So far, the most animated discussion during the spring meeting of the U.S. bishops was sparked by the latest update on a John Jay College study of the causes and context of the sexual abuse crisis – with early indications suggesting that the crisis was driven to a large extent by broad social changes in the 1960s and 70s, as opposed to factors internal to the Catholic church.
Reaction during floor discussion appeared to suggest that many bishops don’t want to shoulder the burden of blame for the crisis by themselves, with several suggesting that researchers take into consideration the advice given at the time by mental health professionals. In some cases, bishops said, therapists advised that abusers could be returned to ministry following treatment.
At least one bishop also expressed concern with public impressions that the church is “shifting the blame” for the crisis to homosexual priests, something he described as “wrong” and “unfair.”
The update, the second so far from the John Jay team, was presented to the full body of bishops this morning by Ms. Maggie Smith and Dr. Karen Terry.
Smith told the bishops that a peak in incidents of sexual abuse by priests in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by a plateau or sharp decline in the 1980s, parallels similar patterns with three other behaviors in the broader society: divorce, pre-marital sex, and drug use. Though Smith did not directly make the point, the data suggests that changing sexual and social mores in the 60s and 70s were significant factors in all four cases.
Further, Smith described differences in the time lag between ordination and the first act of abuse for priests ordained in different periods. Priests ordained before 1959, the research shows, waited 13 years before committing their first act of abuse. Those ordained in the 1960s, on the other hand, waited an average of eight years, and those ordained in the 1970s just four years.
“While the influences of the social forces of 1960s and 70s are visible,” Smith said, “we do not yet know whether and how the vulnerability to sexual abuse differs for each group.”
Incidents began to decline in the 1980s, Smith said, at the same time that the broader cultural approach to sex abuse was evolving. During the 80s, she said, many states tightened their laws on the sexual abuse of minors, including the adoption of mandatory reporter laws.
Smith said that the church’s response to sexual abuse also began to evolve in the 1980s, driven by two factors: Publicity generated by the Gilbert Gauthe case in Louisiana, involving an ex-priest who pled guilty in 1985 to sexually abusing 11 minor boys, the first case of clerical sexual abuse to receive wide national attention; and internal discussions within the U.S. conference of bishops related to the abuse issue.
Despite that evolution, the John Jay research indicates, the response from church officials at local levels was far from uniform. For example, Smith observed, 40 percent of known incidents of sexual abuse by priests were first reported in the period from 1988 to 1998, with 9 out of 10 American dioceses receiving at least one report during that period. While church officials carried out an investigation in 75 percent of these cases, Smith said, family members of the victims were notified of the results of those investigations in less than a third of the cases on record.
Smith told the bishops that researchers are beginning a study of the clinical dimension of the crisis, looking at how treatment centers responded and what has been learned. Among other things, she said, they’re interested in knowing whether “risk factors” for sexual abuse can be identified with an eye towards developing a “screening instrument” can be developed to help flag potential abusers.
During floor discussion, several bishops pushed the John Jay team to take a hard look at what therapists and mental health professionals were saying during the peak period of the crisis, especially on the question of whether priests who had abused someone could be safely returned to ministry.
Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, for example, said that when he served as an auxiliary bishop in Baltimore during the 1980s and early 1990s, he often sought advice from mental health professionals about what to do with priests who had abused.
“Very often, we were told that this can be treated by conventional psychotherapy,” Ricard said. “I think this was a prevailing belief on the part of the mental health profession. The bishops followed that advice, with obvious consequences,” he said.
Another bishop asked the John Jay team to study the letters sent to bishops from treatment centers, saying that he recalled a front-page story from the Hartford Courant in 2002 citing a letter from a Hartford-based treatment center called the Institute of Living, implying that a priest who later became a "famous abuser" could return to ministry.
Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Nebraska, echoed the point, saying he had recently watched a national television program which charged the bishops “with not doing anything, and that the bishops were really criminal in not responding.”
In that context, Curtiss suggested, it’s especially important to consider “the advice we got.”
Terry said that the John Jay team is considering not only the advice offered by mental health counselors and therapy centers, but also what attorneys were telling bishops to do, and “whether that was productive or non-productive.”
Curtiss also expressed concern for how the results of the research will be presented to the public, in light of what he described as misleading impressions about the church’s response to the crisis. He specifically cited a belief that the bishops are “shifting the blame to homosexual priests.”
“That would be wrong, and we shouldn’t be doing that,” Curtiss said. “It would be unfair to homosexuals.”
Finally, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the bishops’ conference, asked the John Jay team to include data on abusers who have been permanently removed from ministry but who remain in the priesthood. Many of those priests, he said, have requested further conversations with bishops with an eye towards a scheduled reconsideration of the bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, first adopted in 2002.
George later said that while there’s no question of returning those priests to ministry, and that the priests themselves understand that reality, there is a need to discuss what their role in the church might be.