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Clergy sex abuse blame game


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 that occurred in the 1960s. 

Why was this so? This question takes us beyond the disciplines of the report to larger question of culture, and in this case to the distinctive ways in which celibacy, popular theology, the exercise of power and human frailty are intertwined at different times in the Catholic Church.

The decades after the Second World War saw great growth in the Western churches: in the number of priests and religious, of parishes, of schools and other institutions. Seminaries attracted many candidates, and forming them for ministry was a challenge. Generally speaking the emphasis was on control through insistence on obedience to rules with often severe penalties for infringing them. The heads of seminaries were typically remote. Little attention was given to emotional growth and literacy, much to compliance and loyalty. 

This echoed the more general Catholic culture in which the unique claims of the Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope in the universal church, of the Bishop in his diocese and of the parish priest in his parish were insisted on. They were God’s representatives in their different spheres.

Control was also exercised internally. It depended on a clear understanding of which actions were sinful, and of the difference between grave and less serious sin. Serious sins had ordinarily to be confessed to a priest for forgiveness. God underwrote and sanctioned the definition given by the Catholic Church to sins and of the requirements for forgiveness. 

In retrospect this emphasis on authority and compliance was brittle. It unravelled in the 1960s. In the wider society authorities were no longer given instinctive credence. Respect needed to be earned. In the Catholic Church, the image of a God who simply sanctioned the laws of the church was called into question. It became unbelievable that God should condemn to hell people for one action defined as a mortal sin, like deliberately missing Mass on Sunday. It was seen as incompatible with God’s love. 

Catholics, including clergy, had to arrive at a personal moral framework less dependent on authority and based in respect for human dignity within relationships relationships. Most did. But it is understandable that the loss of external controls combined with the exclusive focus on the individual’s relationship with God should have led some priests to act abusively. What they did was between them and God. The claims of the human dignity of their victims were not salient.

This dynamic is reflected in the justifications and excuses given by priests for their abuse. Many saw their abuse as an expression of weakness. Others that it was a sin that had been confessed and forgiven, and so not to be judged by others. 

It is arguable that the roots of the sexual abuse crisis did not lie in the 1960s but in the shallow Catholic culture of the earlier decades. The 1960s exposed its inadequacies. It is not a model for the Catholic Church of the future. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, John Jay Report, sexual abuse, US Bishops, moral framework, 1960s



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Existing comments

To summarise this catalogue of control at any price,abuse, sadness and tragedy as "..not a model for the Catholic Church of the future" is to underline the crisis in today's church, yet alone tomorrow's....a total lack of any real understanding and concern.

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 02 June 2011  

"William Donohue of the Catholic League has produced a 24 page study of the recently released John Jay College report on the clerical abuse problems in the Church, which was commissioned for $1.8 million of church goer's money by the USCCB. Donohue goes through the statistics in the John Jay report in depth, and finds that the major conclusion reached – that homosexuality had nothing to do with male priests abusing adolescent males – is categorically false:

The president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has released an in-depth critique of the John Jay report on the clerical sex-abuse scandal.

In his 24-page analysis, William Donohue is especially critical of the John Jay study’s claim that clerical homosexuality was not a major factor in the scandal. Carefully scrutinizing the data, he finds that the evidence contained in the document suggests that homosexuality was a very important influence. Moreover, Donohue observes, the John Jay study neglected additional evidence that would strengthen the connection with homosexuality. For example:

St. Luke’s Institute is the most premier treatment center in the nation for troubled priests, and according to its co-founder, Rev. Michael Peterson, “We don’t see heterosexual pedophiles at all.” If this is true, how can it be that the John Jay study failed to pick this up?

Donohue faults the John Jay researchers for relying on testimony from groups like SNAP and Voice of the Faithful, which have proven to be consistently hostile to the Catholic hierarchy."

Trent | 02 June 2011  

The Catholic Church has yet to deal with the realities of today, let alone tomorrow, as the following from today's Melbourne Herald Sun so graphically illustrates:

"GEELONG'S top Catholic priest says the church should stop splashing cash on defending serial sex creeps and use the money to compensate victims who are left short-changed.
His call comes as it was revealed a former teacher and Christian brother at Geelong's St Joseph's College admitted this week to sexually abusing a boy as part of his 20-year mistreatment of children that so far involves 11 victims, the Geelong Advertiser reports.

The pursuit to bring the 70-year-old Robert Charles Best to justice has spanned decades and the legal bill, funded by the Christian Brothers, has mounted with top barristers defending the serial paedophile. Taxpayers have also forked out with the pervert fighting his charges and causing them to mount a costly trial.

St Mary's Basilica Fr Kevin Dillon said the Christian Brothers should be focused on repairing the damage to the victims because most continued to suffer and some did not have money to put food on the table because the abuse affected their work life.

