Scandal Déjà Vu

A religion writer for a secular news organization and a retired church official were comparing notes on developments relating to clergy sex abuse. At the time, the Vatican was preparing to issue guidelines for bishops’ conferences in handling the problem (the American conference has had guidelines for nine years). The U.S. bishops were getting ready to release a long-awaited study of the causes. And, in just a few weeks, the bishops as a group were to debate amendments to their abuse policy.

“And this,” the former church official remarked, “is what we call putting the issue behind us.”

As noted, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will again be working on putting the issue behind it at its June 15-17 general assembly in Seattle. The major item of business on the agenda is amending the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” adopted by the USCCB at its Dallas meeting in June 2002 — at the height of the outcry over disclosures of cover-up of sex abuse of children by Catholic priests, which had been appearing in the Boston Globe and other media for months.

As further noted, the bishops’ deliberations in Seattle will take place against the background of yet another flurry of interest in the abuse issue generated by new events. Possibly the most notable of these is the May 18 release of a study commissioned back in 2002 by the bishops’ conference.

The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, is the work of researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Carried out at a cost of $1.8 million, filling 143 oversized double-column pages, and accompanied by 481 footnotes, the study may in time be accepted as the authoritative account of what happened and why. But — predictably — its appearance was greeted with skepticism or worse by victims’ groups and a variety of sources on the Catholic left and right.

On the whole, Causes and Context is relatively good news for the Church. As has been reported before, sexual abuse by minors rose sharply in the 1960s, peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s, then went into a sharp and continuing decline starting in 1985. By 2010 (according to figures collected for USCCB by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate), only seven credible allegations of new sex abuse by priests were reported to American dioceses.

Although new abuse is down, however, abuse in the past unquestionably left tragedy and disaster in its wake. Since 1950, American dioceses are said to have received abuse claims from more than 15,700 people directed against about 6,000 priests. American Catholics have paid out well over $2 billion in settlements and related costs. Seven dioceses, the Oregon province of the Society of Jesus, and the Christian Brothers of North America have filed for bankruptcy.


What caused clergy sex abuse?

The John Jay study rejects the idea that it was celibacy. But it also rejects the idea that the cause was homosexuality — even though more than 80 percent of the abuse victims were boys. The researchers sum up this way: “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 abuse children than those with a heterosexual orientation or behavior.” Similarly, the problem wasn’t pedophilia. Only 5 percent of the abusive priests were pedophiles – -men attracted to young children.

So what did cause the trouble? The study sees a combination of causes at work. Seminary education in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s typically provided seminarians with little or nothing in the way of “human formation” (an omission that has since been corrected). As a result, some of these priests faced the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s psychologically unprepared to handle the pressure — and some of them succumbed.

This explanation does not satisfy conservatives who are sure homosexuality was the problem. The argument will go on.

Meanwhile, the uncovering of old cases of abuse and cover-up continues to bedevil the Church. The most conspicuous case in point lately has been Philadelphia, where a grand jury report in February accused the archdiocese of mishandling the cases of 37 priests. The archdiocese then placed 26 priests on administrative leave. Several priests and a monsignor formerly in charge of clergy assignments are facing trial.

The chairman of the USCCB committee on protecting children calls the Philadelphia situation an “anomaly.” There is another anomaly in the latest report on compliance with the national policy, which found two small dioceses — Lincoln, Nebraska, and Baker, Oregon — continuing to refuse cooperation with these annual surveys. Several jurisdictions of Eastern Churches are in the same boat, but their problem appears to be lack of resources. With Lincoln and Baker, it’s a matter of principle.

It also was a matter of principle in 1992 for bishops who refused to accept and implement five sensible principles for the handling of sexual abuse, promulgated on a voluntary basis by the conference of bishops. “Nobody’s going to tell me what to do in my diocese” was the typical rationale. And so the stage was set for the calamities of 2002.

Of the many lessons in the sex-abuse scandal, the most important may concern accountability. The Causes and Context study closes on that note. Declaring that “transparency/accountability” should be part of the “ordinary practice and culture” of every diocese, the document notes that this happy state of affairs “has not yet been realized.”

How much more harm and embarrassment will the Church have to suffer before it is? As the bishops go about their work in Seattle, that question should be at the very top of their list. And let us hope the deliberations of the USCCB, instead of taking place in executive sessions as they so often do, are a model of transparency and accountability for a change.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • James Findlayson

    Wherever Jansenism is to be found, it’s not far away.

  • Gabriel Austin

    The bishop of Lincoln Nebraska refused the jurisdiction of the committee quite simply because it had no canonical standing. The USCCB is about as relevant as the ELKS, perhaps less so. The Dallas charter was an escape mechanism for the bishops, as Fr. Dulles wrote in his FIRST THINGS article.

    The bishop of Lincoln had a simple answer for abusive priests: call the cops. This puts both accused and accuser under the jurisdiction of the laws of this country, with its protections and requirements of proof. Would that all the bishops had done this, instead of running for cover.

  • BDM

    Good point Gabriel…when I heard from a seminarian friend of mine that Bishop Bruskewitz (?) of Lincoln called all his priests together and told them if they are molesting anyone he will visit them in jail…I wondered why this wasn’t the reaction of the USCCB? All volunteers and CCD teachers and Eucharis…um extraordinary ministers that bring Jesus to the homebound must watch that horrifying 3 hour debacle” Protecting God’s Children.” Then be fingerprinted and checked locally and nationally by the FBI…but the priests have no requirements? Who exactly is the USCCB protecting?

