Sexual Abuse & the Church

What we've learned & what we still don't know

 

There was a ritual quality to the February 27 release of two studies of the sexual molestation of minors by Catholic clergy. Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, voiced remorse and determination to do better. Representatives of victims’ groups issued routine dismissals. Millions of Catholics felt fresh spasms of shame and indignation. All the usual headlines and newscasts. Then on to the Academy Awards. I exaggerate. Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett did a round of television appearances that conveyed at least some sense of the breadth and depth of these reports. As chairman of the research committee of the National Review Board, the twelve-member panel of lay people appointed to monitor implementation of the bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Bennett had directed one of the studies. The other was conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The huge amount of data that the John Jay study gathered from the nation’s dioceses should lay to rest any lingering tendency to minimize the sexual-abuse problem. Between 1950 and 2002, more than 4 percent of the Catholic priests and deacons in ministry were the objects of allegations of sexually abusing minors that church officials considered substantiated. While comparable data for other professions may not exist, one out of every twenty-five members of the clergy is a startling figure that demands further explanation. The National Review Board, in its separate report on “the causes and context of the current crisis,” summarily rejected the argument that celibacy itself was at fault. The board reminded readers of the other 96 percent of priests and of the widespread occurrence of sexual abuse within families. The board did insist, though, that celibacy was a “gift” that priests could live out only with strong spiritual and psychological formation, a solid prayer life, and support from other clergy and lay friends. Many conservatives have blamed the scandal on a postconciliar “silly season” along with a “culture of dissent.” Liberals have emphasized, on the contrary, a repressive culture of denial, silence, and secrecy, again focusing on sex, which marked preconciliar Catholicism and the seminaries in particular. Both decry the continuing force of these tendencies in today’s church. The John Jay data show that substantiated allegations of abuse did indeed “surge” from some point in the 1960s, peak in the 1970s, and later decline, eventually sharply, in the 1990s. But the data also show that the majority of abusing priests were ordained before the council ended and over two-thirds by 1970. On the other hand, the cohorts of priests ordained in 1970 and in 1973-75 contained the highest percentages of abusers. These findings suggest that neither the culture of dissent nor the culture of repression may have been as combustible as the convergence of both. The decade 1965 to 1975 saw sexual taboo-breaking publicly celebrated (whatever the reality in private) and a church where matters long taken as bedrock certainties seemed to be shaken overnight, maybe in seminaries and among priests even more so than elsewhere. It is not unthinkable that a segment of clergy reared and trained in a repressive, sex-denying atmosphere found in those developments a permission to set aside their celibacy and act out a distorted sexuality, while a segment of younger clergy, ordained in the midst of change, may have never taken to heart the challenge of that celibacy in the first place. The decline in recorded allegations from the mid-1980s and more sharply (etc)

Published in the 2004-03-26 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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