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Two new documents on the scandal, one glaring omission

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 20, 2011

Two important documents on the sex-abuse crisis emerged this week. Unfortunately both were seriously flawed, because they paid little or no attention to a key issue—no, the key issue—in the scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church for more than a decade.

  • In a call for the world’s bishops to establish standard guidelines for the handling of sex-abuse complaints, the Vatican heavily emphasized the responsibility of diocesan bishops. But the Vatican offered no thoughts on what should happen when bishops failed to meet that responsibility—as, sadly, so many bishops have quite obviously failed.
  • In the US, a report from the John Jay College , commissioned by the US bishops, concluded that no single factor could explain the outbreak of sexual abuse among the clergy. But the John Jay report did not even make an effort to explain the appallingly inadequate response by the American bishops to the crisis.

Of the two reports, the American study represents a far more frustrating failure. The John Jay College is an institution devoted to criminology. The experts of that institution may not fully understand Catholic theology or ecclesiology; they may not fully fathom the workings of a disturbed mind; but they should understand the problem of recidivism. The sex-abuse problem, in the US and around the world, would not have become such a horrific scandal if not for the problem of repeat offenders: the many priests who, when they were recognized as molesters, were not punished but protected, and allowed to molest again.

As I have been shouting for well over a decade now, the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has involved two scandals, not one. First, there is the scandal of priests who molested young people: a horrible sin and a shocking crime, but the sin and crime of individuals, not an entire institution. Second, there is the scandal of the bishops and other diocesan leaders who allowed those predators to continue in ministry, thus compounding the damage and making the misconduct of a few priests into a disaster for the entire Church.

The John Jay report does mention the failures of the American hierarchy—but only in passing, and in the mildest possible terms. The report alludes to a “performance gap” in the reaction to sex-abuse complaints, and then quickly adds that at their meeting in Dallas in 2002, the American bishops admitted that “performance gap” and addressed it.

Yes, in Dallas the American bishops did admit a “performance gap.” They confessed that they had not handled sex-abuse complaints properly, and instituted new standards for handling those complaints. But they did not address their own culpability for the scandal, and they did not set standards for their own future performance.

Thus at Dallas in 2002, hundreds of reporters wandered around the press room shaking their heads, muttering to each other: “They still don’t get it.” That reaction was general, crossing ideological lines, affecting liberals and conservatives, reporters for Catholic and secular publications. And now this week the John Jay report has elicited the same sort of reaction, drawing remarkably similar responses from observers who ordinarily find themselves on opposite sides of the public debate.

For example when the John Jay report attributed the scandal to a complex combination of social factors, an editorial in the New York Times(of all places) chided the authors in words that I might have used myself: “This is a rather bizarre stab at sociological rationalization and, in any case, beside the point that church officials went into denial and protected abusers.”

The John Jay report concluded that there was no reliable way for bishops to identify potential abusers. That may be true. But once the abusers had been identified, the bishops were certainly given fair warning that the same priests might abuse children again. How did they react? Yvonne Abraham of the Boston Globe (one of many commentators with whom I now find myself in rare agreement) offered a caustic reminder:

The thing is, it wouldn’t have mattered if the creeps had entered seminaries with “Abuser’’ tattooed on their foreheads, judging by how church bigs dealt with the predators credibly accused by traumatized victims. So many of those who came forward were ignored, dismissed, or worse.

Why did bishops show more concern for the abusers than for their victims? Why did they so often conceal evidence, silence aggrieved families, protect criminals, and mislead their people? Until we have answers to these questions we will not understand the “causes and context” of the scandal. Yet today, a full decade after the full eruption of this crisis in our Church, the questions are not even being honestly addressed.

The Vatican guidelines

American readers must keep two things in mind when reading the Vatican guidelines. First, the sex-abuse scandal, which has lingered for so long in the US, is still a relatively recent development in Europe, and has not yet affected most other parts of the world. Second, these guidelines were presumably near completion at the time when a fresh outcropping of the American scandal—the devastating grand-jury report on the Philadelphia archdiocese—illustrated that the American hierarchy has not yet solved the problem.

At the risk of oversimplifying, one could say that the Vatican guidelines would bring the Church in other countries up to the standards currently in place in America. Insofar as the Church in the US now has clear policies for handling sex-abuse allegations, while other countries do not, that would represent progress. To a considerable extent, the policies set in place by the US bishops with their “Dallas Charter” have resolved the first of the two scandals: the scandal of abusive priests. It is the second scandal—the scandal of irresponsible bishops—that remains. 

The Vatican document also includes two elements that deserve some comment.

