The study commissioned by the Bishops performed by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City has been all over the news.
Any such study, particularly one that relies in many ways on self-reported information (particularly in the are of homosexuality), is open to some legitimate criticisms for some of its conclusions. However, the study brings some interesting information to the fore. First, some of the conclusions.
The researchers concluded that it was not possible for the church, or for anyone, to identify abusive priests in advance. Priests who abused minors have no particular “psychological characteristics,” “developmental histories” or mood disorders that distinguished them from priests who had not abused, the researchers found.
Since the scandal broke, conservatives in the church have blamed gay priests for perpetrating the abuse, while liberals have argued that the all-male, celibate culture of the priesthood was the cause. This report will satisfy neither flank.
The report notes that homosexual men began entering the seminaries “in noticeable numbers” from the late 1970s through the 1980s. By the time this cohort entered the priesthood, in the mid-1980s, the reports of sexual abuse of minors by priests began to drop and then to level off. If anything, the report says, the abuse decreased as more gay priests began serving the church.
Many more boys than girls were victimized, the report says, not because the perpetrators were gay, but simply because the priests had more access to boys than to girls, in parishes, schools and extracurricular activities.
In one of the most counterintuitive findings, the report says that fewer than 5 percent of the abusive priests exhibited behavior consistent with pedophilia, which it defines as a “psychiatric disorder that is characterized by recurrent fantasies, urges and behaviors about prepubescent children.
“Thus, it is inaccurate to refer to abusers as ‘pedophile priests,’ ” the report says.
A couple of points before I delve into some of the illegitimate criticisms. The NYT article says that the finding that “fewer than 5 percent of the abusive priests exhibited behavior consistent with pedophilia” is counterintuitive. I find the NYT conclusion more remarkable than that of the study since this “fact” has been widely discussed and established for years, nowhere more so than the Catholic blogosphere.
That said, the studies conclusion that homosexuality was not the problem either surprises me. In a word, I find it counter-intuitive. Yet, I do not dismiss it merely because it does not fit a narrative I prefer. However, this is what many of the studies critics are doing.
Some critics cite the fact that the study was commissioned by the USCCB. Yet, the same people railed against the Bishops for not conducting such a study earlier. They yell that this study seeks to “exonerate” the Bishops. For the life of me, I don’t see how. This study addresses the root causes of abuse, not the despicable behavior of some Bishops who chose to shuffle offenders around and dismiss the victims. But facts are facts. The incidence of abuse has dropped sharply since 1985. This is a verifiable fact. Perhaps not a convenient fact, but a verifiable one none the less.
All this said, the study is a tool commissioned by the Bishops for the Bishops. There will always be abusers out there, even if it is difficult to impossible to identify them completely in advance. The usual suspects complain about this fact, but no one is probably more frustrated by it than the Bishops. Don’t you think if they could identify ALL these people up front, they would do it if for no other reason than to save themselves embarrassment and liability? Of course they would.
It is just not that easy. I think that the the offense rate has dropped so precipitously in the last years shows that what they are doing is working. The real frustration with this report is that it provides precious little actionable intelligence that could be used to reduce rates even further. But facts are stubborn things. Abusers will always be with us, all they can do now is try to limit opportunity and damage.
I am as frustrated by the study as are the professionally aggrieved, but that does not mean it is wrong.