Clergy sex abuse on the rise again, and church leaders are ignoring why, sociologist says

By Kevin Jones


Denver, Colo., Nov 2, 2018 / 03:13 pm (CNA).- After years in decline, Catholic clergy sex abuse could be on the rise again, warns a professor-priest’s analysis of relevant data.

The professor’s report sees a rising trend in abuse, and argues that the evidence strongly suggests links between sexual abuse of minors and two factors: a disproportionate number of homosexual clergy, and the manifestation of a “homosexual subculture” in seminaries.

“The thing we’ve been told about the sex abuse is that it is somehow very rare and declined to almost nothing today is really not true,” Father D. Paul Sullins, a Catholic priest and retired Catholic University of America sociology professor, told a Nov. 2 press conference.

“I found that clergy sex abuse did drop to almost nothing after 2002, but then it started to creep up,” he continued. “It’s been increasing. And there are signs that the bishops or the dioceses have gotten complacent about that.”

“It’s not at the great heights that it was in the mid-1970s, but it’s rising. And it’s headed in that direction,” he added.

Clergy sex abuse incidence is today about one third as common as in the late 1980s. While sex abuse by clergy is “much lower” than 30 years ago, it has not declined “as much as is commonly thought.” Most of the decline since the 1990s is consistent with “a similar general decline in child sex abuse in America since that time,” Sullins’ report said.

The decline is not necessarily related to measures taken by the U.S. bishops. Sullins told the press conference he saw no link between a decline in abuse and the implementation of the U.S. bishops’ 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young Adults.

“Recent experience calls into question whether the current understanding of the nature of the abuse and how to reduce it is accurate or sufficient,” said Sullins in his report.

Efforts to address clergy abuse must acknowledge both “the recent increase of abuse amid growing complacency” and the “very strong probability” that the surge in abuse in past and present is “a product, at least in part, of the past surge and present concentration of homosexual men in the Catholic priesthood.”

The report was released Nov. 2 by the Louisiana-based Ruth Institute, where Sullins is a senior research associate. It has been reviewed by several scholars, including four social scientists, and is planned to be included in an upcoming book.

His study aimed to address a common question: is the sex abuse related in any way to homosexual men in the priesthood?

“I hear on the one hand denial of that, almost without even thinking about it, and I also hear advocacy of that, almost without even thinking about it,” Sullins said Nov. 2. “The question comes up logically because the vast majority of victims were boys. Usually in sex abuse of minors, two-thirds of victims are girls.”

Sullins’ report is titled “Is Catholic clergy sex abuse related to homosexual priests?” and he does not avoid the sometimes controversial question. The report compares “previously unexamined measures of the share of homosexual Catholic priests” and the incidence and victim gender of minor sex abuse victims by Catholic priests from 1950 to 2001.

Sullins’ sources included a 2002 survey of 1,854 priests by the Los Angeles Times that included questions about respondents’ sexual orientation, age, year of ordination, and whether they thought there was a homosexual subculture in their seminary. He measured abuse using data provided by the authors of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice reports, which themselves used reports of abuse provided by Catholic dioceses.

“Although over 8 in 10 of victims have been boys, the idea that the abuse is related to homosexual men in the priesthood has not been widely accepted by Church leaders,” said Sullins.

“(T)he data show that more homosexual men in the priesthood was correlated with more overall abuse and more boys abused compared to girls,” he added.

The increase or decrease in the percent of male victims correlated “almost perfectly” with the increase or decrease of homosexual men in the priesthood, he said, citing a 0.98 correlation. While the correlation was lower among victims under age 8, it was “lower but still strong,” 0.77. The statistical association between homosexual priests and abuse incidence was “extremely strong,” given that this scale ranges from -1.0, an inverse correlation, to 1.0, an absolute positive correlation.

Such results were “as close as you can get to a perfect correlation as I have ever seen,” Sullins said Nov. 2, adding that researchers usually consider correlation association above 0.3 or 0.4 to be a strong effect.

He took care to say it is the disproportionate presence of homosexual men in the priesthood, not the simple presence of any homosexual men, that appears to be the major factor.

