Two important documents on the sex-abuse crisis emerged in
May. Unfortunately both were seriously flawed, because they paid little or no
attention to a key issueno, the key issuein 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 fail to meet that
responsibilityas, sadly, so many bishops have quite obviously failed to do.
In the US, a report from the John Jay College of
Criminal Justice 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 hierarchybut 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 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 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
scandalthe devastating grand-jury report on the Philadelphia
archdioceseillustrated that the American hierarchy has not yet solved the
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 scandalthe
scandal of irresponsible bishopsthat remains.
The Vatican document also includes two elements that
deserve some comment. 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 lifeeven 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.
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
These two aspects of the Vatican guidelines highlight the
need for a bishop who will zealously protect the good of the Churcha 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 responsibilityeither 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. The John Jay report
confirms that more than 80 percent 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 percent 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 percent
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 partnersan enormous omissionone might speculate that adult homosexual
affairs were common among the molesters. Dr. Richard 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-1970sthat is, after homosexuals became a major influencewere
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
partnersfor relationships that would still be abusive, even if they did not
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.