John Jay researcher: It's not about Woodstock
Karen J. Terry, who led the John Jay College study into the causes of clergy sex abuse of minors in the Catholic Church, has criticized news coverage that she said reduced her complex findings to a single point summarized in news reports as "blame Woodstock" - the idea that the sexual revolution in the 1960s and 1970s helped to cause the scandal.Dr. Terry made her comments in an article on the Web site The Crime Report, a resource for criminal justice journalists. She wrote:
A study of this complexity does not easily lend itself to an accurate sound bite.
Nevertheless, one early media report in a national paper attributed the explanation of social factors as a Blame Woodstock excuse, a phrase that went viral and was cited more than 14,000 times within the next two days.
The truth is, at no point in the report did we blame Woodstock or simplify the explanation of the abuse crisis to the swinging sixties, as some papers reported.
It's true that the report never singles out the cultural mores of the 1960s as the sole cause of an increase in clergy sex abuse of minors, but it is a significant part of the report. For example, the "Findings" section in the executive summary begins:
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.
Similarly, where the report lists the possible causes to be studied, the culture of the Sixties is first on the list, with the researchers to examine "general cultural factors, including the impact social changes in the 1960s and 1970s had on individual priests attitudes and behavior and on organizational life, including social stratification, emphasis on individualism, and social movements. Later, the report said that Social movements, such as the sexual revolution and development of understanding about sexual victimization and harm, necessarily had an influence on those within organizations just as they did on those in the general society."Even the press release John Jay College issued on the report focused on the Sixties immediately after announcing no single cause had been found. Dr. Terry's quote, contained in the second paragraph:
"The bulk of cases occurred decades ago," said Karen Terry, PhD., John Jay's principal investigator for the report. "The increased frequency of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s was consistent with the patterns of increased deviance of society during that time. She also stated that "social influences intersected with vulnerabilities of individual priests whose preparation for a life of celibacy was inadequate at that time."
I think Dr. Terry is mistaken to blame the news media for focusing on what was new and interesting in the study - the same aspects played up in her press release. The story was that the report showed the abuse peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, and why. But the claim that the sexual revolution helped cause increased clergy sex abuse of minors was the weak link in the study because it's speculation. The report otherwise consists of a lot of very useful data.
About the Author
Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009).