US Catholic Faith in Real Life

John Jay Causes and Contexts study: Second thoughts

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Having spent some more time with the John Jay report and slogging through media coverage (check out Meghan Murphy-Gill's reflections on the same), I'm still having trouble getting my head around the claim that the culture of the 1970s somehow accounted for a spike in sexual assaults by Roman Catholic priests on children. Why would increasing rates of divorce, drug use, and crime provoke a priest to sexually assault a child? Things that make me wonder:

1. The "spike": The data clearly shows a pattern of incidents of abuse, growing through the 1960s and spiking in the late 70s, then declining sharply. An important consideration is that most allegations of abuse (more than two thirds) were reported after 1993.

And there's the rub: It can take decades for a victim to feel confident enough to report abuse. So, if victims start reporting en masse in 1993 (big spike in 2002 when Boston broke), subtract 20 years and you are in the 1970s. So it doesn't surprise me that there should be a lot of cases dating to the 1970s.

In other words, I think the further back in time we go, the less confident we can be that the data is telling the whole story of abuse. I'd be willing to bet there are a lot of pre-1970 cases that were never reported and will never be known. What I think is more reliable is the precipitous drop after 1980; by then society as a whole and the church had become more aware of the issue, and seminary formation especially began to emphasize human development.

2. "Pedophile priests": Commentators have made a lot of the fact that the John Jay folks made their cut-off for pedophilia at 10 instead of 13, and so argued that "pedophile priests" was a misnomer. If they had chosen a different age, a great many more events of abuse could have been described as pedophilia.

But I don't think we need to think too hard to figure out why so many victims were boys between the ages of 11 and 14: Those are prime ages for serving during Mass, when priests would have had more private access to boys--both in liturgy and outside of it--during which time they could engage in grooming behavior. I'm not convinced there were a great many compulsive pedophiles among abusers. In fact, about 3.5 percent fo abusers (150 priests or so) accounted for about 25 percent of the assaults. Those are the serial abusers.

3. Homosexuality: The study goes to some lengths to point out that men whose adult sexual orientation was homosexual were no more likely to abuse than heterosexuals; indeed when seminarians self-identifying as gay, beginning in the 1970s, correlates with a drop in incidents of abuse. In other words, the gender of the victim does not correlate with the sexual identity of the abuser. I don't think this is a shock to people who study sexual abuse of children. The attraction is the child, not the child's gender, and the key is unsupervised access. With few girls serving before the 1980s, I'm not surprised that most fo the victims were boys.

Another bit of data to consider is that 70 percent of abusers were ordained before 1970, and so were formed in the "old system": Many entered seminary as pre-adolescents (freshmen in high school) and never left until they were ordained at 26. I think it entirely possible that this small subgroup (the abusers) never really matured sexually, and so got "stuck" at the age they entered that all-male environment. They never made an adult sexual adjustment, and when they found themselves lonely, emotional adolescents they were, they sought an "emotional peer"--a preadolescent boy--even though they were in their 30s.

That theory is worth about as much as the pixels that make it show up on screen, but I think it represents one insufficiently explored path. When I went to college seminary as a sophomore, several friends were from one of the few remaining residential high school seminaries, where, it turned out, there was a definite pattern of abuse and also a certain amount of discomfort and immaturity regarding sexuality. I wonder how often that pattern was repeated, and if it correlates at all with the experience of those men ordained before 1970 (or even later) who became abusers.

Despite anyone's desire--the media or the bishops or the researchers--to focus on the sexual revolution, it's obvious that the findings are much more complex and raise even more questions worth exploring.