"Everyone is entitled to a fair trial but if someone is a serial sexual offender there should be a point where enough is enough and we start looking after people whose lives have been destroyed," he said.

"For goodness sake what is happening here with this extraordinary money something is seriously wrong with all this. Lives have been wrecked with such an abysmal betrayal of trust."

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 02 June 2011  

The John Jay Report reflects two things. One is the remit it was given when asked to prepare the report. The second is data scarcity in the decades prior to the 1960s upturn in sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy in the USA.

It would be myopic to see that scarcity as evidence of low rates of such offences. For his part, Fr Hamilton puts the approximate origin of clerical offending in the 1940s.
However, the thorough work of Thomas Doyle, the Dominican friar and American canon lawyer, illustrates the fact of offending in earlier decades and past centuries.

The John Jay Report absolved (mandatory) celibacy as a causal factor and ignored the role of the commissioning agency (the US bishops’ conference). Neither is a surprising outcome. What is surprising, in my view, is the lack of any real historical perspective. For instance, the researchers could (quite quickly) have looked to past centuries, focusing on the recorded lives of saints who tried to cleanse the Church of abusive pastors.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s explains nothing of the millennia of abuse of children and vulnerable youth and adults in what should have been a safe place: the Church.

Rodney Stinson | 02 June 2011  

Great comment. That is getting to the root of the problem.

Frank Purcell | 02 June 2011  

I feel Pope John XXlll could see the writing on the wall,and was attempting to bring the church up to date and out in the open.The church would have had a thorough transformation and possibly removed those who did not have a true calling to ordination and religious life.

The church must be attuned to the times and deliver the message of Christ,not merely prop up institutions.This is a medieval approach added onto the original 'church' which had married people,families as it's membership.

There is a deep schism between lay and 'religious'people,and I feel only monastic orders have a strong presence today.

catherine | 02 June 2011  

Sexual abuse is all about power .... wake up people!

Greig WIlliams | 02 June 2011  

I agree with Rodney Stinson in his observations on the 'black hole' in available hard data on CSA going back decades and centuries. I think the lack of an historical perspective on this could be traced to the culture of clericalism and its defiant unwillingness to admit systemic failure in that highly 'sacralized' dimension of Church life. Denial and shame are key villains here.

I think, too, that a possible major problem in the 'diocesan' priestly formation system was that, up until relatively recent times, most seminaries here were staffed by religious eg, Jesuits and Vincentians. One can only speculate about how unwise it was that men being called to 'secular' priesthood were overly protected in the controlled atmosphere of a virtual monastic existence. The 'world' not the enclosure was to be their domain. Were they suitable prepared for this?

Bill Donohue and the Catholic League have become legends in the art of denial of anything which would seem to reflect anything about the Church other than the image of the 'Stainless Bride of Christ.' Donohue and the League have parodied themselves repeatedly with the deeply offensive slogan, 'Blame the Victim.' The pathology in that mentality is frightening.
And yes, isn't it so predictable and convenient that child sexual abuse scandals are blamed on hippies, yippies, hash and homosexuals

David Timbs | 02 June 2011  

This is a worthy and strong article; I thank Andrew for it. Historical perspective and sociological insights are helpful and essential if we are to understand causation. But a) the sublimation and subsequent distortion of sexuality (targeting minors for exploitation), and b) the abuse and inherent imbalance of power in relationships, are the prime issues at hand. For the broader audience in Australia and overseas, those who are of their own volition and cognition 'external' to the orbit of expressions of Christianity (and it is important to acknowledge that sexual predation has occurred and occurs in numerous faith communities, as well as within the Catholic Church and the broader Christian community), the disputation and nitpicking over 'grave and less serious sin' is pointless and often offensive. The veil of silence and reluctance to report abuse, as acknowledged by Andrew, is abhorrent. When people have been wounded, the first steps to their healing are public acknowledgement and contrition, followed by restitution, counselling (and conciliation, if possible), and the punishment and counselling of perpetrators. Without transparency and accountability no group can claim a voice in the public sphere. No body of people, regardless of their beliefs and self-perspective, has a mandate or even a foreseeable future in numerous fields such as education, pastoral care or public discourse. This point applies to every spiritual expression embodied in human beings; it is not targeting the Catholic Church. Governments also have much to answer for, and have done so to certain extents.

Barry G | 02 June 2011  

The Church hasn't changed it's position on mortal sin, and contrary to the author's suggestion, countless Catholic theologians have explained how the consequences of mortal sin are entirely compatible with the loving nature of God. It is a disservice to both Catholics and non-Catholics alike to suggest that the Church's position has somehow changed since the 1960s.

