Causes and contexts report: Initial thoughts

The causes and contexts report on clerical sex abuse completed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice is notable for the fact that the research did not identify a true "abuser profile," focusing more on the sex abuse as crime of opportunity. Some points worth noting from the Catholic News Service story:

1. Abuse cases peaked in the early 1970s: The study data begins with 1950 and continues more or less to the present. Declines since 1970 probably have a couple of explanations, first of which is greater awareness of and attention to the reality of the sexual abuse of minors and implementation of prevention protocols. A second is that it can take decades for victims to come forward, so there may be more to come. I think it likely that we have turned a corner in the U.S. Catholic church at least. Time will tell.

2. 70 percent of abusers were ordained before 1970; 44 percent before 1960. This puts to rest the canard that seminary formation suddenly went down the tubes after Vatican II. It was actually after Vatican II that the "human formation" the report lauds began to be implemented in seminaries, a curriculum largely lacking before then. That curriculum didn't really get implemented until after 1970.

3. Just because the majority of victims were male does not mean abusers themselves were homosexual. As the study points out, sexual behavior and sexual identity are not the same thing. Abusers had more access to boys than to girls, and it's notable that most victims were over 11–about the time they would have been altar servers. One hopes this will put to rest the oft-repeated falsehood that homosexually oriented priests were more likely to abuse than heterosexual ones. The study did find a correlation between abuse and priests with a "confused sexual identity" or an "emotional affinity to adolescents"; in other words, priests who were psychosexually "stuck," not those whose adult sexual orientation was homosexual. One wonders if the Vatican will now lift the post-crisis ban on admitting gay men to orders.

4. One correlation that I don't find totally convincing is the claim that the culture of the 1970s (drug use, divorce, crime), which Laurie Goodstein covered in The New York Times, somehow contributed to the abuse of minors. I don't see any direct evidence for it, save the apparent spike in reports of abuse. I think it more likely that sexual abuse has always been going on; we as a society have just become more aware of it, and victims now have more social support ot come forward.

The long-awaited report confirms what I think is the general consensus of experts: The key to preventing child sexual abuse is education, safe environment programs, and solid human formation. What hasn't fully happened yet, as the situation in Philadelphia is showing, is the full participation and accountability of bishops, which has always been as serious problem as child sexual abuse itself. The causes and contexts study didn't dig deeply into this crucial question.

About the author

Bryan Cones

Bryan Cones is a writer living in Chicago.