From the beginning, armchair social-scientists have floated any number of explanations for the Catholic Church’s sexual-abuse crisis. Conservatives blamed gay men. Liberals blamed celibacy. And everyone blamed the bishops.

Now we have a new report on the scandal’s “causes and context” [.pdf], whose results contradict most observers’ pet theories. That may be the report’s greatest value.

Last month the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the long-awaited study, which was conducted by independent researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. John Jay also produced the 2004 “Nature and Scope” report, which provided information about what had happened—who abused, who was abused, and when. The new study tries to explain why.

The report emphasizes that researchers could find no single cause for the crisis, no single predictor of abuse. Yes, the report identifies characteristics common to abusers (many were abused themselves; many led isolated lives; and, perhaps most important, all of them found opportunities to molest). But most abusers did not have any diagnosable psychological problems, including pedophilia. Most were one-time offenders. And more than three-quarters of priests who abused minors also had sexual contact with adults.

John Jay’s researchers detail a steep rise in incidents of abuse through the 1960s and ’70s, followed by a steady decline beginning in the mid-’80s. That drop-off leads the study to reject claims that either homosexuality or celibacy was at the root of the crisis. After all, if gay priests were to blame, why would the decline in abuse begin as the number of homosexual priests continued to rise? And if celibacy was the culprit, why would abuse incidents drop while mandatory celibacy remained?

Finding no evidence that either homosexuality or celibacy caused the crisis, the report turns to the timing of the spike and of the decline in abuse. Researchers surmise that because the increase in abuse coincided with a rise in other “deviant” behaviors in the wider culture, something about that culture conspired with the seminary training of abuser-priests, helping to produce the crisis of molestation in the 1960s and ’70s. Later, as seminaries became more attentive to “human formation,” and as U.S. culture became more aware of sexual abuse and its long-term effects, abuse incidents decreased dramatically.

That theory hasn’t convinced everyone. Some critics, for example, have pointed out that the rise and fall in abuse seems to track the postwar rise in the number of priests and the post-’60s decline. Fair enough. But others have simply decided to praise the parts they agree with and dismiss the parts they don’t like. For example, Catholic League President Bill Donohue continues to claim the crisis was essentially a “gay problem,” while victims’ advocates have pronounced the study unreliable because the bishops self-reported much of the data. Some have even accused John Jay of allowing those who funded the research—including the USCCB—to dictate its results.

Such critics allege that John Jay cooked the data in order to minimize the bishops’ role in the scandal, or, worse, in order to minimize the suffering of victims. Yet John Jay’s job was not simply to assign blame for the crisis, but to figure out its likely causes. True, the report does not thunder against bishops for their failure to deal properly with abusive priests and to speedily address the needs of victims—although bishops do come in for some deserved criticism. Instead, the researchers have committed an act of social science. Just as it would be a mistake to view the report as an exoneration of church leaders, it would be foolish to dismiss its data as if they reveal nothing about the shape and causes of the crisis.

Still, some issues require further exploration, especially the role of clericalism and the absolute authority of each bishop in his diocese. The report goes to great lengths to explain how the crisis happened, but fails to address sufficiently what made it a scandal—namely, the failures not only of offending priests but also bishops. The epidemic of sexual abuse by priests may be history, but the clerical culture and the unaccountability of too many bishops are not. Most recently, in the wake of a damning February grand-jury report [.pdf], it has come to light that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had been keeping cases of accused priests from its review board (see “The Fog of Scandal”). When the bishops meet in Seattle in mid-June, they’ll have the chance to discuss that and other episcopal failures. They must once and for all reject secrecy—even if it means sacrificing some independence. The hour is late. At stake is nothing less than the trust of their people.

Related: The Church's Sex-abuse Crisis, by Peter Steinfels
Lagging Behind and Another Long Lent, by Nicholas P. Cafardi
Truth or Consequences, by Cathleen Kaveny
A Victim's Defense of Priests
, by Terry Donovan Urekew

From dotCommonweal: David Gibson on the John Jay Report

Published in the 2011-06-17 issue: View Contents
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