Rather than taking a good, long, hard look in the mirror, the U.S. Catholic Church is in a deep state of denial about the epidemic of child sexual abuse by its clergy. Rather than getting its own house in order, the church is desperately trying to affix responsibility outside of its hallowed halls.
A report examining the sexual abuse crisis, commissioned by Catholic bishops, was released in mid-May. One of its chief conclusions is that incidents of sexual abuse by priests peaked in the 1960s and ’70s because of the social upheavals during that era and changing norms about what was acceptable. A more permissive society confused psychologically vulnerable clergy and made them act in ways they might not have otherwise, the report claims.
The report, based on research by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and paid for by bishops, concluded that as “deviant behaviors” increased in U.S. society — things like “drug use and crime, as well as social changes, such as an increase in premarital sex and divorce” — so, too, did they increase among priests.
“The increased frequency of abuse in the 1960s and 1970s was consistent with the patterns of increased deviance of society during that time,” said Karen Terry, the college’s principal investigator for the report, in a prepared statement.
Also, Terry stated that “social influences intersected with vulnerabilities of individual priests whose preparation for a life of celibacy was inadequate at that time.”
In other words, it’s mostly the fault of those damn, dirty hippies and their crazy ideas — and maybe feminists and gays, too. Their views confused the highly impressionable priests, the poor dears. The New York Times dubbed it the “Blame Woodstock” defense.
Perhaps hoping to split the difference and not inflame either hardcore, conservative Catholics or their most ardent critics, the report also concluded that neither celibacy nor homosexuality were causes of the abuse. Rather, most of the priests involved with the abuse were trained in the 1940s and ’50s, and they simply were unprepared for the societal changes going on around them in the ’60s, the report stated.
What utter tripe.
The report’s rationale reminds me of a teenager who, when his parents find a joint in his coat, loudly proclaims that a friend talked him into trying it. It’s not his fault, you see; it’s merely due to a “bad influence.”
Such an attitude absolves the church of any responsibility for the priests it was training and sending out into the world.
The report glosses over the disturbing fact that the church hierarchy regularly covered up allegations of abuse, bullied and intimidated victims and reassigned offending priests to new parishes, where many often used their positions of authority to commit further acts of abuse.
Even the report’s researchers, however, concede that church leaders were more concerned with helping priests accused of abuse rather than aiding victims — until some of those victims began filing high-profile lawsuits in the 1990s.
But sexual abuse by priests predates the Swinging Sixties.
As CityBeat previously wrote about in May 2007, the Pope and other church leaders first became aware of the growing problem of pedophile priests in the 1940s, according to Patrick J. Wall. A former Benedictine monk and priest, Wall was so disturbed by systemic efforts to cover up for pedophile priests that he now serves as a senior consultant to a California law firm handling several abuse cases.
Church leaders responded by founding the Servants of the Paraclete
in 1947, which operated facilities that offer services and counseling
to priests and brothers “with personal difficulties.” Since the flood
of lawsuits were filed against the church in recent years, letters
by Paraclete officials dating to the 1950s were uncovered that
recommended priests found to have engaged in inappropriate sexual
activity shouldn’t ever be returned to service.
The Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, Servants of the Paraclete founder, described the nature of the problem in a September 1957 letter to a New Hampshire bishop.
Fitzgerald wrote, “From our long
experience with characters of this type, and without passing judgment
on the individual, most of these men would be clinically classified as
schizophrenic. Their repentance and amendment is superficial and, if
not formally at least sub-consciously, is motivated by a desire to be
again in a position where they can continue their wonted activity. A new diocese means only green pastures.”
Despite the warning, however, many such priests simply were moved to new parishes in subsequent decades, where they offended again and again.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a nonprofit support group for women and men abused by religious authority figures, said the bishops’ report is seriously flawed.
“It’s ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ Two academics, paid by bishops and using information from bishops, reach the conclusions bishops desperately want to reach themselves,” said SNAP President Barbara Blaine.
“The Catholic hierarchy wants us to believe that the abuse of children by clerics is ‘situational.’ It’s not. It’s systemic. And most important, the tragic, continuing coverup of those crimes, by bishops, is even more systemic,” Blaine added. “But the bishops’ report will give them even more reasons to avoid tough questions and take decisive steps to make children safer, expose the truth, discipline wrong-doers and stop the abuse.”
Judy Jones, SNAP’s Midwest associate director, said the report’s findings don’t jibe with people’s real-life experiences.
“I would like for them to explain how it happened that the priest, who sexually abused my family member and several of my relatives in southeastern Ohio where we grew up, also sexually abused boys in the early 1940s?” Jones asked rhetorically.
“These victims are still alive and in their eighties,” she added. “Plus, what about all the victims who are just now starting to get up their courage to speak, who were sexually abused in the 1990s and later?”
Bizarrely, the John Jay College of Law report stated that priest candidates who would later abuse couldn’t be distinguished by psychological test data, developmental and sexual history data, intelligence data or experience in priesthood. It just happens, seems to be the report’s mantra.
That view angers David Clohessy, SNAP’s director.
“Predictably and conveniently, the bishops have funded a report that tells them precisely what they want to hear: It was all unforeseeable, long ago, wasn’t that bad and wasn’t their fault,” Clohessy said. “It gives bishops even more reasons to avoid what they clearly want to avoid: Questioning celibacy, married priests, secular laws, serious reforms or their own virtually limitless power as kings in a medieval monarchy.”
It’s clear from the report commissioned by the bishops that the Catholic Church still isn’t ready to treat the sexual abuse crisis in a serious and thorough manner.
To paraphrase William Shakespeare: The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the 1960s, but in a repressive, misguided hierarchy.