USCCB Day One: Sex abuse in church mirrors broad social patterns, study suggests


Preliminary findings from a study on the sex abuse crisis by researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice appear to suggest that what happened in the Catholic church mirrored broader patterns in American society, rather than arising from unique forces within the church.

“This is in conflict with idea that there is something distinctive about the Catholic church that led to the sexual abuse of minors,” Karen Terry, a researcher with John Jay College, told the bishops.

Terry and Margaret Smith, also of John Jay, told the bishops that their early findings, expected to be presented in summer 2008, show that broad social forces, such as changing sexual mores and media images, appear to be more consequential than specific steps the church took, or failed to take.

Speaking after the session with the bishops, Smith said that while the researchers do not have hard data on the incidence of sexual abuse in other institutions, nothing in the data they’ve seen suggests that the problem has been proportionately worse in the Catholic church than in other sectors of society.

Both researchers pointed to a recent series from the Associated Press documenting reports of sexual abuse of minors in public schools in the United States, citing it both as confirmation of a broad cultural pattern rather than something distinctively Catholic, as well as evidence that social attention to the sexual abuse issue has been magnified because of the Catholic crisis.

Terry told the bishops that she is not aware of any other institution that has undertaken a study of sexual abuse similar in scope to that commissioned by the American bishops.

Smith also said that there does not appear to be a cause-and-effect relationship between a large number of defections from the priesthood in the late 1960s and 1970s and the sexual abuse crisis. Instead, she said, both the exodus from the priesthood and the crisis appear to be related to the same underlying social factors.

In similar fashion, the researchers suggested that the church’s response to reports of sexual abuse reflected broad social patterns. Beginning in the 1980s, they noted, states began expanding the number of behaviors with minors defined as criminal sexual abuse, and also making penalties for such conduct more severe.

The researchers said the report will study five broad categories of factors related to the crisis: historical, seminaries, leadership, victimization, and clinical.

Several bishops who spoke from the floor voiced gratitude for the study, seeming to take consolation in the suggestion that the church’s struggles do not appear distinctively worse than those of other social institutions.

A note of caution, however, came from Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Steubenville, Ohio.

“I’m beginning to sense a feeling of elation in this room, that our situation is no worse than anyone else,” Conlon told the other bishops. “But that’s a bit like my doctor telling me that my cancer is no worse than my hospital roommate’s cancer … Our situation should be much better.”

As one application of that point, Archbishop Elden Curtiss said that he worries the crisis has altered the relationship between bishops and priests.

“It’s not just about their canonical rights. They were our sons, our brothers,” Curtiss said. “That relationship has now been colored because of the civil requirements.”

Retired Archbishop Francis Hurley of Anchorage, Alaska, echoed the comment, saying that he’s heard from many priests that bishops "might as well forget about having any trust from their priests.” Hurley acknowledged that comment is probably overdrawn, but it nevertheless reflects a “real anxiety,” he said.

A further reminder of the fallout from the crisis greeted the bishops immediately outside the Waterfront Marriott hotel in Baltimore, where a handful of protestors from the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests carried signs and distributed literature charging that “wrongdoers in the church hierarchy seemingly get rewarded and promoted.”

Spokesperson Barbara Blaine said the reference was in part to the election of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago as the conference president, despite what critics see as mishandling of sex abuse cases in Chicago.

Reacting to the preliminary findings, some bishops also urged that researchers take into account the impact of specifically Catholic factors, especially in seminary formation – such as the kinds of spiritual and moral formation offered in the period from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s.

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