“What I say in the paper is that when homosexual men were represented in the priesthood at about the same rate as they were in the population, there was no measurable problem of child sex abuse,” Sullins said. “It was only when you had a preponderance of homosexual men.”

The percentage of homosexual men in the general population is estimated at two percent. In the 1950s, homosexual men in the priesthood were about twice their percentage in the general population, making up four percent. in the 1980s they were eight times the percentage in the general population, 16 percent, according to Sullins.

“When you get up to 16 percent of priests that are homosexual, and you’ve got eight times the proportion of homosexuals as you do in the general population, it’s as if the priesthood becomes a particularly welcoming and enabling and encouraging population for homosexual activity and behavior,” he said Nov. 2.

Sullins was clear he wanted to avoid recommending any particular action based on his research.

“I would certainly not recommend that we remove all homosexuals from the priesthood,” he said. “The reason for that is: the abuse is not necessarily related to someone’s sexual orientation.” He cited his knowledge of men with same-sex attraction who are “strong, faithful persons,” adding “I would hate to have some sort of litmus test for that.”

If the Catholic Church in the U.S. were like most institutions, where two-thirds of abuse victims were female, people would reject the suggestion to eliminate all heterosexual men from the priesthood. That suggestion would be an “ideological reaction,” he said.

He suggested the priesthood should reflect the general population, as a sign priests are selected for “holiness and commitment to Christ and the things that we would hope would make for a good priest.”

“When you start to get a larger proportion of homosexuals It looks like you are actually selecting for same-sex orientation,” he said.

Seminary candidates have reported about the problems this disproportion creates, he continued. According to Sullins, Donald Cozzens’ 2000 book “The Changing Face of the Priesthood” discusses accounts of homosexual students being so prevalent at some seminaries that heterosexual men felt destabilized and disoriented and left.

“That’s not a positive outcome. I do not think we would want to have that proportion of a homosexual culture in the priesthood,” said Sullins.

There appear to be verifiable trends in increases and decreases in the ordinations of homosexual priests.

“From 1965 to 1995 an average of at least one in five priests ordained annually were homosexual, a concentration which drove the overall proportion of homosexual men in the priesthood up to 16 percent, or one in six priests, by the late 1990s,” said Sullins’ report.

“This trend was strongly correlated with increasing child sex abuse,” he said.

Drawing on his findings, Sullins predicted that if the proportion of homosexual priests remained at the 1950s level “at least 12,000 fewer children, mostly boys, would have suffered abuse,” he said. As a percentage, this means abuse would have been about 85 percent lower.

The presence of homosexual subcultures in seminaries, as reported by priests considering their own seminary life, accounts for about half the incidence of abuse, but apparently not among heterosexual men.

“Homosexual subcultures encouraged greater abuse, but not by heterosexual men, just by homosexual men,” Sullins said Nov. 2. He suggested these subcultures encourage those who may have been attracted to male victims to act out more than would have been the case otherwise.

Sullins, a former Episcopal priest, has been married for 30 years and has three children. He was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 2002 by then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington.

“I was surprised and shocked, like most of us earlier this year, to hear about Cardinal McCarrick,” Sullins said. “I was particularly impressed by that because I was ordained by Cardinal McCarrick in 2002, and probably knew him better than most people would have.”

His report follows the June revelations that former Archbishop McCarrick was credibly abused of sex assault on a minor, revelations which prompted men to come forward saying he had sexually abused them as seminarians—and prompted Pope Francis to accept the archbishop’s almost unprecedented resignation from the cardinalate. McCarrick was deeply influential and had been a leading personality in the U.S. bishops’ response to the 2002 scandals.

In August, a Pennsylvania grand jury released its report on Catholic clergy sex abuse in six dioceses. It tallied over 1,000 credible accusations against hundreds of priests over decades, though many of these accusations had been reported in 2004.

“What was new in 2018 was not primarily the revelation of abuse by priests, but of a possible pattern of resistance, minimization, enablement and secrecy—a ‘cover-up’—on the part of bishops,” said Sullins, who used some of the grand jury report data for his study.

