The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse by Priests

Originally posted on May 26, 2011

Last week the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York released two reports about the prevalence of sexual abuse. This post is about the first, the Catholic Church, The Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States. The findings caused some controversy as the results did not match up with many of the presumptions people hold about the prevalence of sexual abuse by priests or how the Church handled the accusations.

The study began in 2004. Most of the data stops at 2002, although some includes data from 2003. The researchers used a double-blind method to ensure the anonymity of the victims and the accused priests. They used a number system and birth dates to track priests with multiple allegations against them. They sent extensive questionnaires to the dioceses that the Church mandated the dioceses must complete and return. The majority of the dioceses complied with the mandate, and it does not appear that any attempted to hide or withhold information.

The researchers found that while allegations of abuse increased in the last two decades, most of the allegations reported abuse from the 1970s. According to the findings, 3,445 or 35.5% of all alleged abuse occurred during the 1970s. That time frame also accounts for 36% of the allegations made in 2002. Allegations made in the 1990s and early 2000s only accounted for 6.2% of all allegations and 2.8% of allegations made in 2002. As the study explains:

When the incidents recorded in the surveys are tallied for each year of occurrence (of each incident), the resulting figure shows that 75% of the events were alleged to occur between 1960 and 1984. This result should be considered together with the declining percentage of priests ordained in each year.

Based on the available data, it would appear that the majority of the incidents of abuse occurred between 1960 and 1980.

This finding prompted some outrage because of the explanation given for this surge in abuse. That explanation comes from the second study, which I will address in the next post. In purely technical terms, this finding is not unusual given the age range of most offending priests. The study found that the average age for an offending clergyman was 39 and the median age was 35. Most of the offending priests offended during their late 20s and 30s, accounting for about 61% of all abuse. Since the rate of ordination decreased in recent years, one could expect a decrease in the rate of abuse.

It would appear then that abuse occurs less frequently that it did previously. However, given that most victims came forward decades after the abuse occurred, one could argue that current victims would not come forward now. 

Another telling finding:

The majority of priests (56%) were alleged to have abused one victim, nearly 27% were alleged to have abused two or three victims, nearly 14% were alleged to have abused four to nine victims and 3.4% were alleged to have abused more than ten victims. The 149 priests (3.5%) who had more than ten allegations of abuse were allegedly responsible for abusing 2,960 victims, thus accounting for 26% of allegations. Therefore, a very small percentage of accused priests are responsible for a substantial percentage of the allegations.

The researchers provided an explanation for this difference:

The most widely accepted classification of child molesters follows a dichotomous model consisting of fixated offenders and regressed offenders.5 A fixated offender is characterized as having a persistent, continual, and compulsive attraction to children. In contrast, regressed offenders are individuals who are primarily attracted to adults, but who are perceived to engage in sexual activity with children in response to particular stressors (e.g., marital problems and unemployment) or contextual variables (e.g., stress or loneliness). Subsequent research has demonstrated that while these two concepts are still important in terms of describing sexual abusing types, this classification alone is not sufficiently nuanced to describe the complexities of child sexual abusers. Instead, fixation can be understood to exist on a continuum, meaning that all offending behavior is likely to result from some varying degrees of a combination of stable personal characteristics (e.g., substance abuse) with contextual variables (e.g., depression). It is clear that multiple subtypes of offenders exist within 37 the population of sex offenders; however, there is no single classification system that has strong empirical support.

According to the study, 1 in 3 priests accused of abuse experienced substance abuse issues, behavioral problems, or “fitness for ministry” issues. Only 6.8% of accused priests reported experiencing childhood abuse, although the researchers rightly pointed out that the rate was based on what priests told the Church. It is entirely possible that more priests were abused and did not reveal it, which hints at an issue with the data the study uses.

It is possible that priests with only one allegation against them abused more than one child. The study does not report whether priests self-disclosed other instances of abuse, so rather than take those findings to mean that most priests who abuse only do it once, we should read the data as only one child accused the priest of abuse.

Another key finding:

A report to the police resulted in an investigation in almost all cases (see Tables 3.7.1 and 3.7.2). Only 384 of the 4,392 priests and deacons were criminally charged (see Table 3.6.3). The comparative percentages for diocesan, religious and extern priests investigated by the police and subsequently charged are generally equivalent.

