I have drawn the information below from the same 2011 Report to Catholic Bishops on Sexual Abuse by Catholic Priests that I have referred to in previous posts on this subject. It is possible that, with the increased understanding since that time of the harm sexual abuse does to victims, the excuses given by priest abusers would be somewhat less blatantly self-serving. Their distancing of themselves from the act of abuse is consistent, however, with the way the Church still “covers it up” with secrecy until forced to act by external agencies like law enforcement or the media.
The priests interviewed for the 2011 report generally found a way to direct responsibility for their abuse away from their “true” selves to their “sick” selves (the part of them addicted to substances, for example). Or, worse, toward their victim’s seductive or sexually precocious behavior, or toward their families’ failure to protect them. The priests’ behavior was therefore, according to them, incorrectly labeled “abusive.” Or, still worse, since they were responsible only to God, and they had already been forgiven for their abuse by God through confession (the sacrament of reconciliation), no one below God (their parishioners, their bishops. the courts, for example) had any right to judge them. This posture of superiority conveniently left them undeserving of any corrective action whatsoever (psychological treatment, transfer to another school, parish or diocese, removal from ministry, or criminal prosecution.) Even if their abuse was demonstrably criminal, these priests remained, in their own minds, innocent.
Other excuses are also painful to hear. The abuse “happened only once,” “happened long ago,” was consensual or, since it fell short of intercourse, was “not sex.” Some priests romanticized the abuse as a “relationship” on a more spiritual level than “just sex.” Other priests blamed Church authorities, who had treated them badly by not training them for a life of celibacy, If they had, the priests argued, they might never have chosen to be ordained.
There are similarities between the tactics of an abusing priest and an abusing coach or scout counselor: for example, the abuse itself almost always occurs in private and the offender carefully cultivates a close advisory relationship with the victim. In the case of a priest the abuse generally takes place in the church, an adjoining school, the parish residence, or a retreat house, although with males it might also occur, especially during outings, in vacation houses or hotel rooms. The abuse is often fueled with alcohol, drugs, and pornography.
The advantage the priest has over the abused minor is the respect and power Catholic communities, especially families, automatically bestow on the priest. “If this man is holy, a mediator between God and me,” the victim instructed in the Catholic faith may well reason, “surely that man would do nothing wrong,.” And sadly, the more seriously the minor takes the Catholic faith, the more vulnerable he or she is. Trust, combined with an opportune occasion, makes the abuse more, not less, likely to occur.
The priest may also “groom” his victim with favors like rides home, gift cards and baseball tickets. Or, if the minor shies away from the abuse, the priest may threaten his target with the possibility of taking away such privileges or all the “special time” he has already spent in the target’s company.
Males are less likely to report abuse than females, and it is difficult to know how long a priest’s abuse of either sex may have persisted. Reported abuse may have occurred years after the priest has been accused out of fear that the Church may question its credibility. As for unreported abuse, no one knows how much has taken place or may continue even now. All in all the priest abuser, however punished, still holds more cards than his victim as a result especially of all the hush, hush surrounding him.
A few years ago I had occasion to mention priest abuse of minors to the then pastor of the Catholic church I attend. His response was that a lot of those priests had been falsely accused. I had a distinct sense that by even bringing up the subject I was breaking some unspoken rule dictating that I was out of bounds.
In fact evasion of this subject remains the rule in all Catholic institutions I know of. My fellow parishioners don’t want to talk about it. The hierarchy doesn’t want to talk about it except when forced to by law enforcement or the media. Administrators at the Catholic College where I taught for over forty years want neither to talk about it nor sponsor lectures by specialists on the subject along with public discussions of it.
This silence begins with the abused Catholic minors, understandably reluctant to talk about the abuse to a parent, relative, friend, or school counselor for fear of not being believed. Betrayed trust by the abusing priest, implicitly tolerated by Church silence, extends like an uncoiling snake to everyone in the victim’s world positioned to help. The priest abuser places himself between his victim and the caring authorities in his life, creating a void that often leads to reduced self-regard, loneliness, depression, anxiety and specious remedies for these problems like alcohol, drugs and fabricated “relationships.” In other words, abuse by a priest contributes to the very moral decline in social attitudes lamented by Catholic bishops, religious superiors and expert “researchers” as its main cause.
The bolder but more honest reaction to priest abuse of minors is for the conscience of the Church to be appalled by it and to accept its own role in perpetuating the abuse.
My reaction to this 2011 report was mixed. A sociological study replete with charts and graphs meant to highlight its objectivity and reinforce its conclusions, the report was compiled by a team of investigators from John Jay College (data analysts, and research associates) along with their consultants. The conclusions are not always in sync , however, with the claims that supposedly lead to them.
One dominant conclusion of the report must have pleased the bishops who received it. The sexual abuse of minors by U.S. Catholic Priests is said to be a historical problem coinciding with changing attitudes toward sexuality in American society from the nineteen sixties to about 1985 when a significant reduction in reports of abuse occurred. By that time the abuse “crisis,” the report concludes, “was over.” It had originated in factors external to the Church, not from within its own institutional culture, and the steps the Church had taken to alleviate the crisis (adding programs in “human formation” to seminary curricula, for example) had been successful. So even as incidents and reports of abuse continue, they were likely to decrease.
But the claims of the report dealing with why and how priests abuse minors, and the relation of that abuse to the organizational structures of the Church itself is often strikingly at odds with this gratifying conclusion. The report itself suffers from the same serious defect it attributes to efforts to understand priest abuse, namely the excessive focus on the abusing priest and the comparative neglect of the severe and often lifelong effects his abuse has on his victims.
Contrary to this report, the abuse of minors by Catholic priests, in its international scope and continuing resistance to Vatican comprehension, most certainly remains a crisis. In addition a Church that so highly values the acceptance of moral responsibility ought to be at least as preoccupied with the role of its own institutional culture in producing the priest/criminal as it is on managing the priest/criminal himself.
Ever since I read the list of priest abusers released by the Jesuits on 1/15/2019, I have been trying to deal with the pain of having known some of these abusers personally both before and after I was a Jesuit seminarian in the late 1950’s and early 60’s. In an effort to broaden my perspective on this issue I have recently been reading a 2011 report presented to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops by a John Jay College research team. It is entitled “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.”
I intend to reflect on this difficult issue in a series of posts over the next few weeks. Although I never suffered any priest abuse myself, more attention needs to be paid to what I believe has been the most neglected aspect of this abuse, at least until recently, namely its effects on survivors.