The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse By Priests

Originally posted on May 29, 2011

As mentioned in the previous post, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York conducted two studies to determine the nature and extent of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The first study considered the nature and scope of the abuse. The second, The  Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse Minors by US Catholic Priests 1950-2010, considered the reasons why the abuse occurred.

Llet us start with the most contentious issues. A few people complained about the study not considering boys minors or something to that effect. The study stated nothing of the sort. The researchers drew a distinction between sexual attraction to children under 12 and sexual attraction children over 12. The term pedophile applies to those sexually attracted to prepubescent children. The study found that the majority of the victims were over the age of 12, prompting the researchers to use the term ephebophile. As explained in the report:

An analysis of data on accused priests and victims of sexual abuse from the Nature and Scope study revealed that, if pedophilic behavior was defined as the exclusive presence of two or more victims under the age of eleven, then ninety-six priests, or 3.8 percent of those who were reported to have had two or more victims, could be classified as pedophiles. If ephebophilic behavior was defined as the exclusive presence of two or more male victims between the ages of thirteen and seventeen, then 474, or 18.9 percent of the accused priests who had multiple victims could be classified as ephebophiles. If these psychologically defined groups are considered in relation to the overall count of accused priests from the Nature and Scope study, then the pedophile group represents 2 percent and the ephebophile group 10.8 percent of the 4,392 priest-abusers described in the Nature and Scope study. The remaining priest-abusers committed an offense against a single victim or targeted victims of different ages and/or genders.

The study went on to state:

Furthermore, the large group of priest-abusers labeled “generalists” (those whose victim selection was varied by age and gender) confirms research indicating that offenders least likely to specialize in victim type would have the most sexual offenses of all groups.

The researchers found that the majority of the offenders did not exclusively abuse one group of victims. They abused children of different sexes and different ages, although most were boys in their early teens. Curiously, the study provided no explanation for this preference of abusing teenage boys outside of priests having greater access to them. However, the greater access would not explain why the average age of victims increased each decade from 11-years-olds in the 1960s to 13-years-old by the 1980s.

Another contentious issue was that of homosexual priests. Some people believe that priests who abuse boys do so because they are homosexuals. The study found that this was not the case:

Priests who identified themselves at the time of treatment as gay/homosexual, bisexual, or confused, were more likely to have post-ordination sexual behavior than those who considered themselves to be heterosexual, though the nonheterosexual priests were more likely to participate in sexual behavior with adults than with minors. Those who identified themselves as bisexual or confused were significantly more likely to have minor victims than priests who identified as either homosexual or heterosexual, although the number of priests who identified themselves in this manner was very small in comparison to the number of priests who labeled themselves as either homosexual or heterosexual.

The data do not support a finding that homosexual identity and/or preordination same-sex sexual behavior are significant risk factors for the sexual abuse of minors. The only significant risk factor related to sexual identity and behavior was a “confused” sexual identity, and this condition was most commonly found in abusers who were ordained prior to the 1960s.

A few people focused on that finding and implied that the increased presence of gay priests resulted in a decrease in abuse. This is not the case. The study actually stated:

Men in the seminaries in the late 1970s and in the 1980s (a large portion of whom were homosexuals) were members of cohorts that were identified with a decreased incidence of abuse—not an increased incidence of abuse.

There is no direct correlation or causation as the decrease in the reports matches the general decrease in crime that began in the 1980s. The increase of gay priests proves at best incidental.

The study also found that many priests did violate their vows of celibacy, however, it was overwhelmingly with consenting adult partners. Essentially, neither celibacy or homosexuality caused sexual abuse towards boys or in general, so the notion that more gay priests or allowing priests to marry would reduce sexual abuse holds no water.

What did prompt sexually abusive priests to act out were instances of stress and isolation. According to the study, a substantial number of priests accused of sexual abuse reported feeling lonely, isolated, and stressed by the demands placed on them. Many non-offending priests who received treatment for other issues (such as substance abuse, alcoholism, or mental illnesses) reported the same thing. The more stressed a person becomes, the more likely they will act out. Offending priests chose to abuse children, although many of them did turn to substance abuse and other behaviors as well.

