The Causes and Contexts of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010

john jay report on sexual abuse of minorsMy 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.

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