John Jay Report Leak Whodunit; McCarrick Gets Presidential Endorsement; Bishops on Immigration Proposal; Passion Teaching Moment; Child Voting Scorecard

By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter
February 18, 2004

The National Review Board investigating the scope and causes of the clerical sexual abuse crisis anticipated that the study they commissioned would be leaked. They tried to plan for that eventuality.

Back in November, as the American bishops met in Washington, board member Robert Bennett issued an ultimatum: if the findings of the eagerly anticipated report were disclosed prior to the scheduled Feb. 27 release, the board would make the report public immediately. Even bishops (and, ultimately, the board works for the bishops), would not see the report until a day or two prior to its public release.

The idea, it was clear, was to avoid exactly what has transpired: a "premature" release of the highly charged data. A leak, particularly if it was selective, could compromise the report's findings or allow those with an agenda not shared by the Review Board to get their "spin" out early.

Now, following CNN's disclosure of some of the study's major findings, the board has backtracked. Bennett and other board members are urging the public to withhold judgment until the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study on the "scope of the crisis" is formally presented on the first Friday of Lent.

The spin, it seems, is out of control.

There are actually two reports. The first, conducted by John Jay, will provide a quantitative analysis of the national scope of clerical sexual abuse over the last half century. John Jay researchers used data provided by nearly all U.S. dioceses and religious orders to determine the number of victims and alleged priest abusers. Access to the findings is reportedly limited to members of the Review Board and to John Jay staff.

The second report, a work of the National Review Board, will describe the "causes" of the crisis and is scheduled for release at the same time.

What does the John Jay report say?

CNN -- granted a sneak peak though not an actual copy of the study -- reported that more than 11,000 allegations of sexual abuse were made against approximately 4,500 priests over the past 50 years. Roughly half the priests were alleged to have committed a single act of abuse, while nearly 80 percent focused their attention on victims over the age of 11.

With those harsh facts on the table, let's go back to the leak.

Following the CNN report, bishops' conference president Wilton Gregory issued a statement. "I have not seen the reports, and so I cannot comment on their substance," said Gregory. (Clearly, if Gregory has not "seen the reports," he cannot be the leaker.)

So who provided CNN its peak? And to what end?

Speculation abounds.

Perhaps John Jay is the culprit. Upset that the self-reported data strains credulity, this theory goes, school researchers invited CNN in for a look. Abuse victims have long contended that the study is tainted because it relies on information (in the form of a survey) provided by the dioceses. For example, says survivor advocate Barbara Blaine, the notion that nearly half of the abusing priests are said to have committed "only" one act of abuse, is akin to believing an alcoholic only got drunk once.

Or perhaps someone with an interest in demonstrating that the clergy abuse crisis is really about homosexuality spilled the beans. CNN reported that the vast majority of cases involved minors between the ages of 11 and 17. If so, the leak may have backfired, given the tender age at which the study reportedly begins to group the "older" victims. Philip Jenkins, the Penn State University professor who argues that the abuse crisis is more about homosexuality than pedophilia, is not alone in hoping that the actual study provides more precise data. "I wish they had done a better breakdown of the ages, and maybe they do in the final report," Jenkins told NCR.

Or maybe someone thought it wise to release the information before influential bishops tried to water down the findings.

Or possibly some combination of the above.

Here's what we do know:

A number of bishops made clear their reluctance to participate in the John Jay survey. The methodology of the report, and the disinclination of some dioceses to submit to outside scrutiny, was the subject of extensive closed-door discussions at the bishops' June 2003 and November 2003 meetings.

Gregory of the bishops' conference fears a public relations meltdown when the John Jay report is formally released. "How do we engage in a serious public self-examination of our past on the issue of sexual abuse without engendering a type of sensationalistic coverage of past misconduct that obscures present achievements in eliminating that misconduct?" he asked at a September 2003 meeting of the Religion Newswriters Association.

The information is dripping out diocese-by-diocese. Bishops throughout the country, using the data they provided to John Jay, have tried to inoculate their local churches prior to the media maelstrom that is sure to hit next week. The dioceses of Bridgeport, Conn., San Jose, Calif., Richmond, Va., Anchorage, Alaska, Los Angeles, Arlington, Va. and Portland, Maine, are among many that, over the past few days, have spoon-fed local reporters the data they previously provided to the John Jay researchers. An effort to promote transparency? Perhaps. But also a communications strategy right out of Public Relations 101: Get your story out early so that when the big one hits you look good by comparison.

Another thing is clear: self-reported findings represent a "floor," not a "ceiling." The number of actual victims of clerical sexual abuse is no doubt higher than can be ascertained, given the constraints of the study. "Any sociologist will tell you that you can expect minimization" when information is self-reported, said psychotherapist A.W. Richard Sipe. "And this is a self-report."

We know one more thing. Someone leaked the findings to CNN.

Was it a noble act or a nefarious breach of trust?

Only the leaker really knows.