Of the 384 priests who were charged with a crime, a majority (252) were convicted.

Barely 3% of the priests accused of sexual abuse were convicted. That is a terribly low number, however, it is not unreasonable given the situation. Most of the accusations against priests involve kissing, fondling, masturbation, oral sex, and penetration. All of these are difficult to prove without evidence, and near impossible to prove decades after the fact. This is less an issue of police not taking the allegations seriously (although according to the study they are more likely to investigate if there are multiple allegations) and more an issue of victims coming forward years later when no evidence remains to support their cases. There is also the issue of “telescoping”:

If abuse is reported years after it occurred, there may be errors in the accuracy of the report due to “telescoping,” or the likelihood that an individual will report the event as happening earlier or later than it actually occurred7. Several social science studies have tested the telescoping phenomenon. Several studies found that forward-telescoping, or recalling a past event as having occurred more recently than it actually did, is more prevalent than backward telescoping. One study showed that memory disorientations, such as telescoping, occur more often in survey respondents 55 years or older than respondents less than 55 years of age. Another study portrayed survey participants as showing a tendency to forward-telescope events that were prominent in their lives. In other words, these survey respondents showed a higher likelihood of recalling significant life events, such as crime victimization, as occurring more recently in time than the event actually did. Yet another study examined the existence of telescoping in crime victimization surveys and found that non-reported incidents were telescoped by respondents to a slightly greater extent than incidents reported to the police.

Simply put: it is difficult to charge, let alone convict, someone based solely on one person’s word, especially years after the abuse occurred. However, when there is a conviction, most receive a combination of probation and prison or jail time.

That does not change that the Church’s response leaves much to be desired:

The study data showed that 1,627 priests had been provided with some form of sex offender treatment, and 1,394 had been sent to a specific sex offender treatment facility at least once. Of those whose problems had prompted sex offender treatment, a substantial number, 744, or 45.7%, received more than one type of treatment. Of this group of 744 priests, a majority of 425, or 57%, participated in some form of treatment three times and 244, or 32.8%, four times. The handwritten notes on the surveys for these latter two groups of priests detailed the continuing efforts of diocesan and religious community leaders to respond constructively to sex abuse problems.

That seems reasonable except that less than 10% of priests accused of abuse were removed from the clergy. More priests, around 20%, choice to resign than those the Church kicked out. While the Church appears to try to address the situation, they do not turn the accused priests over to the police, nor do they remove the offenders from positions where they would continue to have access to children. Treatment only works to an extent. No one would treat an alcoholic and then have him work at a bar. Yet that is the equivalent of what the Church does.

The study also tracked the gender breakdown of the victims:

The majority of victims are males between the ages of 11-17, and just over half (50.7%) of all individuals who made allegations of abuse were between the ages of 11-14. The average age of all alleged victims is 12.6. This number has increased over time, however. In the 1950s, the average age was 11.5; in the 1960s it was 12; in the 1970s it was 12.87; in the 1980s it was 13.2; and by the 1990s it was 13.87.

While girls were more likely to get threatened in specific ways, boys were more likely to receive a combination of threats to keep them silent. Another curious finding was that most of the victims came from two-parent homes. Most of the priests who abused children ingratiated themselves into the victim’s family. Most of the priests used alcohol or drugs to ply their victims. A similar number of priests used recreational events or friendship to groom their victims. The study demonstrates that few of the incidents occur without some sort of planning.

There is a lot more to the study that what I included. It is well-worth the read as it gives a good insight into the prevalence of abuse as the Church notes it and what those offending priests actually did.

The most revealing aspect of the study is that abusive priests are not any different from the average offender. They use the same tactics, appear to fit the same profile, and are a small group of the general population. According to the study, abusive priests make up 2% to 5% of the total number of priests within the Church. In other words, a handful of priests commit a lot of abuse.

I think the biggest problem is how the Church chose to deal with these men. Instead of turning them over to the authorities, they kept it “in the family”. That secrecy invites speculation and distrust. Of course, the study cannot count what was not reported, so we do only see a portion of the total picture. The question is how much of that picture does the study reveal.

2 thoughts on “The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse by Priests

  1. Pingback: The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse By Priests « Toy Soldiers

  2. Pingback: You’re not helping v11 | Toy Soldiers

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