The researchers repeatedly mentioned that most of the priests accused of crimes only had one allegation against them. This would bolster the researchers’ findings that stress and isolation, along with opportunity and a lack of oversight, leads to abuse. However, problem with the researchers’ conclusion is that there is no way to know if these one-time offenders were actually one-time offenders. The researchers acknowledge that they cannot know of all instances of abuse. Yet by assuming that the reported allegations were the only instances of abuse the researchers present a potentially misleading picture.

This potential misleading picture becomes more problematic when the researchers cite the dates for the reported abuse. According to the reports the researchers reviewed, the majority of the allegations occurred during the late 1960s into the early 1970s. The researchers concluded that cultural changes at that time led to an increases in abuse, although they provided no data supporting that conclusion. They listed other cultural issues at the time, but presented nothing coming directly from offending priests to warrant their claim. The researchers went on to claim that the decrease in abuse reports stemmed from changes made by the Church and cultural shifts. Again, there is no concrete evidence supporting this.

The researchers also overlooked that victims were less likely to come forward immediately following the abuse during the ‘crisis’ period between 1960 to 1980. The data showed that this shift occurred rather dramatically. Prior to the 1960s, most of reports concerned cases that occurred within the past year. By the end of the 1990s, most of the reports concerns cases from the 1960s and 1970s:

More than 80 percent of pre-1985 reports of sexual abuse were made to the diocese within a year of the incident, and three quarters of the reports were made by the victim or a family member. The most common request was that help be provided for the priest-offender. Often, the families did not want publicity nor did they wish to confront the priest; in other cases, families were pressured by church leaders to keep the incident confidential. Under such circumstances, a course of action toward a canonical trial or a criminal indictment was not very likely.

There is a clear shift in dealing with sex abuse claims, and that shift could impact victims’ willingness to come forward. Since most of the cases being reported today occurred during the late 1970s into the early 1990s, one could assume that the average victim does not report the abuse until at least 10 years after the abuse occurred. This potentially means that the apparent decrease in abuse reports may not demonstrate a significant decrease in the rate of abuse, but rather reflects the delay in reporting abuse.

Another explanation for the apparent decrease is that the ages of the active priests have changed. According to the study, the majority of the offending priests were in their late 20s to early 40s when they first offended, with the average age being 39-years-old. Most of the active priests today are in their 60s and 70s. Since older priests are less likely to offend, it makes sense that fewer cases would get reported now. It also makes sense that there were more reports of abuse occurring during the 1960s and 1970s as the Church ordained more young priests at that time.

The study also explained the substantial abuse of boys as a result of accessibility:

Interestingly, an increase in the number of male victims occurred during the peak years of the abuse crisis. Two explanations for this trend are possible: first, it can be hypothesized that priests would have been seeking out male victims to abuse, or alternatively, it can be hypothesized that priests would have been abusing the victims to whom they had access. If the first hypothesis is supported, an indication of this activity would be found in the clinical (individual-level) data. In other words, more men would be driven by pathologies related to the sexual abuse of minors. The clinical data do not support this explanation (see Chapter 3). If the second hypothesis is supported, then priests would have had more access to males and would have been committing more offenses with those to whom they had access. Though it is difficult to test this hypothesis with retrospective data, this assertion is supported by additional data, shown below in Table 5.2 and Figure 5.1. The data show that the highest percentage of males were abused at the peak of the crisis. This finding also corresponds with the highest levels of alcohol/substance use during the abuse time period, which is consistent with the literature on “situational” abuse of minors. Additionally, it should be noted that altar servers could only be male until the promulgation to the revisions of canon law in 1983 (and confirmed through letters from Pope John Paul II in 1992). The Table and Figure below show the substantial increase in the percentage of female victims in the late 1990s and 2000s, when priests had more access to them in the church.