  1. The guidelines clearly state that a priest accused of abuse “is presumed innocent until the contrary is proven.” The accused priest has a right to know the accusations against him, the Vatican insists, and to have an opportunity to clear his name. “Nonetheless the bishop is always able to limit the exercise of the cleric's ministry until the accusations are clarified.” Thus the Vatican calls for a delicate balance between the “due process” rights of the accused cleric and the protection of the faithful. If a priest is removed from active ministry because of an allegation, he may be under a cloud of suspicion for the rest of his life—even if the complaint is found to be fraudulent. Yet at the same time the onus is clearly on the bishop to remove a priest who might pose a danger. Clearly the implementation of this policy requires a bishop who will be diligent and just.
  2. The Vatican recommends that the bishop report all credible complaints to civil officials. But that reporting is not required, and the document spells out the reason. Some governments are already hostile to the Catholic clergy, and would pounce on any opportunity to smear a priest’s reputation. Bishops are not expected to cooperate with anti-Catholic propaganda campaigns.

These two aspects of the Vatican guidelines highlight the need for a bishop who will zealously protect the good of the Church–a bishop who will not ignore the welfare of the laity to protect bad priests, nor sacrifice the rights of priests to avoid negative publicity. The guidelines stress that it is the bishop, not any civic official or review board, who must ultimately be responsible for diocesan policies.

Given that emphasis on episcopal responsibility, one might have expected the Vatican to comment on the bishops who have proven themselves unworthy of that responsibility--either unable to recognize, or unwilling to pursue, the true good of the Church. If there are to be worldwide standards for handling sex-abuse complaints against priests, why not similar standards, setting worldwide expectations for the integrity of bishops?

The John Jay report

The Vatican guidelines focus on the Church’s response to the sex-abuse crisis, whereas the John Jay report studies the causes of that crisis. In addition to its failure to grapple with the scandal of episcopal negligence, the John Jay report falls short with its failure to confront the role of homosexuality within the clergy.

According to the report, homosexuality was not an important factor in the sex-abuse crisis. But that conclusion seems to be clearly at odds with the evidence presented in the text. Richard Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist who has treated many troubled priests, commented that that “analysis of the research demonstrates clearly that the major cause of the crisis was the homosexual abuse of males.”

The John Jay report confirms that more than 80% of the victims of abusive priests were males. Most other studies of sexual abuse in the general population have shown that female victims easily outnumber males. Yet in this particular study, the largest group of victims was composed of adolescent males.

Although the sex-abuse crisis has often been characterized as a problem of pedophilia, the John Jay report rightly dismisses that characterization as inaccurate. Only about 5% of the abusive priests were true pedophiles, preying on small children, the report says. While true pedophiles generally molest boys or girls indiscriminately, the priests who abused young people showed a marked preference for boys.

Moreover, the John Jay report mentions that among the priests who were placed in treatment centers for evaluation, 80% admitted to violations of chastity, and “most sexual behavior was with adults.” Most of those who abused children also had adult partners, the report disclosed. Although the report does not differentiate between male and female adult partners—an enormous omission—one might speculate that adult homosexual affairs were common among the molesters. Dr. Fitzgibbons has commented in the past that he has never treated a priest who abused children who did not also have adult male sexual partners.

With all that evidence suggesting a strong role for homosexuality, how did the John Jay study avoid the conclusion? The report offers two anemic explanations.

First, the John Jay study notes that the incidence of sexual abuse by priests peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, and then subsided. From interviews with priests, seminarians, and seminary instructors, the authors of the report conclude that active homosexuals became an important influence on seminary life and priestly training in the mid-1970s. “There was no evidence of any significant level of sexual activity among seminaries before the mid-1970s,” the report says. Yet the priests who were ordained after the mid-1970s—that is, after homosexuals became a major influence–were statistically less likely to have abused children.

As an argument that homosexuality was not a factor in priestly abuse, this is a classic example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy: the assumption that because something happened after a given event, it must have been caused by that event. There may be many different reasons for the decline in the incidence of priestly abuse; the John Jay report presents a variety of possible explanations. But there is no evidence to suggest that homosexual priests were less likely to be abusers. It is at least equally plausible to speculate that priests trained in the 1970s and thereafter found it easier to identify adult homosexual partners—for relationships that would still be abusive, even if they did not involve children.