As part of the U.S. bishops’ response to the first sex abuse scandal in 2002, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice issued two bishop-commissioned reports: a 2004 report on the nature and scope of clergy sex abuse and a 2011 report on the causes and context of sex abuse.

Sullins criticized the 2011 report’s claim that sex abuse perpetrators are mainly “situational or opportunistic” and the sex of the victim is less relevant to them. In his view, multiple offenders “abused a higher proportion of male victims than did single offenders, and the proportion increased with higher numbers of victims.” If multiple offenders were better at acquiring victims, “they appear to have used their skills to obtain access to more boys, not fewer.”

Abuse of girls dropped off at the same rate in the 1980s and 1990s, and the data suggest that as girls became more prevalent in priestly life, such as in the introduction of altar girls, abusers of boys “responded to the presence of fewer younger boys primarily by turning to older boys, not to female victims.”

For clergy offenders who were “classic or fixated pedophiles,” targeting only victims under age eight, they still strongly preferred male victims, “conditional on higher proportions of homosexual men in the priesthood.”

Sex abuse by Catholic clergy is “substantially less” than in similar institutions or communities, but it is notable that underage victims of sex assault by Catholic priests in U.S. Catholic parishes and schools have been “overwhelmingly male,” said Sullins. Comparable reports in Germany indicate that up to 90 percent of abuse victims of Catholic clergy have been male, compared to about half of victims in Protestant or non-religious settings in that country.

Some Catholic commentators have blamed clericalism for the abuse. Pope Francis’ August 20 letter on sex abuse, which did not mention homosexuality, said communities where sexual abuse and “the abuse of power and conscience” have taken place are characterized by efforts to reduce the Catholic faithful to “small elites” or otherwise replace, silence or ignore them.

“To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism,” the Pope said.

In a May 21, 2018 audience with Italian bishops, the Pope said it is better not to let seminary candidates enter if they have “even the slightest doubt” about the fitness of individuals with homosexual “deep-seated tendencies” or who practice “homosexual acts,” but want to enter the seminary.

These acts or deep-seated tendencies can lead to scandals and can compromise the life of the seminary, as well as the man himself and his future priesthood, he said, according to Vatican Insider.

A 2016 document from the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, “The Gift of the Priestly Vocation,” cites a 2005 Vatican document which says: “the Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture’.”

The bishops’ 2002 child protection charter drew criticism from Sullins. Its failure to acknowledge that bishops can commit abuse or cover up abuse “seemed to confirm the suggestion of a cover-up: indeed, to the extent bishops may have covered up priestly misbehavior, the charter itself may have covered up episcopal misbehavior.”

He faulted the 2011 John Jay report on the causes and context of clergy sex abuse, which said that a reported increase in homosexual men in seminaries in the 1980s did not correspond to the number of boys abused. Sullins noted that the authors acknowledged they did not collect or examine direct data on priests’ sexual identity and any changes in it over the years. They relied on “subjective clinical estimates and second-hand narrative reports of apparent homosexual activity in seminaries,” Sullins said.

The Ruth Institute, which published Sullins’ report, was founded in 2008 by Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, an economics-trained author and writer on marriage, family and human sexuality. She served as spokesperson for Proposition 8, the California ballot measure which defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman. The institute was backed by the National Organization for Marriage Education Fund until 2013.

Groups including the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and the Southern Poverty Law Center have criticized the Ruth Institute’s stance against same-sex marriage and other LGBT causes.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which originally monitored foes of the civil rights movement, in the 1980s began tracking neo-Nazi groups and Ku Klux Klan affiliates. In recent years it has listed mainstream groups like the Ruth Institute, the Family Research Council and Alliance Defending Freedom as “hate groups” for their “anti-LGBT” stance.

In an Aug. 23, 2017 response to the listing, the Ruth Institute said it “categorically condemns white supremacy, racism, Nazism, and all violent totalitarian political movements.”

