'Trail of pain' continued


On January 12, the front page of the Sunday New York Times featured a story, which jumped to two full pages inside the newspaper, offering the most comprehensive statistical analysis to date of sexual abuse among the Catholic clergy. Titled "Trail of Pain in Church Crisis/ Leads to Nearly Every Diocese," the story examined the number of reported incidents of sexual abuse throughout the country over the past six decades. It concluded that more than twelve hundred priests had victimized four thousand minors, although it cautioned that these numbers were conservative because of the refusal of some dioceses to provide the names of alleged abusers. The study found that abuse was especially rampant in the 1970s and 1980s, but that the number of reported cases had dropped significantly since the early 1990s, a time when many bishops created independent boards to review such accusations. Overall, the Times estimated that during the six-decade period, 1.8 percent of Catholic priests had been accused of abuse, a percentage generally considered below the level of sexual abuse in the adult population as a whole. But the study also confirmed the impression that the vast majority-80 percent-of victims have been young boys. In the larger population, girls are much more likely to be victims of abuse. Even more shocking, 43 percent of the victims were twelve or younger. The Times story was not without its methodological flaws and dubious assumptions. There was a lot of vague talk about the psychosexual immaturity of priests in general, even speculation that "many healthier priests were jumping ship" in the late 1960s and the 1970s. How the relative "health" of these priests was ascertained is difficult to imagine. For example, it may not be self-evident that most celibate seminarians were more sexually immature than the average college fraternity or sorority member. Whatever its shortcomings, the Times story demonstrated yet again how inadequate, even inept, has been the response of the U.S. bishops to the scandal. As this magazine and many others have argued, the bishops themselves should have been the first to compile and release such a broad-ranging study. That American Catholics have to rely on the New York Times to provide the first comprehensive picture of the extent of a scandal that has rocked the foundations of the church is a scandal itself. The inability, or unwillingness, of the church hierarchy to recognize the urgency of the need for precisely such a study-and the important word here is urgency-boggles the mind. True, the National Review Board established by the bishops at their June meeting in Dallas is compiling just such a report, to be released this June. The bishops have pledged their full cooperation with the independent board, which is made up of prominent laymen and -women. Yet the relationship between the board and at least some bishops is clearly less than ideal. New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan, well know for his aversion to the press and for having kept a particularly low profile throughout the past year, refused to celebrate Mass for board members when they were in New York earlier this month. He also pressured Kathleen L. McChesney, the executive director of the bishops’ new Office for Child and Youth Protection, into canceling a speaking engagement at a church in Manhattan. (She eventually decided to speak.) Egan has pledged his full cooperation with the Review Board’s investigations, but some of his actions convey a different message. Review Board panelist William R. Burleigh, former CEO of the E. W. Scripps Company, told the Boston Globe that a complete investigation was essential. "People have tried to get their arms around these numbers for twelve years," he said. "If someone doesn’t cooperate, everyone will know about it," added attorney Robert Bennett, another board member. "The laity is not going to tolerate a bishop who doesn’t cooperate." Let’s hope so. Let’s hope too that the Review Board’s other reports-one on the money bishops have paid out to settle the cases, the other, an epidemiological study on the psychosexual development of priests-also receive full cooperation from each and every bishop. The epidemiological study is expected to take more than a year, and will be directed by Dr. Paul R. McHugh of Johns Hopkins University. "The goal is to understand the causes and contexts of this abuse," McHugh has said. Despite extensive media coverage, the causes and contexts of the abuse are still not well understood. The media’s perspective has largely been shaped by the storylines provided by plaintiffs’ attorneys. That is an important part of the truth, but not the whole truth. The Times story, for example, provided almost no information about the prevalence of sexual abuse in other professions or in society as a whole. As the Times itself noted, "experts say it is impossible to know whether priests abuse more or less often than people in other professions, or even in the general population, because there are not reliable studies." Clearly, sexual abuse in the church will not be fully understood until we know more about the extent of sexual abuse generally. Neither is it fully understood why boys were the most frequent targets of offending priests. Explanations vary. Is it because of the number of homosexual priests? Is it the dynamics of repressive, celibate, single-sex seminaries? Or is it because predators had easier access to boys than to girls? Within the church, of course, a battle rages between conservatives and liberals over the "root causes" of the abuse. Conservatives blame reforms of seminaries after Vatican II, dissent from church teaching on sexual morality, and tolerance of homosexuality within the priesthood. Liberals tend to focus on the hierarchy’s secrecy and arrogance, the rule of celibacy, and the effects of clericalism. In reporting on this clash of views, the Times summed up its study succinctly: the "database provides evidence to support the arguments of both sides." Certainly, the prevalence of abuse in the 1970s and 1980s could reflect the confusions of both the post-Vatican II church and the larger sexual revolution. Just as clearly, the hierarchy’s secrecy and lack of accountability seem to have played a part. Whether the drop in accusations over the past ten years is the result of actions taken by the bishops to address the problem or whether more recent victims have yet to come forward remains to be seen. The Times ended its story with the strong suggestion that a new wave of revelations is just over the horizon. That may just be journalistic hype. But if that is indeed the case, it would be better, for the victims as well as the church, that the National Review Board and the bishops get the truth out as soon as possible.

Published in the 2003-01-31 issue: 
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