Church Reports cites social tumult in priest scandals

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By Laurie Goodstein
The New York Times

A five-year study commissioned by the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops to provide a definitive answer to what caused the priest sexual abuse crisis has concluded that neither the all-male celibate priesthood nor homosexuality are to blame.

Instead, the report says, the abuse occurred because priests who were poorly prepared and monitored, and were under stress, landed in the midst of the social and sexual turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s. Known incidents of sexual abuse of minors by priests rose sharply during those decades, the report found, and the problem grew worse when the church’s hierarchy responded by showing more care for the perpetrators than the victims.

The “blame Woodstock” explanation is the one same floated by bishops and Pope Benedict XVI since the church was engulfed by scandal in the United States in 2002 and in Europe in 2010.

But this study is likely to be regarded as the most authoritative analysis of the scandal in the Catholic Church in America. The study, initiated in 2006, was conducted by a team of researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. It was financed by the bishops, with additional money contributed by Catholic organizations and foundations and the National Institute of Justice, the research agency of the United States Department of Justice.

The report was to be released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington on Wednesday and was embargoed until the afternoon, but the Religion News Service published an account of the report on its Web site on Tuesday. A copy of the report was also obtained in advance by The New York Times. The bishops have said they hope the report will advance the understanding and prevention of child sexual abuse in society at large.

However, the researchers concluded that it was not possible for the church, or for anyone, to identify abusive priests in advance. Priests who abused minors have no particular “psychological characteristics,” “developmental histories” or mood disorders that distinguished them from priests who had not abused, the researchers found.

In one of the most counterintuitive findings, the report says that fewer than 5 percent of the abusive priests exhibited behavior consistent with pedophilia, which it defines as a “psychiatric disorder that is characterized by recurrent fantasies, urges and behaviors about prepubescent children.

“Thus, it is inaccurate to refer to abusers as ‘pedophile priests,’ ” the report says.

This finding is likely to prove controversial, in part because the report employs a definition of “prepubescent” children as those ages 10 and under. Using this cutoff, the report found that only 22 percent of the priests’ victims were prepubescent.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders classifies a prepubescent child as generally age 13 or younger. If the John Jay researchers had used this cutoff, a vast majority of the abusers’ victims would have been considered prepubescent.

The report, “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2002,” is the second produced by researchers at John Jay College. The first, on the “nature and scope” of the problem, was released in 2004.

Even before seeing it, victims advocates attacked the report as suspect because it relies on data provided by the church’s dioceses and religious orders.

Anne Barrett Doyle, the co-director of BishopAccountability.com, a Web site that compiles reports on abuse cases, said, “There aren’t many dioceses where prosecutors have gotten involved, but in every single instance there’s a vast gap — a multiplier of two, three or four times — between the numbers of perpetrators that the prosecutors find and what the bishops released.”

See Related: Catholic Church Sexual Abuse of Children Archive

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