Data Takes the Guesswork out of the Crisis
Study Revealed Some Figures Were Worse Than Expected, Others Better — but Trends May Show Abuse Problem Has Been in Decline for Years

By William Bole
Our Sunday Visitor [United States]
Downloaded March 23, 2004

There were undoubtedly some Catholics who had clung to the hope that the Church’s sexual abuse crisis might, in the end, involve only a negligible number of priests. For them, a new study conducted by criminologists in New York must come as a bitter awakening.

At the same time, others who contend that child sexual abuse remains rampant in the Church will have to reckon with data amassed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The report, issued Feb. 27, provided the first comprehensive accounting ever of such abuse in the Catholic Church. It was commissioned by the National Review Board, a lay panel formed by the bishops in the wake of the scandals that broke two years ago.

Along with John Jay’s quantitative study, the review board issued its own 145-page report, which was surprisingly scathing. The theologically operative word was "sinfulness," referring to the acts of priests as well as the failure of many bishops to "protect their people from predators."

But the immediate story was the scope of the crisis as probed by John Jay.

"There were hypotheses, there were myths out there, that we were all throwing around, because we didn’t have any data," said Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, editor of America magazine. "And the great advance from this study is that we now have some data, so we can talk about truth rather than talk about guesses."

Are there more victims?

In the past, much of the guesswork surrounded the question of how many priests have been accused of molesting minors. Based on partial studies, some experts had put the number around 3,000, stretching over the past five decades. Figures used by vocal critics of the bishops, meanwhile, were more likely to be multiples of that.

As tallied by John Jay College, the number turns out to have been higher than what some experts had estimated and lower than what many critics had believed. The college’s report found that 4,392 priests allegedly abused minors between 1950 and 2002.

That amounts to 4 percent of priests who served during that time period, according to John Jay’s estimate. It is a significant and sobering finding, especially considering that some Church leaders had put the figure around 1 percent.

And the real number of alleged priest-molesters is believed to be higher, though how much higher is debatable.

In fact, some Church representatives warned that more people might step forward with allegations as a result of this latest surge of publicity. That is not pure guesswork: John Jay reported that 27 percent of the abuse cases have been reported since 2002, when the scandals erupted.

At the same time, the number of victims who reported abuse to dioceses — 10,667 — was significantly fewer than most experts had expected.

"We would have predicted about eight victims per abuser," which would have worked out to several times as many victims as counted by John Jay," said Santa Clara University psychologist Thomas Plante.

That prediction was based on studies of clergy abusers in treatment facilities, as well as media accounts. "I think we were wrong, because most of the cases we were aware of were the most egregious cases," said Plante.

Numbers in decline

Still, victims of clergy sexual abuse charged that John Jay’s numbers were insultingly low and that, with greater exposure, more victims will reveal abuse. (One plaintiffs’ lawyer in Boston denounced the study as a "re-victimization" of those already abused by clergy.)

Those victims and their representatives, along with other critics, have also argued that child sexual abuse continues at epidemic levels in the Church. The John Jay report, however, gives little room for this charge.

According to the findings, the reported abuse peaked in the 1970s and began declining precipitously in the 1980s. The numbers roughly confirm the notion of a "cohort effect" of priests who graduated from seminary in the 1960s and early 1970s and went on to commit the preponderance of abuse.

It could be that the abuse has persisted over the past decade and a half and that victims will not come forward for some time, said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. But he added that these years have also seen swifter action by bishops in response to abuse allegations, as well as tighter screening of seminary candidates, among other measures.

"These actions, without a doubt, have made a difference," said Bishop Gregory, speaking at a media conference after the findings were unveiled.

The message in the numbers may well be that the Church has more repenting to do during this Lent, but also that Catholics have reason to hope as they look toward Easter.

"I am hopeful," said Plante. "I honestly believe that while you can never be totally sure that sexual abuse won’t occur among any group of men, including priests, that the current and future chances of abuse by priests will be minimal."

What the National Review Board said

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The National Review Board monitoring the U.S. Church response to clergy sexual abuse of minors released a 145-page report Feb. 27 on the causes and context of that abuse over the past half-century. Here are some of the key problems cited in that report.


• Inadequate screening procedures

• Inadequate formation regarding celibacy and sexuality

Special issues for further study:

• Sexual orientation of priests

• Celibacy

• Spiritual life for bishops and priests


• Failure to understand the nature and scope of the abuse and the harm it caused

• Failure to respond adequately to victims

• Making unwarranted presumptions in favor of accused priests

• Culture of clericalism that sought to protect accused priests

• Weaknesses in Church law that made it difficult to inflict criminal penalties

• Culture of forgiveness that failed to recognize the horror of the abuse and the need to condemn it

• An emphasis on secrecy and avoiding scandal

• Failure to report actions that were crimes in civil law to civil authorities

• Overreliance on psychologists and psychiatrists to "cure" offenders, and on attorneys who treated allegations as primarily a legal problem

— William Bole is a senior correspondent for Our Sunday Visitor


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