Lagging Behind

The second John Jay report & the Vatican's letter to bishops

In 2003, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ National Review Board put together a request for proposals for two studies of the church’s sexual-abuse scandal. One study would examine the “nature and scope” of the crisis. Another would look at its “causes and context.” I was a member of the board at the time. We selected the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct both studies. Last month, John Jay released the second study [pdf] to decidedly mixed reviews.

The John Jay research team, led by Karen J. Terry, has followed the National Review Board’s request. We wanted to know what factors made the epidemic of abuse happen (causes) and what environment helped it thrive (context). The Review Board published its own report [pdf] in 2004, when Justice Anne Burke of Illinois served as interim chair. That report was based on more than eighty interviews with bishops, priests, victims, victims’ family members, victims' advocates, psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, and priest-perpetrators. The board concluded that the selection and formation of seminary candidates was seriously faulty and that the response of the bishops was seriously deficient, from their presumptions in favor of accused priests and their disdain for dealing with victims to their reliance on secrecy and therapy to avoid scandal. But the board knew that such an anecdotal report needed to be vetted against all available facts. That would take several years, and that is what we asked John Jay to do.

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. Critics of the report have made much of this finding—noting that John Jay only backed up what some bishops had been saying for years. That does not mean the report is wrong. Sometimes intuition can be right. And, to be fair, the bishops were not alone in making that claim. They were working from what the National Review Board said in our 2004 report, which was not controlled by the bishops.

The John Jay report is important because it provides the facts to help us grasp what happened in those years, and outlines the steps necessary to prevent it from happening again. To the bishops’ credit, many of those steps have already been taken. The heightened screening procedures for seminary admission and ordination, together with a new emphasis in seminary training on human formation and how to deal with the challenges of celibacy, will, if maintained, go a long way toward limiting the number of sexual misfits we ordain, although, as the report admits, it is almost impossible to identify most potential abusers in advance. Similarly, the safe-environment programs now in place in every U.S. parish and diocese go a long way toward protecting children. Not only are church volunteers (lectors, ushers, religious-education teachers) required to go through safe-environment training, but so are children, who are taught to identify signs of impending abuse and instructed to seek help if they are made to feel uncomfortable. This training has made it much more difficult for abusers to harm kids.

That leaves one other factor that helped cause the epidemic: the bishops themselves. As did the National Review Board’s 2004 report, the John Jay report clearly identifies the bishops’ inadequate response to reports of child sexual abuse as one of the major factors in the crisis. “To fully achieve change in the Catholic Church, all diocesan leaders must be committed to transparency about their actions, ensure that the immediate and appropriate responses to abuse become routine, and ensure that such actions are adopted on a national level by all church leaders,” the report says. “Most diocesan leaders [are doing this] yet some dioceses have continued to lag behind.”

That some dioceses still “lag behind” is inexplicable. The Dallas Norms were adopted by the bishops and sent to Rome for ratification in 2002 so that bishops’ responses to abuse would be immediate, appropriate, and transparent. It is not comforting to hear that nine years later, some dioceses (read “bishops”) are lagging behind. Unfortunately, given the Philadelphia grand-jury report released in February, neither is it a surprise (see "The Fog of Scandal").

We can do all the seminary screening and human-formation training in the world, and we can run safe-environment programs until we’re blue in the face, but without the buy-in of every single bishop some of our children remain in danger, and that is unacceptable.

Although perhaps John Jay was too polite to say so, that is the one remaining problem with the church’s response to child sexual abuse by clergy—there is no policing mechanism for bishops who are derelict in their duty, who do not follow the Dallas Norms, and whose actions or inactions lead to known abusers victimizing more children.

This is not just an American issue. While there is a lot of good to be said for the recent letter sent by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to the bishops conferences of the world requiring them to adopt guidelines to deal with allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, the document has a fatal flaw.

Guidelines aren’t norms. Norms have the force of canon law; guidelines have the force of suggestion. Guidelines leave too much up to individual bishops, who can be quicker to protect their prerogatives than anything else, something the John Jay report and the National Review Board report emphasize happened in the early years of the U.S. crisis.