  • Tony Wawrzynski

    If the excerpt Mr. Shaw provides in this article is representative of the analysis offered by the John Jay report, then, as another writer on this site has suggested, the bishops should ask for their money back. Perhaps the researchers should have seriously considered why over eighty percent of the abuse victims were males. Simply asserting that “the data” doesn’t support the theory the homosexuals are more likely to molest minors ignores that rather salient fact. The speculation that boys were more accessible because there were no altar girls is pathetic. If they had wanted girls or women, it would have been easy enough. How long did it take our high-priced experts to cook up that one? Of course, homosexuality in the clergy is a big cause of many other problem that have afflicted the Church over the last fifty years. If out of political correctness we can’t even bring ourselves to acknowledge its role in this scandal, then there is every reason to believe that we will continue to flounder.

    • Michael PS

      The distinction between a victim’s gender and a perpetrator’s sexual orientation is important because many child molesters do not really have an adult sexual orientation. They have never developed the capacity for mature sexual relationships with other adults, either men or women. Instead, their sexual attractions focus on children – boys, girls, or children of both sexes.

      In other words, many child molesters cannot be meaningfully described as homosexuals, heterosexuals, or bisexuals (in the usual sense of those terms) because they are not really capable of a relationship with an adult man or woman. Instead of gender, their sexual attractions are based primarily on age. These individuals are attracted to children, not to men or women.

      This analysis has a long history and is supported by a study “Adult Sexual Orientation & Attractiom to Underage Persons” by Groth AN, Birnbaum HJ (1978)

      • Michael PS,
        The John Jay report states that less than 5% of the priests exhibited the character traits of a pedophile.
        It also states that the majority of priest offenders who entered residential treatment also reported having had sex with adults. So where does that place your insight?….less than 5% of the abusers?
        Serial womanizers in the greater national population do not need relationship capacity to do what they do….e.g. Charley Sheen, Tiger Woods,
        President Clinto.
        81% of victims were male while females in the general national population are three times more likely to be abused.

        • PS
          So in the general population of the USA, females are 3 times more likely to be abused but within the Catholic situation males are 4 times more likely to be abused.
          The report made a very quick non sequitur about the homosexual factor. It said there was a gay subculture in seminaries in the 80’s and 90’s but a decreasing incidence of abuse. It said there was no such gay subculture in the 50’s which produced many of the offenders. Ergo….it wasn’t gays.

          They never explored whether that older generation was precisely the gays who could not come out of the closet to parents in those very different days…..parents who would have abused them even physically in the Irish case that I’m familiar with if they did….so they entered the
          priesthood as an immoral solution to their situation
          of great fear of parents. Then it would not just be a
          gay thing….but a gays who hid from family thing in an institution that required a call from God. Ergo we could be dealing with a generation specific “gays who would commit sacrilege to avoid parental wrath” phenomenon…..which would explain the turn downward in cases after that generation was gone. Later generations could come out to their parents.

        • Michael PS

          The report arrived at its 5% figure for paedophiles by setting the age limit of victims very low – 10 years old, whereas most other studies have used 13.

          We could well be seeing two causes, rather than one: a small number of true paedophiles, drawn to an institution that gives them privileged access to pre-pubescent boys and girls and a larger number who were not paedophiles, in that sense, but who sought a position of power to exploit vulnerable young people.

  • John Zmirak

    The best commentary on this sad, inadequate report comes from Phil Lawler, author of The Faithful Departed, the definitive book on the scandal. Here is his commentary:

    The bottom line? The bishops are holding abusers responsible, but not the bishops who covered up for them. Those bishops are the REAL scandal, and every single one of them will retire with a golf club in his pudgy pink fingers.

  • Aida

    Did anyone see this rather strong Open Message to Pope Benedict ? It says that the Vatican was supposed to have released the 3rd Secret of Fatima 50 years ago? Its on an audio at :

  • Tom

    Prof Z, totally agree. The other extremely distressing message is that abuse of a 11 or 12 year old by a priest is no longer considered abuse of a child in the Catholic Church. Are these people crazy??? This is just plain sick, sick, sick. Basically the hierarchy is in league with the Polanskis of this world and their protectors. How can one even contemplate fighting abortion, let alone sex before marriage … with people like that in charge? Where is the credibility?

    • Michael PS


      Abuse of a minor is a moral (and legal) concept, whereas paedophilia is a psychological one and refers to a sexual attraction (often exclusive) to pre-pubescent children, usually defined as those lacking secondary sexual characteristics.

      In dealing with a mass of data, the chronological age of the victims is only a rather rough guide to the onset of puberty. Ten, the age adopted by the report, strikes me as rather low and the more commonly adopted age of thirteen is rather high, certainly for girls, but may be about right for boys.

      I would stress that this relates solely to the definition of a discrete psychological condition, not to the morality or legality of actions.

  • Tom

    “discrete psychological”
    I happen to be a health professional. As part of my job I actually deal with abuse cases from both a medical and legal point of view. I know what I am talking about. An 11 and 12 year old child are 11 and 12 year old child. This new definition by the bishops is scandalous for every point of view, starting with the physiological/developmental.
    The apologists are even worse in my eyes. Don’t you remember being of that age? Shame on you. This is disgusting, it makes me want to vomit, period.