Tim | 02 June 2011  

"sex abuse" it would seem is as old as mankind. And I don't mean just harmful sexual practices between adults and children or sexual acts between adults that do physical or psychological harm to one of the parties. In Genesis chapter 3 Eve is presented as the weak one who yields to the serpent's temptation and then she in turn becomes the temptress of Adam. Henceforth childbearing will be seen as a punishment and her husband shall rule over her. To paraphrase Fr Hamilton's last sentence: it is arguable that the roots of sexual abuse lie not in the second half of the 20th century but in a shallow Biblical culture of the previous 24 centuries. Despite Christ's efforts to impress upon the human race the ideal of self-less love that recognises the dignity of every human being the curse of Genesis 3 persists. If I am to take sides in the "blame game" I would say many catholic moral theologians, Biblical scholars and spiritual directors have a lot to answer for.

Uncle Pat | 02 June 2011  

The Roman Catholic church, autonomous, cuts itself off, claims to be above the law of the lands it has 'colonised', claims to possess divine rule. What century are we living in? Which religion are we describing? Secular is a word to describe those not living a 'religious' life. Enclosed monasteries can keep the place for a celibate life with spiritual contemplation and communal 'familiy'. Few people are suited to this life,it is a calling and the church has pushed for increased numbers of people entering this so-called 'purest' way to God. Secular 'family' life has many trajectories all founded/created and immersed in God. Sex in married / family life has been controlled as only having the purpose of reproduction and not for the life of relationships. European Christianity,created in Rome, has built empires and there is a battle to control power and maintain hierachy/corporation. Sexual abuse by clergy is not going to alter it's Divine Rules. It's about damage control. And I agree,sexual abuse is all about POWER. Women and children in Catholic or Muslim or many other religions are still chattels.There is a very gradual awakening taking place but it is too slow and insincere. Hierarchies must topple and that is too frightening to contemplate. The church conducts itself in a secular fashion in a secular world. MONEY is POWER.

Catherine | 02 June 2011  

The John Jay report seems to cover just about every possible explanation for the child abuse scandal except the most significant. Again, the Church has managed to distract us from the fact that the perpetrators went unpunished and knew that the Church, afraid of scandal, was protecting them by moving them to parishes where they were unknown and where they could continue to prey on new innocent children of trusting Catholic parents. No decent secular employer would fail to report such allegations to the proper civil authorities, yet the Church of Christ has been prepared to behave scandalously to avoid public accountability. Surely God expects the people of the Church to hold the Church's leaders accountable.

Peter Johnstone | 02 June 2011  

Thanks Andy for keeping this conversation going. My experience tells me that celibacy, homosexuality and the dictatorship of the clerics towards the lay people provides a rich and fertile field for sexual abuse.

An expression of clerical power towards the children and women whom I have known to be sexually abused by clerics has been fostered by the church and lay people. I feel the most abhorrent people are the ones who cover up the 'sins of the fathers', the ones who would sacrifice the individual for the integrity of the group. So as the victims slowly die inside those in power still enjoyed their status and empire.

Yep a new church model is urgent. And the good news is that two amazing men in your organisation have and are showing a new way. I sincerely thank Mark Raper and Steve Curtin for choosing to walk with us, listen to us, hear our deep pain - an offering of hope and love.

jo dallimore | 02 June 2011  

Thank you for your comments. The discussion of the qualities of Catholic culture is important. It probably needs to take into account of what has worked for good in the Catholic Church, as well as what works for evil.

I agree with those who ask whether the number of reported cases accurately reflects the extent of abuse. Anecdotal evidence both of the more distant past and of other national churches where abuse is not yet reported suggests that it may be far too prevalent but not reported.

But even allowing for much higher incidence of abuse than was reported of earlier decades, the spike the report demonstrates does need explaining, and particularly why such a precipitate fall took place.

In discussing the figures, the report points to a double gap which can distort perception. The gap between a perpetrator's formation and his first abuse is long, so that study of influences on him must include a much earlier period than the time of the offence. The gap between the offence and the time of its reporting is also long. So the regular but declining number of reports do not indicate the current situation but one often decades before.

The report also suggests that the number of offenders who were pedophiles in the technical sense was small and relatively constant. The majority of offenders sought out vulnerable people, but not simply prepubescent children. The fact that many of these were male may therefore reflect the greater opportunity priests had for spending time with boys than girls. The connection with homosexuality does not seem plausible.

The report does ask why church authorities responded so badly to cases of abuse reported to them. It certainly does not back off the question. It looks helpfully at the changing theories of abuse and its effects over the period, not to excuse, but to help understand why the Catholic Church responded so ineptly. It also reflects on how other large institutions which combine a strong structure of authority and self-belief with a decentralised membership can change attitudes and behaviour. The most illuminating examples it discusses are the Los Angeles and New Yorm Police Departments, and their response to the widely publicised brutality of some of their officers.