The U.S. bishops adopted good abuse guidelines at their meeting in November 1992. As the John Jay report notes, the vast majority of bishops followed them. But a small minority did not, one of whom declared at the November 1992 meeting, “Nobody is going to tell me how to run my diocese.” And, no surprise, it was in the dioceses (for example, Boston) where bishops ignored the guidelines and refused to limit their episcopal power in deference to the common-sense judgments of their confreres that the 2002 crisis first broke.

So guidelines throughout the world are not the best answer, simply because there will be some bishops who will choose not to follow them, as happened here between 1992 and 2002. When our guidelines failed because some bishops ignored them, the U.S. church had to turn to the Dallas Norms, statutes that had the force of canon law for every bishop, every diocese in the United States. And, as the John Jay report notes, those norms are working where they’re being followed—which is in most, but unfortunately not all, U.S. dioceses

Given the American experience, I don’t understand the Vatican’s reluctance to require norms, not guidelines. The CDF’s letter does not rule out norms, and even reminds the bishops of the extra steps they’d have to take to adopt them (mostly getting Vatican approval). If a bishop in a country that eventually adopts guidelines chooses to ignore them, what will happen? Will a Vatican official show up and ask “What are you doing?” I don’t think so. There are well-known cases in the United States where norms--particular canon law for the country, not simply guidelines, were ignored by bishops and there were no consequences. 

One Vatican observer, Sandro Magister, recently suggested that the Vatican wanted guidelines and not norms in order to avoid excessive centralization and excessive Roman legal responsibility when things go wrong: “This centralization has opened the door…to the risk that Vatican authorities and the pope himself could be dragged into court, for crimes committed by their ‘employees’ anywhere in the world.” How sad if that is the reason. This is the same mistake that the U.S. bishops made in their first response to the crisis: Ignore the victims and don’t do anything that might admit your own responsibility. Even sadder because the reasoning is faulty. Exercising jurisdiction over crimes does not make you responsible for the crimes. It doesn’t even make you responsible for ignoring the crimes. (Think every state government.)

As the John Jay report emphasizes, the current response—the one designed in Dallas in 2002—has worked well for the most part. The one failure with the U.S. bishops’ response to sexual abuse of children by priests is the lack of a policing mechanism for those few bishops who ignore the national norms and whose inaction allowed other children to be harmed. But this is not a failure of the bishops. This is a failure of the Vatican. And, unless Rome requires bishops conferences to adopt enforceable norms rather than ignorable suggestions, that failure will continue. 

Related: Myth-busters, by the Editors

About the Author

Nicholas P. Cafardi is a civil and canon lawyer. He is Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law at Duquesne University School of Law. Cafardi was one of the original members of the USCCB’s National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth. His book Before Dallas (Paulist Press) is a history of the clergy child sexual-abuse crisis in the United States.



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Somehow, we've distorted, even in our religious approaches to life, the meaning of our sexuality.  We have inherited remnants of Gnosticism, Puritanism and Jansenism; all of which saw sex as lower nature, concupiscence, animal instincts, base appetites and other negative euphemisms.  These attitudes can be traced back to the ritual purity requirements of the Jewish priesthood, and perhaps beyond.  Similar attitudes are found in certain Oriental religions, and we are told that the married Gandhi took a vow of celibacy toward the end of his campaign for the freedom of India.

Today's distortions are the overreactions to yesterday's.  If you hold a light object under water, then let go, it will not simply rise to the surface, but beyond it, then fall back.  It takes some time to reach equilibrium, and makes a lot of waves in the meantime.

I believe that celibacy may attract some people who have distorted concepts of both women and sexuality.

The difficulty I have with the Causes and Contexts chapter of the John Jay investigation of sexual abuse by Catholic priests is its near exclusive reliance upon statistical inference to establish "context." It is not the inherent relativism of this approach, but rather its inevitable sanitization of avoidable human error and the resultant lost of personhood for the victims of this abuse.

