Lagging Behind: The Jay Report & the Vatican's Letter

By Cafardi, Nicholas P. | Commonweal, July 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

Lagging Behind: The Jay Report & the Vatican's Letter


Cafardi, Nicholas P., Commonweal


In 2003, the U.S. Catholic bishops' National Review Board put together a request for proposals for two studies of the church's sexual-abuse scandal. One study would examine the "nature and scope" of the crisis. Another would look at its "causes and context." I was a member of the board at the time. We selected the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct both studies. Last month, John Jay released the second study to decidedly mixed reviews.

The John Jay research team, led by Karen J. Terry, has followed the National Review Board's request. We wanted to know what factors made the epidemic of abuse happen (causes) and what environment helped it thrive (context). The Review Board published its own report in 2004, when Justice Anne Burke of Illinois served as interim chair. That report was based on more than eighty interviews with bishops, priests, victims, victims' family members, victims' advocates, psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, and priest-perpetrators. The board concluded that the selection and formation of seminary candidates was seriously faulty and that the response of the bishops was seriously deficient, from their presumptions in favor of accused priests and their disdain for dealing with victims to their reliance on secrecy and therapy to avoid scandal. But the board knew that such an anecdotal report needed to be vetted against all available facts. That would take several years, and that is what we asked John Jay to do.

John Jay found that the epidemic of child sexual abuse that engulfed the church in the 1960s and 70s was primarily the result of ill-trained and psychologically unsuited priests who found themselves spiritually at sea in the rapidly changing sexual and social mores of those years and who turned to defenseless children as an outlet for their confused sexual yearnings. Critics of the report have made much of this finding--noting that John Jay only backed up what some bishops had been saying for years. That does not mean the report is wrong. Sometimes intuition can be right. And, to be fair, the bishops were not alone in making that claim. They were working from what the National Review Board said in our 2004 report, which was not controlled by the bishops.

The John Jay report is important because it provides the facts to help us grasp what happened in those years, and outlines the steps necessary to prevent it from happening again. To the bishops' credit, many of those steps have already been taken. The heightened screening procedures for seminary admission and ordination, together with a new emphasis in seminary training on human formation and how to deal with the challenges of celibacy, will, if maintained, go a long way toward limiting the number of sexual misfits we ordain, although, as the report admits, it is almost impossible to identify most potential abusers in advance. Similarly, the safe-environment programs now in place in every U.S. parish and diocese go a long way toward protecting children. Not only are church volunteers (lectors, ushers, religious-education teachers) required to go through safe-environment training, but so are children, who are taught to identify signs of impending abuse and instructed to seek help if they are made to feel uncomfortable. This training has made it much more difficult for abusers to harm kids.

That leaves one other factor that helped cause the epidemic: the bishops themselves. As did the National Review Board's 2004 report, the John Jay report clearly identifies the bishops' inadequate response to reports of child sexual abuse as one of the major factors in the crisis. "To fully achieve change in the Catholic Church, all diocesan leaders must be committed to transparency about their actions, ensure that the immediate and appropriate responses to abuse become routine, and ensure that such actions are adopted on a national level by all church leaders," the John Jay report says. "Most diocesan leaders [are doing this] yet some dioceses have continued to lag behind. …

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