Second, the John Jay report offers the generalization that priests had more access to young men than to young women, and that difference would account for the prevalence of male victims. But that explanation is credible only if priests saw young men and young women as equally desirable sexual objects. In my line of work, I have more access to old magazines than to T-bone steaks. Still I never eat magazines, because I do not think of magazines as food. Yes, priests had more access to altar boys than to girls of a similar age. But that access would have been a determining factor only for priests who saw young men as potential sex objects. The John Jay report fails to provide an honest exploration of the role of homosexuality, and thus neglects another key factor in this scandal.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: filioque - May. 23, 2011 11:57 PM ET USA

    This is right on target. How is it that while 4% of priests abused, the great majority of bishops responded by protecting them? What goes on in the selection process for bishops? How many of them are compromised by their own indiscretions and cannot act forthrightly?

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - May. 23, 2011 7:00 PM ET USA

    The American bishops will not involve themselves because they are also as guilty as sin, or they don't want to upset their neat cushy life styles with such a hot potato.

  • Posted by: - May. 23, 2011 6:51 PM ET USA

    Beautifully stated! Sadly accurate.

  • Posted by: - May. 23, 2011 2:17 PM ET USA

    One may say that the root cause was less homosexual orientation as it was a massive loss of faith that led many to adopt permissive attitudes towards this vice and its expression in acts. And in that sense the crisis is still very much with us today - alive and thriving, even.

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - May. 22, 2011 8:43 AM ET USA

    I think another thing missing here is the penance. US Bishops have never offered to do penance for their since the way the Irish Bishops have been doing. Where is the penance and contrition?

  • Posted by: frjpharrington3912 - May. 22, 2011 12:29 AM ET USA

    Notwithstanding episcopal negligence, the writers of the above John Jay report seem to have been anesthetized against acknowledging the facts contained in their own research; namely that the primary source and origin of the clergy sexual abuse scandal was homosexual priests. Mr. Lawler is right to be sceptical since in his book "The Faithful Departed" he says that 81% of the incidents of abuse involved priests with young male victims, and of those male victims, 90% were teenage boys.

  • Posted by: annemarie - May. 21, 2011 4:52 PM ET USA

    Excellent analysis by both Phil and Dr. Fitzgibbons! The Church has not adequately addressed the abuse scandal because of the moral failure of many bishops who, apparently, do not have well-formed consciences. Just men could not move predator priests from place to place and just men could not throw falsely accused priests under the bus without a credible investigation. Unfortunately, no one with a public forum seems willing to defend the innocent priests who wait in limbo.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 21, 2011 2:11 PM ET USA

    Today the KC Star has an article about the troubling case of a priest serving a Tridentine (Extraordinary form) parish who possessed child pornography involving young girls. Bishop Finn, an EF friendly bishop did contact the police initially but apparently was not fully candid. Police were contacted again when info emerged that the priest had not obeyed restrictions the bishop had made. Parishioners claim it is common sense to have the police investigate. B Finn wrote a statement of regret.

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2011 11:43 AM ET USA

    Thanks Phil. The omissions, obfuscations, and facile reasoning in this report leads one to conclude that it's yet another perverse exercise in white-washing. After hundreds of victims and billions in settlements, we ought to be beyond damage-control. Such blatant political correctness and value-free psycho-babble contradicts the report's intent by further undermining the bishops' credibility. Truly stupefying, especially for a group who have committed their lives to the Truth.

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 21, 2011 8:22 AM ET USA

    Well written and disturbing food for thought. The most striking aspect in all this is how "out of touch" they were. As was noted in 2002: "They still don't get it." How could leaders have done anything other than what we would have after learning of the crimes? Most non-Catholics and even atheists would have known what to do. Why and how did this two-pronged scandal emerge in such a pervasive manner? The damage to the Church and to her mission of salvation is tremendous.

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2011 7:36 AM ET USA

    A spot on analysis by the ever reliable Phil. He very articulately shows up the glaring omission at the heart of this report i.e failure to mention the culpability of US bishops in covering up the actions of sexual abusers of minors. It is a very regrettable deficiency and some Church leaders must examine themselves in the mirror of their souls Secondly, Phil also effectively reveals the underlying presence of homosexuality in the. abuse which largely effected pre-pubescent boys.

  • Posted by: cubsfangregory6371 - May. 20, 2011 8:44 PM ET USA

    Al Rantel KABC radio talk show June 2009 "But I have to tell you that,even if you are gay, two and two is still four, and there's this proverbial 3,000-pound elephant sitting in the room that no one wants to talk about. The media call it a pedophile issue, because they do not want to insult the gay community. What you have here are predatory gay men who have found their way into the Catholic priesthood. And these gay men have gone after young males."

  • Posted by: - May. 20, 2011 7:30 PM ET USA

    Why is there no reference to the work of Tony Anatrella S.J., one of the leading experts on the subject and an important adviser to the Vatican in such matters.