That abusers exist and that some will always deal inappropriately with personal issues of "human formation" is not a surprise - it is the age old challenge of a faith community that professes to live by the precepts of loving one's neighbor while deploring acts of vitimization. Of greater import would seem to be - how does such a faith community evolve its vigilance and reliability of commitment to "the least among us" in the face of modern life.

There would seem to be little reason to doubt that effective leadership will always play a role in our aspirations to be a Church compassionate in the way the Christ was. In an age when transparency of action and motivation is under constant scrutiny, leaders are closer than ever before to the front lines of accountability - unless they choose to bunker themselves away from it.

Of the many remaining concerns going forward, about dealing with inappropriate sexual action by priests, this issue of the permissability of hiding from the facts remains one of the more prominent for which there would seem to be a straight-forward remedy. The standard for those in positions expected to provide moral leadership should be uniform; its practice should include the well-ingrained instiutional habit of vigorously questioning the urge to withhold engagement with unpleasant facts.

This is not a tendency that most managers or leaders come by naturally - it is best assured by rigorous institutional norms of mutual challenge in advance of authoritative decision-making. These are matters of climate, not simply of procedure for it is clear that procedural "requirements" can, and routinely are, ignored or circumvented. It is however, possible to assess any diocesean climate in terms of its commitment and practices of "Just Culture." Opportunities for improvement - endless though they may be - can be identified and worked continually as a matter of central faith commitment rather than being viewed as the occassional and distasteful exercise of "fraternal" or other corrective action.

Its worth considering - what can bishops to do to engage this opportunity to lead rather than to give into the the impulse to find "things are not as bad as they said."

The analysis does not pass the smell test. Doubtless, some folk as well as priests were influenced by the sexual revolution of the 60's. Inferring this a as the principal cause of priestly misbehavior seems a huge reach and a transparent effort to disqualify all other possibilities. Many of the offenders were themselves principal defenders of a very much tightened approach to sexual mores. The enormous numbers of priests with arrested development even still today, is far more significant evidence of something else at work - could it be the demand for celibacy? Too many come to ordination as asexual beings, repressing any urges or instincts - is it any suprise that soon the barriers are insufficient to keep them in check? It seems that most of those reading the report suspect that much more was and is going on than mere statistical chance.

A brief comment on guidelines vs. norms.  The Vatican has backed itself into a corner by gutting the authority of national bishops' conferences.  They are right to want to avoid even more centralization; an organization as large as the Catholic Church (or even one much smaller) cannot successfully be operated as a flat organization with every bishop reporting to the pope alone.  We need effective intermediary organizations, and the national conferences could and should be one of them. 

     To its credit, the Vatican recognizes that conditions are not everywhere the same around the world.  Here in the U.S., they have come under criticism for not requiring worldwide that bishops report abuse to the civil authorities.  In many parts of the world, however, the civil authorities are worse than the Church in dealing with such problems, or are simply inimical to the Church and would use such reports to retaliate.  Our policies need to be tailored to local constraints and conditions, and that requires a degree of decentralization.  Without effective intermediate structures, the only remaining "solutions" are 1)provisions in canon law which would apply everywhere, or 2)guidelines, which are merely unenforceable suggestions. 

     But the Vatican is so afraid of "national churches" and of losing its own power and prerogatives that it has continued to flatten the church organization.  That is why, for example, the recent bishop of Baker, Oregon (now moved to Santa Rosa, CA) could refuse to make annual reports to the USCCB, saying that he didn't work for them; he worked only for the pope. He also refuses to conduct, or allow to be conducted, the abuse-prevention training mandated by the U.S. bishops.  And he is not the only such case. 

    There is more than one dimension to this problem, for sure.  But one of those dimensions which remains largely unaddressed is the structural one.  We need structural changes for many reasons, but sexual abuse is surely one of the most pressing.

This is an excellent discussion of the John Jay report that shows a much more balanced interpretation of their findings. To the conclusion many in the media have drawn that the report condemns "the sixties" as a root cause, you correctly point that the root cause was the training and screening of candidates for ordination. Any external event could have stressed a system with poorly trained (and supervised) workers under changing circumstances.

To the key point made here - the lack of accountability by the bishops (norms versus guidelines) - my issue is that the current governance model of the church allows for little or no accountability of the local ordinary. There is no chain of command, only a weak oversight.

