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May 19, 2011

Special report on just-released "Causes and Context" study of clergy sexual abuse of minors examines complexity of factors and preventive steps



In this edition:
1. Removing opportunities for abuse to occur.
2. Rise and subsequent decline of abuse.
3. No single cause found.
4. Key study findings.
5. Quotes from study report.
6. Safe-environment programs.
7. Human formation: in seminaries; post-ordination.
8. Misperceptions about priests who abused.


1. Remove Opportunities for Abuse to Occur

A report on a major study of the causes of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. was released at the headquarters of the national Catholic bishops' conference in Washington May 18.

Known as "the causes and context study," it is the second major study of the abuse of minors commissioned by the National Review Board, a lay consultative body of the bishops' Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection. An earlier nature and scope study included an analysis of the extent of the problem.

The causes and context study was mandated by the U.S. Catholic bishops' 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." The study report is titled "The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010."

The study findings will interest almost everyone in pastoral ministry because they respond to questions people in the church raise so often about the reasons some priests sexually abused minors. It casts light, too, on the continued importance of educational "safe-environment programs" aimed at preventing abuse.

The study's goal, according to the report, was two-pronged.

-- First, it sought to learn what "led to a sexual abuse 'crisis' in the Catholic Church."

-- Second, its goal encompassed making "recommendations to Catholic leadership" for preventing abuse.

It appeared during the press conference held in Washington May 18 for the release of the study that some journalists wanted to know why they should trust the study findings and whether the bishops somehow simply got results they wanted to get from the study.

The study was conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York. Diane Knight, who chairs the review board, said during the press conference that the John Jay College was chosen for this study and the earlier nature and scope study "because it is a highly qualified teaching and research institution" that is "well versed in both criminal justice and the workings of large, bureaucratic organizations."

Moreover, she said, the college "had no prior relationship to the Catholic Church."

Karen Terry, the study's principal investigator, said "none of the bishops had any influence on the findings of the study."

2. Study Charted Increase and Later Decline of Cases

The study report characterizes the crisis over the sexual abuse of minors by priests in the U.S. as a "historical" problem. Because most cases only were reported in the early 2000s, many people suspect that abuse continues in full force today, the study observed. But it said this is not the case.

Most abuse cases reported in the early 2000s and even most of those reported today occurred decades ago, the report says. The study charted a steep rise of abuse incidents in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by a decline in the 1980s - a decline that accelerated after 1985. The decline continued, and the number of abuse of minors cases in the church today remains low, the report said.

This finding was discussed during the May 18 press conference in Washington by Diane Knight, chairwoman of the National Review Board, the lay consultative body created by the U.S. bishops' 2002 "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." The board's mandate is to monitor implementation throughout the U.S. church of the charter's 17 articles. Knight has been a social worker for 40 years.

"John Jay reports that most cases occurred in the '60s and '70s, a time, John Jay notes, of upheaval in many areas of society," Knight told the press conference. However, she continued, "from the position of the National Review Board, I want to emphasize that none of the information included in this report should be interpreted as making excuses for the terrible acts of abuse that occurred. There are no excuses."

Knight said that "there is much that the church has to learn from this report, and much of it is difficult. The bottom line is that the church was wrong not to put children first for all of those years and decades."

She acknowledged that "the church can take a measure of comfort in the fact that the numbers of abuse cases have dropped dramatically." She said, echoing an observation in the report itself, that "others can learn from our experience, and we are willing to help them."

Immediately, however, Knight added that "the ones who must learn first of all are ourselves - bishops, priests and the Catholic community." She said that "given the scope of the problem, the hurt and damage it causes, the shattering of trust in God's very representatives, we can never do too much to prevent it from recurring."

3. No Single Cause Found

Some may be surprised - and some may be disappointed -- to hear that the causes and context study found that "no single psychological, developmental or behavioral characteristic differentiated priests who abused minors from those who did not."

Kathleen McChesney, the former and first director of the U.S. bishops' national Office of Child and Youth Protection, commented in an analysis of the report that some people "who espoused a pet theory as to why priests harmed children may disagree with the report's findings."

The study also found that "the majority of priests who abused were not driven by particular pathologies, and most did not 'specialize' in abuse of particular types of victims."

The study made clear that because no single cause of abuse was found, it is not possible to predict through identifiable, psychological characteristics who later will abuse. That conclusion has important implications for church action.

It means that even if seminary screening of priesthood candidates remains important for other reasons, as the report said it does, personality testing is not going to be able to identify - and remove -- seminarians who later, as priests, might abuse minors.

