Bishop Accountability
  The Times and Sexual Abuse by Priests

By Andrew M. Greeley
America, vol. 188, no. 4
February 10, 2003

The New York Times labored mightily to bring forth a mountain of priest abusers in its recent census and produced only a mouse, as it admitted in the 12th paragraph of its sensationalist prose in “Decades of Damage” (1/12/03). The Times reported a percent of American priests not greatly different from that of Cardinal Ratzinger: 1 percent for the cardinal and 1.8 percent for the Times. Yet The Times used this very low proportion to launch still another attack on the Catholic Church and the celibate priesthood.

I have, for the record, been warning church leadership since 1985 that it was “sitting on an atom bomb” created by the reassignment of abusive priests. One victim of a priest is one too many. One reassigned abuser is one too many. The number of 1,205 abusing priests and 4,268 victims is horrific. However, if the Ratzinger/Times estimates are anywhere near the reality, 98 percent of American priests are not abusers, a point The Times neglects to make and which ought to have been the lead in an unbiased news report.

I suspect that the Ratzinger/Times estimates are too low, but double the number to 4 percent—which I suspect is closer to the truth—and one still finds that 96 percent of priests are not abusers. The horror is doubled but the picture is not nearly as bleak as The Times and other media have hinted through the last year.

But the Times writer, Laurie Goodstein, proved remarkably ingenious in keeping the feeding frenzy alive. There is evidence in the data, she suggests, to support both those who blame the abuse problem on celibacy and those who blame it on the breakdown of sexual morality during the 1960’s.

This is simply not so. The numbers prove nothing at all. Most experts in sexual abuse of minors and children attribute it to a deep and incurable syndrome acquired early in life. Marriage won’t cure it. An abuser who marries is a married abuser. Moreover, it is contemptuous toward women to suggest that a man can cure his attraction to minors simply by sleeping with a woman. The fact that most of the abusers were ordained in the 1960’s can just as well be attributed to the fact that there were large ordination classes in those years.

Nonetheless, the Times writer ignores the clinical evidence about the personalities of abusers and uses the debate between the two sides to cry havoc and again let loose the furies of the talking heads who have pontificated about priests for the last 12 months. She thus deftly shifts the frame of her article from abusers to all priests.

Led by the Rev. Robert Silva of the National Federation of Priests Councils, the talking heads denounce sexual education in the seminaries. I will yield to no one in my contempt for what passed as a seminary education in those days—about sexuality and everything else. Yet the argument that blames the seminaries for sex abuse fails the test of the scholastic dictum, qui nimis probat nihil probat: she who proves too much, proves nothing. If seminary training turned out hordes of sexual predators, then there should be a lot more than there are. Maybe a lot of us were sexually immature at the time of ordination—just as most young men are sexually immature at the time of marriage, and many remain so for the rest of their lives. Maybe we could have benefited from better sexual education—though I’m at a loss to know what that would have been like. Indeed, what kind of sexual education will change the personality of someone with, in Dr. John Money’s words, a “vandalized love map”?

But most of us—98.2 percent if one credits the Times’s numbers—are not sexual predators. Indeed if the seminaries are responsible for sexual abuse, that proportion is almost a miracle of grace.

Citing the comments of resigned priests, the Times writer also asserts quite gratuitously that “healthy” priests began to “jump ship” in the 1960’s and 70’s. She really does not prove that assertion, but instead quotes the study conducted by Eugene Kennedy and Victor Heckler (whom she does not mention) of Loyola University Chicago as part of the 1970 research on the priesthood commissioned by the American bishops. Fifty-seven percent of priests, according to their report, were “psychologically underdeveloped.” But she apparently did not read the introduction to the report, in which Kennedy and Heckler say that priests were “ordinary,” not very different from other men. Apparently, then, 57 percent of American males are psychologically underdeveloped. (A woman theologian remarked to me skeptically, “Is that all?”)

One must also wonder whether it is a sign of “psychological development” for men who left the priesthood to proclaim themselves as “healthy” and those who stayed as “unhealthy”?

Moreover, the Loyola report cites no comparative statistics about psychological development of married men with whom priests might legitimately be compared. In another part of the report to bishops in 1970, a National Opinion Research Center team administered Everett Shostrom’s Personality Orientation Inventory to priests and compared priests with norm groups available for that test. Priests compared favorably with men of the same age and educational attainment on maturity, self-actualization and the capacity for intimacy. More recently in 1992, research with a similar design by the Rev. Thomas Nestor confirmed the NORC findings and found slightly higher scores on priests’ capacity for intimacy. Since these data did not fit the Times reporter’s “frame” of a sick, immature, twisted priesthood, she did not bother to seek them out.

Nor did she cite data from the recent Los Angeles Times study of American priests, which showed that most priests are happy in the priesthood, most find it even better than they had expected, most would choose to be priests again, and most have no intention of leaving the priesthood.

As I will argue in my forthcoming book Priests in the Pressure Cooker, all the comparative evidence available suggests that, despite The New York Times, most priests are reasonably mature, happy men. They are not the crowd of cowering, craven, sexually frustrated, “unhealthy” males that the media have portrayed this past year. Priests have their faults and failings: in general they are miserable homilists, do not administer “user-friendly” parishes and still do not take the abuse crisis seriously, but the media have calumniated them.

I do not want to become a media basher (like most priests in the L.A. Times surveys). If it had not been for media pressure, the hierarchy would not have been forced to end their reassignments of abusive priests. No media outlet ever sent a known abuser back into a parish. Yet the sexual abuse crisis has become an occasion for Catholic-bashing and celibate-priest bashing, an old custom dating to the 19th century that is as American as cherry pie—with the addition these days that a few self-serving resigned priests join in the game.

If some African Americans are brutal rapists, it does not follow that all or most African Americans are. If some C.E.O.’s are crooks, it does not follow that all or most are. If some priests are creepy predators, it does not follow that all or most priests are.

The Times writer concludes her article with the gratuitous suggestion that abuse cases were down in the 1990’s because bishops might still be covering up. She does not seem to realize that her article covers up the truth that most priests are reasonably healthy males who are happy in their work and are not lusting for little boys.

I also wonder why the two honest and intelligent articles on the subject by Peter Steinfels, who works for The Times, appeared in Commonweal and The (London) Tablet, and not in The Times. Did the Times editors ban Catholics from reporting on the sexual abuse problem?

I conclude from this article that the good gray Times, under editor Howell Raines, has left behind its historic position of edgy suspicion toward the church, crossed the border into hostility and ventured on to the stomping grounds of virulent anti-Catholicism.

Maria Monk lives!

The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley is professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago and the University of Arizona and Research Associate at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.