The study reported that in the early 2000s, 55.2% of victims were boys and 44.8% were girls. From 1995 to 1999, the split was 69.3% and 30.7 % respectively. From the 1970 to 1994 the split was 85.3% and 14.6%. However, between 1950 to 1969 the split was closer to that of the late 1990s. The study offered no explanation for why would have occurred. An obvious explanation is that fewer male victims came forward, but that would not explain the extent of the gender gap.

There is some reason for priests targeting teen boys that goes beyond accessibility and opportunity, particularly since the study found that priests met their victims predominantly at mass (33.8% of boys and 27.1% of girls), and that abuse via meeting through Church-related altar services, such as altar services, accounted for only 12.3% of boys and 10.7% of girls. It would appear that priests had equal access to boys and girls, yet focused predominantly on boys.

One potential explanation is that many of the priests accused of abuse, 37%, were sexually abused as children. It is possible that this experience of abuse made them more likely to act out, particularly in situations of high stress and loneliness, and especially given the apparent lack of psychological support in the Church prior to 1985. Yet the majority of accused priests were not abused, so there may be something else at play.

One last contentious issue is the Church’s handling of the crisis. As I stated in the previous post, the Church did a poor job of addressing the situation. According to the study:

Those bishops who were not in position in the late 1990s were far more likely to place sexual abuse committed by Catholic clergy in a far wider and evolving framework. These individuals’ survey answers point to similar societal patterns and causes and to faulty seminary teaching and formation programs as contributors to the crisis of sexual abuse. Bishops not in position in the late 1990s were far more likely to acknowledge that the earlier diocesan protective focus on the priest-abuser eclipsed the most serious dimension of clergy abuse: harm done to the victim. The failure to recognize the harm of physical or sexual abuse was not atypical in American society generally in the late 1970s and 1980s; this was a time when the understanding of the rights of women and children was just developing. Although neglect or blame of victims was commonplace, the Catholic laity would not be able to accept this behavior from church leaders.

It went on to state:

The data show that the majority (80 percent) of dioceses did respond to the Five Principles in some way. However, there was a diversity of type and speed of response, and some dioceses did not grasp the urgency of the need for change. One notable change was the immediate response to an accusation against a priest: no longer was it acceptable to “reprimand and return to the parish.” Following the creation of the Five Principles, a response to a sexual abuse allegation was much more likely to be a referral to a treatment center for evaluation and then possible residential treatment. Survey data indicate that the dioceses who did respond took the issue seriously. However, change based on the major thrust of the principles toward transparency and remediation for victims was not uniformly evident.

The Five Principles are guidelines based on the late Cardinal Bernardin’s report on how to address sex abuse claims. As the study noted, the dioceses did not respond uniformly within the guidelines. Some bishops moved accused priests to different parishes without notifying the community of the prior allegations. Often the parishioners were misled or misinformed about the reason for the moves.  Diocesan leaders would not report the cases to the police, and would block anyone’s attempts to do so. They also withheld information from official reports, and intimidated victims who sought civil litigation.

The study listed some of the things that would occur when priests attempted to report abuse committed by other priests:

• The bishop refused to speak with me and told me to knock it off. Then the director of personnel said to leave the priest alone, we were ruining his reputation.

• The bishop wondered about the victim’s credibility and did not want this in the press, which the victim was threatening.

• I met with the bishop; afterwards I heard him speaking about the abusing priests on several occasions, dismissing the accusations.

• I was told that the matter was being handled internally, but never got any follow-up.

• The bishops did whatever they felt like doing and whatever they could to avoid tarnishing their image.

• In the late 60s we had heard of it. But up until then such behavior was, at least to me, inconceivable…

In one case, a priest who had been abused as a child by a priest tried to find his abuser. The Church did not help him, although he did eventually locate the man at a parish near his childhood home. When the victimized priest attempted to get the abusive priest removed, the leaders turned on him and accused him of lying, exaggerating, bringing up the past, and trying to ruin the other priest’s life. His status as a priest was also placed in jeopardy. Eventually the abusive priest was removed, and the victim is still an active priest.