Re. "the lack of accountability by the bishops". I just finished viewing a press conference in which it is revealed that a former abbot of the Benedictine community of St. John’s Abbey --- a man who committed to transparency regarding known abusers, a man who when presented with accusations against members of his community did nothing about them --- was himself a child molester of the most heinous kind: using the Sacrament of Confession to assault minors. (see mnsnap “The Truth” on Youtube)

“The one failure with the U.S. bishops’ response to sexual abuse of a child by a priest is the lack of a policing mechanism for those few bishops who ignore the national norms and whose inaction allowed other children to be harmed.”

What is to happen to the religious order superiors who likewise refuse to act on their own norms? And while I am asking questions, What happened to Cardinal George when he ignored the norms of his own Charter?



As long as the Catholic Church is run by the same old boys' club in the Vatican, nothing witll ever change.

I discovered that a long-time newsreporter at the Catholic New York, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, was apparently in the Masters Program at John Jay during the time of this study and as a matter of fact, her thesis had the same title.  Interestingly, her monitor/supervisor for her these was the principal investigator for the USCCB's study, Dr. Karen Terry.  If you check out Dr. Terry's curriculum vitae on her own personal website, you will find this newsreporter's name.


I continued on with my investigation and contacted this newsreporter at the NY diocese's Catholic newspaper and, yes, you guessed it, she was speechless, tongue-tied and dumbfounded.  She could provide little explanation regarding what I notice to be a conflict of interest, academic and research integrity issue, etc.  She referred me to Dr. Terry, principal investigator, for any questions I had relative to academic integrity and conflict of interests.


And then this same person has been covering the release of the USCCB report and the press conference down there in Washington, DC.  Hey, I would like to know if the NY archdiocese paid for her masters program at John Jay.


Despite requests to the President Travis and other academic professionals involved in the John Jay Study commissioned by the USCCB, the only response was from the Director of Communications at the college who informed me that there was no conflict of interests. 


The study was funded by the USCCB, whose President is Archbishop Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, which owns the paper, Catholic New York.

It seems strange to me that ever since the reign of John Paul II anyone can claim that the Vatican is afraid of excessive centralization.  At the same time, however, I can readily see why the Vatican may hesitate to put out some universal norms that demand  bishops involve civil authorities when in many instances several of those same civil authorities are quite hostile to the church.  I think that's a problem deserving of some thoughtful commentary, and I'm sorry I don't have a ready answer. 

Perhaps it is the task of journalists to keep before the public the names of American bishops and dioceses that refuse to follow the guidelines (which seem to be norms for Americans because of the Vatican's approval) especially if the Vatican refuses to enforce its own norms.  There could be a little box containing those names in every issue of The National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, First Things, America, etc.

The epidemic of sexual abuse was not directly the result of changing sexual mores; it was indirectly the result of changing sexual mores.  As a now mostly retired clinical social worker, I was there in a mental health center when a great influx of victims of childhood sexual abuse entered our doors in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  It wasn't so much a great increase in abuse as an increase in recognition and reporting of such abuse.  Prior to this "epidemic," authoratative psychiatry texts gave the incidence of child sexual abuse as one in a million. We now know it was unfortunately much higher than that.  Studies show that a sizeable minority of adults (some studies say up to half of all women) have had some type of inappropriate sexual contact or abuse as a child.  

After a few published memoirs of childhood sexual abuse, and a few TV movies on the subject, and more openness about sexual matters generally, the public became much more aware and open about this abuse.  It was an epidemic of openness more than an epidemic of abuse.

The church has been 20 years of more behind this awareness and openness.  Part of this is due to all its leaders and frontline practitioners being celebate and thus not family men with direct concerns about their own children  It's debatable whether, or to what extent, there was more sexual abuse of children by priests in the 60s and 70s; there was more reporting of such abuse occurring during this period as there was in society at large. 

The church's being so behind on this issue shows the limitations of a large organization led by men without firsthand knowledge of marriage and parenthood. At least the church needs more input from women and from married couples at the highest levels.                

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