Ethics & Public Policy Center

Priests, Abuse, and the Meltdown of a Culture

Published in National Review Online on May 19, 2011


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


The American narrative of the Catholic Church's struggles with the clerical sexual abuse of the young has been dominated by several tropes firmly set in journalistic concrete: that this was and is a “pedophilia” crisis; that the sexual abuse of the young is an ongoing danger in the Church; that the Catholic Church was and remains a uniquely dangerous environment for young people; that a high percentage of priests were abusers; that abusive behavior is more likely from celibates, such that a change in the Church's discipline of priestly celibacy would be important in protecting the young; that the Church's bishops were, as a rule, willfully negligent in handling reports of abuse; that the Church really hasn't learned any lessons from the revelations that began in the Long Lent of 2002.

But according to an independent, $1.8 million study conducted by New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and released on May 18, every one of these tropes is false.

One: Most clerical abusers were not pedophiles, that is, men with a chronic and strong sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children.Most of those abused (51 percent) were aged eleven to fourteen and 27 percent of victims were fifteen to seventeen; 16 percent were eight to ten and 6 percent were younger than seven. Males between eleven and fourteen account for more than 40 percent of all victims. Clerical ephebophilia (a sexual attraction to adolescents, often boys) was clearly a serious problem. But to label this a “pedophilia crisis” is ignorant, sloppy, or malicious.

Two: The “crisis” of clerical sexual abuse in the United States was time-specific.The incidence of abuse spiked in the late 1960s and began to recede dramatically in the mid-1980s. In 2010, seven credible cases of abuse were reported in a church that numbers over 65 million adherents.

Three: Abusers were a tiny minority of Catholic priests. Some 4 percent of Catholic priests in active ministry in the United States were accused of abuse between the 1950s and 2002. There is not a shred of evidence indicating that priests abuse young people at rates higher than do people in the rest of society. On the contrary: Most sexual abuse takes place within families. The John Jay study concludes that, in 2001, whereas five young people in 100,000 may have been abused by a priest, the average rate of abuse throughout the United States was 134 for every 100,000 young people. The sexual abuse of the young is a widespread and horrific societal problem; it is by no means uniquely, or principally, a Catholic problem, or a specifically priestly problem.

Four: The bishops' response to the burgeoning abuse crisis between the late 1960s and the early 1980s was not singularly woodenheaded or callous. In fact, according to the John Jay study, the bishops were as clueless as the rest of society about the magnitude of the abuse problem and, again like the rest of society, tended to focus on the perpetrators of abuse rather than the victims. This, in turn, led to an overdependence on psychiatry and psychology in dealing with clerical perpetrators, in the false confidence that they could be “cured” and returned to active ministry—a pattern that again mirrored broader societal trends. In many pre-1985 cases, the principal request of victims' families was that the priest-abuser be given help and counseling. Yes, the bishops should have been more alert than the rest of an increasingly coarsened society to the damage done to victims by sexual abuse; but as the John Jay report states, “like the general public, the leaders of the Church did not recognize the extent or harm of victimization.” And this, in turn, was “one factor that likely led to the continued perpetration of offenses.”

Five: As for today, the John Jay study affirms that the Catholic Church may well be the safest environment for young people in American society. It is certainly a safer environment than the public schools. Moreover, no other American institution has undertaken the extensive self-study that the Church has, in order to root out the problem of the sexual abuse of the young. It will be interesting to see when editorials in the New York Times and the Boston Globe demand in-depth studies of the sexual abuse of the young by members of the teachers' unions, and zero-tolerance policies for teacher/abusers.

So: If the standard media analytic tropes on clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in the United States have been proven false by a vigorous empirical study conducted by a neutral research institute, what, in fact, did happen? Why did the incidence of abuse spike dramatically from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s? The John Jay researchers propose that the crumbling of sexual mores in the turbulence of the sexual revolution played a significant role. As the report puts it, “The rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in American society generally. The increase in abusive behavior is consistent with the rise in other types of ‘deviant' behavior, such as drug use and crime, as well as changes in social behavior, such as an increase in pre-marital sexual behavior and divorce.”

This is not the entire picture, of course. A Church that was not in doctrinal and moral confusion from the late 1960s until the 1978 election of John Paul II might have been better armored against the worst impacts of the sexual free-for-all unleashed in the mid-1960s. A Church that had not internalized unhealthy patterns of clericalism might have run seminary programs that would have more readily weeded out the unfit. A Church that placed a high value on evangelical zeal in its leadership might have produced bishops less inclined to follow the lead of the ambient culture in imagining that grave sexual abusers could be “fixed.” All that can, and must, be said.

But if the Times, the Globe, and others who have been chewing this story like an old bone for almost a decade are genuinely interested in helping prevent the crime and horror of the sexual abuse of the young, a good, long, hard look will be taken at the sexual libertinism that has been the default cultural position on the American left for two generations. Catholic “progressives” who continue to insist that the disciplinary and doctrinal meltdown of the post-Vatican II years had nothing to do with the abuse crisis might also rethink their default understanding of that period. The ecclesiastical chaos of that decade and a half was certainly a factor in the abuse crisis, although that meltdown is not a one-size-fits-all explanation for the crisis and the way it was handled.

The John Jay study is less than illuminating on one point, and that is the relationship of all this to homosexuality. The report frankly states that “the majority of victims (81 percent) were male, in contrast to the distribution by victim gender in the United States [where] national incidence studies have consistently shown that in general girls are three times more likely to be abused than boys.” But then the report states that “the clinical data do not support the hypothesis that priests with a homosexual identity or those who committed same-sex sexual behavior with adults are significantly more likely to sexually abuse children than those with a heterosexual orientation or behavior.”

The disconnect, to the lay mind, seems obvious: Eighty-one percent of the victims of sexual abuse by priests are adolescent males, and yet this has nothing to do with homosexuality? Perhaps it doesn't from the clinicians' point of view (especially clinicians ideologically committed to the notion that there is nothing necessarily destructive about same-sex behaviors). But surely the attempt by some theologians to justify what is objectively immoral behavior had something to do with the disciplinary
meltdown that the report notes from the late 1960s through the early 1980s; it might be remembered that it was precisely in this period that the Catholic Theological Society of America issued a study, Human Sexuality, that was in clear dissent from the Church's settled teaching on fornication, self-abuse, and homosexual acts, and even found a relatively kind word to say about bestiality. And is there no connection to be found between the spike in abuse cases between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s, with its victimization of adolescent males, and the parallel spike in homoerotic culture in U.S. Catholic seminaries and religious orders in that same period? Given the prevailing shibboleths in the American academy (including the Catholic academy), it may be that no clinically or statistically demonstrable linkage will be found, but it strains credulity to suggest that there wasn't a cultural connection here, one that bears serious reflection.

Empirical evidence is unlikely to shift the attention of the mainstream media or the plaintiffs' bar from the Catholic Church in this matter of the sexual abuse of the young. It would be a good thing for the entire society, however, if the defenders of the sexual revolution would take seriously the question of the relationship between their commitment to lifestyle libertinism and this plague. If the John Jay study on the “causes ands context” of clerical-sexual-abuse problems in the Catholic Church prompts a broader public reflection on the fact that the sexual revolution has not been, and is not, cost-free, and that its victims are often the vulnerable young, then the Church will have done all of American society a signal service in commissioning this study that looks into its own heart of darkness.

- George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His book on the abuse crisis,The Courage To Be Catholic, is available from Basic Books.

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