreted by some as a

‘cause’ of the abuse.  While the sexual activities of clergy members with consenting adults during this time may reflect a sexually liberated society, at no time was the sexual abuse of minors legal, moral or justified.  As adult followers of the Catholic faith, these offenders knew, or should have known, that their behaviors violated and injured the young.”

These conclusions seem so self-intuitive–in most arenas other than Catholicland–that it’s hard to fathom they cost nearly $2 million.  Of the points, it’s numbers 3, 4, and 7 that have been traditional hot-buttons and have proven most contentious.  Somewhat predictably, the study itself seems to have provided fodder for already-established hypotheses about the Church:  it’s a culture of secrecy, institutional permissiveness, power, clerical entitlement, presumptive theoretical authority and strategic obstruction by the “lavender mafia.” Certainly the report has failed to settle any debate or to even quiet speculations that it ploddingly concludes are unfounded.

Those who believed homosexuality, Vatican II, American secularism, and/or institutionalized celibacy to be the root of the matter still by-and-large hold fast to their positions.  This conventionally “conservative” camp tends to find an influx of gay priests during the ‘60s and ‘70s (either in base numbers or in concentration, as hetero clergy fled the priesthood en masse) to be the root of the problem, concomitant with a general rise in sexual permissiveness, debauchery, and moral relativism.  Others, who would scoff at the “blame Woodstock” rationale, locate accountability staunchly with the incompetence of American bishops and the unnatural and psychologically disorienting chastity vows that sexually repressed men take as they are conditioned to view themselves as ontologically superior to the rest of us.

Both factions allege the John Jay study to have been corrupted by special interests–primarily, it seems, because its scientific conclusions do not correspond sufficiently to their own experience.  The study has been applauded as an unprecedented self-initiated investigation of grand scope, and it has been condemned for presumed bias on this account.  Causes and Context has been allegedly compromised in favor of both authoritarian hegemony and–by Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, among others–of liberal intellectual bias.

Donohue rapidly composed a 24-page assault on the study’s credibility, questioning its ethics and science.  Donohue alternately defends the John Jay team against critics of “blame Woodstock” (the report does show a massive spike in reported incidents of abuse during those decades), and accuses Karen Terry and her team of corrupt philosophical presuppositions.  Essentially, his argument is that the project was critically wounded from the get-go by The Academy’s… gayness:

Despite many strengths, what seriously mars the report is its ideological reluctance to deal forthrightly with the role of homosexuality.  We live in a time when the rights of homosexuals are ascendant, and talk of a negative nature is not only greeted with suspicion, it is silenced.  This is especially true in higher education.  …

Let it be said at the outset that it is not my position that homosexuality causes predatory behavior.  Indeed, this argument is absurd.  As I have said many times, while it is true that most gay priests are not molesters, most of the molesters have been gay.  Nothing in the report changes my mind, and indeed there is much in it that fortifies my position.

Certainly, in the priesthood, homosexuals have been overrepresented among abusers.  Unfortunately, there are indications that the authors of the report are skittish about being identified with this position, despite their own data.

There is too much evidence to plausibly conclude that there is no relationship between the overrepresentation of active homosexuals in the priesthood, and their overrepresentation in the sexual abuse scandal.

It seems implausible to think that these priests were unaware that what they were doing was sinful.  Their cognitive dissonance found relief, it seems plain to conclude, not by changing their behavior, but by holding to the conviction that homosexuality was not sinful.

Donohue’s condemnation of homosexuality is based on a (too) simple and unconvincing logical progression of fact: he reasons that because the majority of minors abused were boys (although largely above John Jay’s 11-year-old pedophilia watermark), the majority of abusers were, therefore, gay (although Donohue is at pains to emphasize that he is claiming correlation, not causation).  His is a rather peculiar perspective on identity formation.  It suits Donohue to ignore questions of power dynamics and stilted or inadequate “human formation” in favor of the conclusion that because the majority of abused children were male, homosexuality is the primary culprit. Donohue’s implication is that the remedy is therefore relatively plain.  And not unlike finding the cause of abuse among prison inmates as an inevitable result of too many incarcerated gay folks.

The conversation (if it can be called a conversation) about whether the Roman Catholic Church’s ills were caused by the hippies, discos, homosexuality, or vowed celibacy (the argument about the bishops’ mismanagement of things mostly differs in terms of degree) bypasses a more vague, less satisfying, but nevertheless important conversation about the modern priesthood.  Nobody really argues that it was Woodstock‘s fault.  Rather, if they follow this path, they might conclude that the clergy was unable to manage itself within the context of a culture newly freed from institutionalized repression.  If one is fixated on ascribing fault, the fault then lies in the clergy’s inability to adapt and respond to the cultural upheaval of the time.  Causes and Context isolates ongoing clerical formation as tragically insufficient during elevated periods of abuse.  We are left to ask if some of the men who became priests in the American Catholic Church were not, shall we say, the most well-adjusted people in the universe.  Very recently, Nicholas Cafardi has aptly summarized the salient lessons of Causes and Context:

John Jay found that the epidemic of child sexual abuse that engulfed the church in the 1960s and ’70s was primarily the result of ill-trained and psychologically unsuited priests who found themselves spiritually at sea in the rapidly changing sexual and social mores of those years and who turned to defenseless children as an outlet for their confused sexual yearnings.

Priests have difficult lives and, contrary to the muscular leadership image that is portrayed in vocation pamphlets, many of them are poorly socialized individuals who go on to live isolated, lonely, dysfunctional lives. Many of them aren’t necessarily guys you’d want to be stuck in a foxhole with; some of them you wouldn’t want to be stuck anywhere with.  While the rest of us are plenty dysfunctional, the rest of us are not told we are the vicars of Christ on earth.  Anyone – male, female, or otherwise – who has given serious thought to a clerical vocation, particularly one that imposes chastity vows, has recognized that this path can be psychologically treacherous.

So no – obligatory chastity among priests does not turn otherwise normal priests into abusers, at least there is no scientific evidence that it does.  Neither does homosexuality.  Rather than holding up a user-friendly bogeyman – like gayness, “Woodstock,” or celibacy – the Causes and Context study points to the more nebulous specter of “lack of ongoing formation.”  The John Jay research team may well feel some smug vindication at the fact that, indeed, they’ve settled little.  And, in a sense, that’s not John Jay’s problem.  As social scientists, their job is not to make policy, but to provide information we may critically assess and proactively use in the future.  A prerequisite for this, however, is that we at least give them the benefit of the doubt and allow their findings to weigh on our own expectations.  Otherwise, the whole thing was kind of pointless.

Jack Downey is an activist and doctoral candidate in Theology at Fordham University.  His dissertation investigates modern asceticism and the Catholic Worker movement.  Previous writing has appeared in Tricycle Magazine: The Buddhist Review.

This article is part of The Revealer’s series on the John Jay report, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.”  Read additional commentary by Frances Kissling, Elizabeth Castelli, Amanda Marcotte, Scott Korb, Mary Valle and others here.