“People who cannot defend their positions using reason and evidence resort to name-calling to change the subject away from their anemic arguments,” the institute said. “The ‘hate group’ label is a club such people invented to bludgeon their political opponents.”

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  1. “Efforts to address clergy abuse must acknowledge both “the recent increase of abuse amid growing complacency” and the ‘very strong probability’ that the surge in abuse in past and present is ‘a product, at least in part, of the past surge and present concentration of homosexual men in the Catholic priesthood.'”

    The problem is not “clericalism.”

    “Hello Francis? Francis? Francis?”

    • This is the realization that reasonable faithful are making in regards this continuation of the COVER UP from the 2002 revelations.
      There seems to be no shame among the majority to drive them into the pre-eminence of the public square – St. Peter’s Square – to sound the alarm that Satan wares a scarlet and purple cape.

  2. Excellent report…let’s hope it changes Bill Donahue’s…we are the safest place for children theme. I hope he reads this article over the tomato confit at Per Se.

  3. I read Father Sullins interview in National Catholic Register, and while I am glad that a report such as this is being released at about the time of the bishops fall assembly, and that it offers a statistical analysis that homosexuality has contributed to clergy sex abuse, we need a more clear statement against homosexuality regardless of sexual abuse. Father Sullen appears to tip-toe around the sin of homosexuality as do the bishops. While the Church may not want to stigmatize the homosexual person (as Father Sullen says) the Church must be about the business of stigmatizing homosexuality. This seems to be the primary issue: the bishops will not correct the underlying problem unless they address homosexuality as sinful and they cannot do this without calling it (in firm unity) intrinsically evil, which they will never accomplish if they cannot even say (in unison) that it is (objectively) a disorder of body and soul. We must fear that if “objectively disordered” is ever dropped from the Catechism we will be lost. This is why any bishop who will not profess this to his flock should himself be dropped.

    • This comment needs some definition. If you claim that homosexuality is sinful, then you must mean homosexual acts. “Homosexual orientation,” while objectively disordered is not in itself sinful, unless acted upon.

      • William: This is Catholic World Report, not U.S. World Report. I think most here would already understand the distinction you require in your comment. But, yes, that is of course what I meant, although I honestly find the constant need to say so tiresome. It’s like each time I say adultery is sinful I must say “well actually what I mean is that adulterous actions are sinful, not adulterous orientation which is not sinful unless acted upon”. Yet, Jesus says that to look at a women with lust in one’s heart is to commit adultery, therefore for one man to look at another man with lust, must be homosexual activity (i.e. sinful). The problem is that the church has seemed to stop saying so and seems to be saying you can look in that direction (be oriented toward it) but just don’t touch! Any person who says that an orientation is objectively disordered must understand that part of that disorder is to be tempted daily to its object; true this is still not sin, but it is on the cusp of sin – often – and our shepherds today are not wary enough for their sheep thus oriented.

      • Either passive or active, there is absolutely no place in seminaries, consecrated life, Diaconate, Priesthood, Episcopacy, Cardinalate or Papacy for homosexual activity or inclination.

  4. The so-called Southern Poverty Law Center is itself a hate group, specifically targeting Christian religions which oppose homosexual behavior. The accusations they carelessly made are demonstrably false.

  5. The elephant in the room will not go away, dear bishops.
    It grows and becomes more aggressive. Many of you bishops have no problem with that. It will, nevertheless, be dealt with.
    Either by holy bishops with spine or by Our Lord and Savior…in His own good time. Bet on it.

  6. Most of the sexual abuse within the RCC is young males age 14 and older, not children. Young men within the seminaries have also been victims. Yet many Bishops refuse to admit the church has a problem with homosexual clergy that seek out these victims.

