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Priests, Abuse, and the Meltdown of a Culture
The lessons of an important new study.


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George Weigel

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.

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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.



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