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Clergy sex abuse blame game

  • 02 June 2011

The recently published John Jay Report on sexual abuse in the United States Catholic Church received only passing attention in Australia. But it is important both because of its attention to sociological evidence, and because of the larger questions that it raises.

The report shows that the number of reported cases of sexual abuse by clergy in the United States rose sharply in the 1960s and 1970s, peaked in the 1980s, and subsequently declined equally sharply. It explores this phenomenon by setting it against other reported cases of abuse, against sociological studies of Catholic priests, and against academic and popular attitudes to sexual abuse of children over the period. 

It dismisses many explanations offered for child abuse, including celibacy, because it was demanded before, during, and after the crisis, and homosexuality. Victims were often chosen because they were most readily available. To explain the spike it focuses on the formation of the clergy, the lack of public awareness of the problem, and the lack of boundaries surrounding contact of clergy with children and adolescents. It also explores the slowness of church leaders to respond to the crisis. It makes clear that the courage of victims speaking of their experience and the publicity given to them was a necessary condition of the sharp decline in cases of abuse reported of the 1990s.

Critics of the report rightly point out that the statistics represent only cases provided by the church chanceries. It is likely that many cases reported to the church authorities were not recorded and that many other cases were not reported at all. 

The figures are especially likely to understate the extent of sexual abuse during the 1940s and 1950s. Victims at that time rarely reported the abuse themselves, and those who survived until the 1990s when abuse in the Catholic Church became notorious may not have wanted to publicise it. So the low base line may be misleading.

The Report raises larger questions when it implies that the roots of the increase in sexual abuse are to be sought in the Catholic Church of the 1940s and 1950s, not in the post-conciliar church. It argues that priests who underwent treatment after becoming known offenders passed many years between ordination and their first offenses. So priests who offended in the sixties and seventies were mostly trained in the 1940s and 1950s. The report suggests that they were not prepared for the changes in society