Nevertheless, what happened to this priest was not uncommon. The researchers try to show the Church is a good light, but the evidence they presented clearly demonstrates that even now the Church still does not respond properly or effectively to abuse allegations.

There is a lot more to the study than what I mentioned here. What stands out is that there is nothing that explicitly causes priests to abuse and there is no way of detecting who is a potential abuser. This should be obvious. They are discernibly no different than a non-offending priest. Many of them may not actually harbor any attraction to children or teens per se. Rather, situations in the offending priests’ lives may prompt them to act out. However, it does appear that while the abusers are equal opportunists, they do choose more male victims than female victims. Abusive priests represent a fraction of the total priest population, around 3% to 5%. Also, the Church does a terrible job of addressing this problem. While they have improved over the years, it is still not good enough.

One thing is certain: there are a host of excuses made for abusive priests, and unfortunately this study provides a rather odd one. It seems unlikely that the rate of sexual violence in the Church would shoot up so dramatically and then fall just because of the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. Something else is at play.

The researchers noted that many organizations, like law enforcement, lack oversight and control. Many people in power are removed from the day-to-day motions, and lack understanding or knowledge the extent of the problem. But even that does not explain why this occurs. It is not because abusers sought to become priests to gain access to children. The study found that occurred in least than a fifth of the cases.

While the study provides a ton of information about the known rate of abuse in the Church, the pertinent questions concerning the causes and context of sexual abuse committed by priests remains unclear.


11 thoughts on “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse By Priests

  1. @TS…

    Your analysis of this report is first class. Well and truly among your best work.

    Well done sir.

  2. You hear about this abuse in the Catholic church and I have to ask, what about protestants?
    Are Priests under the MANY beliefs of Protestantism not commiting these heinous, or are protestants not coming forward and reporting the abuse.
    If the former this brings to question, What is it about catholicism and the catholic hierarch that encourages and promotes this behavior?
    If the latter its even worse. What can we do to encourage people to report their abuse and tell their storys and what is it about christianity ITSELF that enocourages this behavior.
    (Im really hoping its only the former)

  3. Madhippy, the report does mention other faiths. They all have their problems. If I recall correctly, Protestant churches do not keep as extensive files on abuse as the Catholic branches do, but there just as many complaints in their churches. Most of the faiths either had similar rates or a policy of not tracking the abuse to keep the information secret.

  4. I wasnt trying to defame or bash protestantism, my goal was to ask why it is catholicism? why not others? whats the cause? whats the solution? Im just curious about what element of religion is encouraging this act in such outragous numbers!
    It baffles me that this is so wide spread in catholicism.

  5. @ Stoner with a boner
    The sick irony here is DADT insinuated that gay people with straight people hurts unit cohestion, so all cases of open gay soldiers are discharged. But when you are raped by the soldier next to you they say they’res now way that could hurt unit cohestion and its not worth are time.

  6. my goal was to ask why it is catholicism?

    That is because the Catholic Church requested and partially funded the study. As for why the abuse is so wide spread, the study explains that this sort of abuse occurs in many organizations with bureaucratic power structures. It is impossible to prevent any abuse from occurring, but organizations where so many people are alone with potential victims, groups with a lack of oversight or substantiative punishments, and situations in which a handful of people occupy trustworthy positions allow for more abuse to occur. Virtually all the instances of extreme abuse happen in places where people are trusted members of the community (churches, Boy Scouts) or where they have unquestionable power (prisons, law enforcement). So there is nothing about religion per se that encourages abuse. It is the situation religions create as a result of their organizational structure that leads to more abuse.

  7. Pingback: Double standards and blind eyes | Toy Soldiers

  8. Pingback: 4,444 vitcims: The travesty of sexual abuse in Australia’s Catholic Churches | Toy Soldiers

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