  7. Theologian historian Dubia signatory Cardinal Walter Brandmüller gave in an interview with Guido Horst Vatican Magazin the rationale for the apparent current increase in Homosexual clergy abuse. “What is similar [with 11th century abuse], Brandmüller notes, is that then as now the ones expressing the protest and demanding a purification of the Church are above all segments of the Catholic laity, especially in North America, in the footsteps of the ‘marvelous homage to the important role of the witness of the faithful in matters of doctrine” brought to light in the 19th century by Blessed John Henry Newman'”. The Cardinal cites “the seeds” of the current dilemma planted by “wolves in sheep’s clothing” Josef Fuchs SJ professor at the Gregorianna one among several German Jesuits (who spoke of difference between Natural Law and Christ The Creator vs a “soteriological” love Christ the Redeemer Fuchs in Natural Law cited by me in Assent to Truth). Cardinal Brandmüller faults the Synodal policy of skirting the issue [in effect disarming the Laity] and in effect enabling the homosexual scourge to continue. If Prof Fr Sullins is correct the current papacy has provided the reasons for homosexuals to assume a mindset that despite the outcry of Laity and a handful of clerics [most seem somnolent] All is Quiet on the Pontifical Front.

    • I neglected to give credit to the proficient journalist Sandro Magister for knowledge of Cardinal Brandmüller’s interview by Guido Horst of the German Vatican Magazin. The salient point the Cardinal made was during the 11th century the Hierarchy listened and followed the Laity’s lead.

  8. I can understand why homosexuals are attracted to the priesthood, or historically have been. What I am not clear on is why so many have this disorder.
    I have some suspicions, but not certainty.

    • Kathryn,
      The article spells out that the general populations of Homo-sex driven men is approximately 2%. This percent is very small. However, the number of homo-sex driven men in priesthood is approximately 16%. Therefore, the concentration of sodomite men appears to be great because the cover of clerical ministry makes for better recruitment to drive up that percentage. We have Episcopal agents, graduating from homo-sex collegiality to chose candidates and managers of those candidates in colleges and seminaries.
      That is why there appears to be “so many.”

  9. It seems to me that this article deals with the symptoms of the tragedy but not with the cause. Already in 1962, Fr. William McNamara wrote: “To date, the biggest hole in our educational system is the failure to convey to young students a meaningful, vital awareness of Christ…Most people need something concrete, dynamic, highly personal to shape their thinking and influence their behavior. They need the infinitely attractive personality of Christ…It is impossible to look into the face of Christ without being drawn into the action of Christ. That is what Francois Mauriac meant when he said: “Once you get to know Christ, you cannot be cured of Him.’…All must be taught, therefore, to believe not only in a creed but through a creed in a person. Faith must come to mean to them what it meant to St. Bonaventure: “a habit of the mind whereby we are drawn and captivated into the following of Christ.’” If this is true of the ordinary Christian, then it is even more true of a priest. To be ordained a priest of the Catholic Church without a deep relationship with Our Lord is heading for a life of unfaithfulness. Anyone who does not have a deep intimacy with Him will seek intimacy elsewhere. Pope Francis is right to put a relationship with Jesus foremost in his efforts of evangelization. Without that, there are no Christians.

  10. although not the only obvious typo, “former Archbishop McCarrick was credibly abused of sex assault…” is pretty awful. You’d think that almost a week after posting it, its prose would be error-free.

  11. If this is still going on here in the US think a minute about what must be going on in countries where the victims don’t have the kind of institutions we have for the victims to rely on.

  12. His claim on a correlation standard of .4 or .4 is WAY, WAY too low. WAY too low. .7 is generally considered to be the standard cut off.

    That said, he cites rates of .77 and .98. Those are quite high enough.

  13. Why can you not see what is obvious? Homosexuality activity is a sin, a grave sin. The is a faction, a growing faction, in the Church wanting to changing the Church’s teaching on this matter.They have been “fueled” by the “acceptance” of this sinful behavior in most of Europe and most recently the “acceptance” in the United States of same-sex marriage. Call it what you will but it is NOT a marriage. We, as a Church must pray for these poor souls and help them! We must establish a way to reach out to them not only through Courage but through a joint effort of bishops to “teach” what the Church has believed since the beginning. Homosexual behavior is nothing more that pedophilia in a different guise. Please, Catholic World Report, be the first to help to solve the problem! These people need the help of God, whose mercy lasts forever.

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