Finally, I cannot imagine any reflection on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church that would not be illuminated by reading the report at leisure.

Andy Hamilton | 02 June 2011  

I jumped in to respond to this article and would like to correct part of my previous comment. My comment re homosexuality being responsible for a tendency for clerics to sexually abuse is totally misconstrued. However my personal experience around a priest who abused male children, young adults and was gay hangs heavy and led me to this assumption. I have many female friends who as young adults or adults were sexually abused by heterosexual priests. Mea culpa.

jo dallimore | 02 June 2011  

Celibacy may not in itself be a cause of clergy sex abuse but the environment it demands, at least in the pre-Vatican II era, may have been responsible. Young men and boys entering the seminary in their teens were often forced by the shallow culture Andy describes, to eschew the sort of companionship with others that gives a sense of self-worth and, actually, a sense of God in the other.

Cecily McNeill | 03 June 2011  

Andrew, you state that: The report also suggests that the number of offenders who were pedophiles in the technical sense was small and relatively constant. In an interview I heard recently, it was pointed out that the Jay report defines the age used in their definition of pedophilia as 10 and below. The commentator pointed out that the American Psych Association defines pedophiles as those who abuse children aged below 14. If that definition had been used by the Jay Report, then, according to the commentator, close to 60% of cases would have been defined as pedophilia. Perhaps someone needs to question the report writers as to the reason for their limited definition??? This is my recollection of the interview and I can't verify the information provided.

Vivienne | 03 June 2011  

Oh for the insight S

Maria Kirwood | 03 June 2011  

Andy thank you for your insightful article. I'm a 1950 baby, born into that pre Woodstock world of Irish Catholic Australia. When the sexual abuse story first started to unfold around the diaspora I thought it must be something about colonialism and the Irish past. I knew we had been the underdog and thought maybe it was something to do with that ancestral experience. Especially problematic was the silence which seemed to me the same as that of what I know occurs with incest in a family. It seemed as if the messages to the victims had been keep quiet, keep the shame in the family for the family sake. I had so internalised the Church family matters more than the individual and come to understood it was about them and us, the Micks and the Proddies. What seemed to matter was maintaining position and face Things changed. I began to know and think about the story differently and I realised it was a more universal problem. The Jesuits had taught me to question. Vatican II had brought a life I had not known before to the exploration of faith and practice. And there was a Woodstock factor too that went with Vietnam and the music of Dillon, Baez and Peter Paul and Mary which brought alive a sense of social justice. The music was so often part of my mass experience and celebration. The doors were open to questioning and no longer simply accepting “that’s how it is” because those in authority positions say it is so. We were invited to consciousness and conscience in a way I had not known before. I began to see we shared so much in common through our ordinariness and it was time to move away from us and them. In recent years, I started to talk about and explore my own and with my friends, the sense of violation and humiliation which comes with abuse. As I had shared my story with others I found that my story was more common than I could have imagined. At first it was my peers that shared their experiences that told me I was quite ordinary. Then I began to hear the stories from my parent’s generation. As the years have gone on I have realised how much more common the experience of sexual abuse is than I could ever have imagined As a child I leant the priest was there as Jesus. I have so often wondered what happened to Jesus the Priest. I had learnt, the priest, the clerics were a different class to be shown special respect. That pedestaled position has long been shattered. When a few years back I first heard of the Popes apology to the sexually abused in America and his linking his apology at that time to a breakdown in modern values, I saw red. I knew a different story in which the Woodstock factor had allowed an openness that earlier generations had not known. I had heard enough personal stories to realise that the Woodstock factor had allowed the abuse stories to begin the journey from shame to the light. I felt the same initial outrage when I first saw headlines about this recent report, then sadly I wondered what has been learnt. Why does clericalism come into play and undermine those priests who reach out in a healing way. I wondered when the lesson will be learnt that healing doesn’t come with justifications and excuses for the deep betrayal but rather through sitting down knowing we all make mistakes and accepting what has happened and truly listening and sharing in the pain. When I reflect now what is so often missing, it is that ordinary and total humanness that Jesus brought, the vulnerable Jesus, one of us, who could be so present with love to those around him. If there is to be true healing this is what I feel needs to happen. And we need to find a way for the sacred in the ordinariness again. This journey will continue to be a painful process, yet if we can find a place for our shared humanity, the shared pain can be a place for our communal transformation and healing.

john | 04 June 2011  

In my opinion priests must be fully vetted while they're doing their training in the seminary to see if they have the power to resist the temptations of the devil as the results of their evil actions are life long.

Eddy de Vries | 10 June 2011  

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