Magazine article National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 47, No. 17
The report of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the causes and context of sex abuse of minors by priests is an important landmark, flawed as it is, in understanding this awful crisis in our church.
Any attempt to quantify and explain a reality as ugly as sexual abuse of children by priests was bound to draw fire from many sides. The volatility of the response to the report is at once reflective of the severe limits of the study and the ongoing frustration of Catholics and the wider society in trying to understand how the leaders of an institution that professes Jesus could behave so badly when its own ministers were destroying the lives of the community's children.
Some of the areas deserving criticism are obvious. As significant, if not even more important, are areas of inquiry that are simply missing, especially in understanding the context.
But first let's begin with the positives:
* In combination with the first John Jay report released in 2004, this is the first examination of its kind of any institution regarding abuse of children, and more should follow suit. One of the results of the clergy sex abuse crisis is a growing awareness of how widespread the problem is. A recent Washington Post story details the trail of a teacher who skipped from school district to school district and organization to organization, abusing children at every turn. He was finally prosecuted and given a 30-year sentence. He could have been brought to justice sooner--sparing kids the horrors of abuse--had administrators not been more interested in getting rid of him than in protecting children. The attitude seems an institutional hazard wherever children are involved.
* Unfounded presumptions of the causes were debunked. Celibacy, say the researchers, was not the issue, nor was homosexuality. For some, the conclusions remain unpersuasive and it is likely that nothing could convince otherwise those who believe that gays are the cause of the priesthood's problems or that all sexual aberrations among clergy are traceable to mandatory celibacy. At least John Jay gives us scientifically established base lines for considering the realities within the U.S. Catholic world.
* The deficiencies of seminary education in the area of human formation are bared, and not from an ideological point of view. The study also establishes that follow-up evaluations of priests are inconsistent from diocese to diocese and often don't occur at all after the first five years. The performance of pastors is rarely assessed in any professional or objective manner.
* The report contains a significant amount of data about priests' perceptions of their sexual identity, pre- and post-seminary; sexual activity of seminarians and priests (much higher, certainly, than most bishops would care to admit); and whether certain sexual practices and proclivities among priests were more likely to be associated with sexual abuse of children.
The report makes clear that this level of examination of the crisis is only a start. It satisfies some of the curiosity about individual abusers and what kind of behaviors might raise warning signs. The hope is that more studies will follow and that John Jay will allow other academics and other disciplines to examine the data they collected.
The deficiencies of the report can be captured in two questions: "Is the data reliable?" and "Where are the bishops?"
The short answer to the first is: As far as it goes. Of course, it doesn't go nearly far enough. For starters, the researchers were left to rely almost solely on data volunteered by the bishops, who paid for more than half the cost of the study. That is something akin to the Securities and Exchange Commission looking into the workings of a bank based on information the corporation's lawyers decide to hand over for an investigation the bank is financing.
We have no reason to question the integrity of the John Jay researchers. …