In the end, having found no single reason why some priests sexually abused minors, the report spoke much more about "factors" in the abusers' lives and "vulnerabilities" that, under certain conditions, may have led to abuse. A complexity of vulnerabilities comes into play for abusers, it was proposed.

Many news reports right after the report's release seemed to translate "factors" and "vulnerabilities" as "causes." But it seemed clear in the report that "factors" and "vulnerabilities" were not being treated as synonyms for "causes."

Thus, the report suggested that the rise of abuse cases in the 1960s was "consistent with" various behaviors in the 1960s, among them "the rise of other types of 'deviant' behavior, such as drug use and crime," and changes in social behavior such as the "increase in premarital sexual behavior and divorce."

For the researchers, however, this was not the same as calling these 1960s behaviors the "causes" of the rise of the abuse of minors in the church. The report spoke of these behaviors in the social context as influences; they were among a complexity of factors relevant to the situation.

So, with this new study, the complexity of the issue of clergy sexual abuse comes into clearer focus. Teresa Kettelkamp, who today heads the bishops' national Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection, explained in an interview that responding to this problem is more challenging if there is no single cause. She meant that if there were a single cause of the abuse, steps could be taken to remove that cause.

Why is this finding so important? Because if no single cause of the abuse allows the church to identify potential abusers before they abuse someone, it becomes all the more important that steps be taken to remove the opportunities for abuse to occur. Removing these opportunities is an important goal of the now-familiar safe-environment programs throughout the church in the U.S.

The report on the study had this to say: "Because of the lack of identifiable psychological characteristics associated with potential abusers, it is very important to pay careful attention to the situational factors associated with abuse and prevent potential abusers from having the opportunity to abuse minors."

4. Key Study Findings

The report on the causes and context study described priests who abused minors as a "heterogeneous population." These priests were not all alike, in other words.

What these priests seemed to share were "certain vulnerabilities" like an "emotional congruence to adolescents." In other words, many of these priests had difficulty forming appropriate relationships with adults.

In light of that, the report recommended that attention be paid to the need of priests for "outlets to form social friendships and suitable bonds with age-appropriate persons."

Worth noting here is that in an online discussion of steps to prevent abuse of minors, Teresa Kettelkamp, who heads the U.S. bishops' national Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection, cited difficulty forming relationships with age-appropriate adults and the appearance of being more comfortable with children than fellow adults as possible warning signs of a potential abuser.

The overall health and well-being of priests and the stress they may experience were among concerns the report addressed. The stress priests may experience at times of transition - transition from the seminary into a parish or from one parish to another, for example - was cited as one possible factor in the overall vulnerability of those who abused.

Various "situational stressors" in a priest's life were discussed by the report. Situational stressors do not cause abuse, but may serve "as triggers" to abuse, it commented.

Alcohol may have contributed to incidents of abuse, the report suggested. It noted that high alcohol consumption during stressful times can lower inhibitions.

Some priest-abusers were abused as youths, the report noted. It said that "having been sexually abused by an adult while a minor increased the risk that priests would later abuse a child."

Karen Terry, the study's principal researcher, presented a list of findings of the causes and context study during the May 18 press conference in Washington for the report's release. (Several of these findings will be discussed in greater depth below when I examine some common misperceptions of abusers cited by the report.) Briefly, Terry said the study found that:

-- "There is no single cause of the sexual abuse 'crisis.'"

-- "The majority of abuse cases occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. There was a marked decline beginning in the late 1980s, which continued through the 1990s and to the present day."

-- "Individuals who would later abuse minors as priests attended major free-standing seminaries."

-- "Individual-level characteristics of priests do not predict subsequent sexual abuse."

-- "Most of the priests who had allegations of abuse are not pedophiles. Most of the priests who had allegations of abuse abused pubescent or post-pubescent minors, not prepubescent children," as a pedophile would do.

-- "Homosexuality is not the cause of child abuse by priests."

-- "Situational factors and opportunity to abuse played a significant role in the onset and continuation of abusive acts."

-- "The church established 'Five Principles' in the mid-1990s to guide response to reports of sexual abuse. The implementation of these 'Five Principles' was inadequate in many dioceses."

-- "The primary [past] response of bishops to an allegation of abuse was to concentrate on the priest-abuser."

-- "Transparency and accountability" in the responses of the church to the abuse problem must increase.

Terry said "the problem of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the U.S. is largely historical, and the bulk of cases occurred decades ago." But she said "the vulnerability to abuse remains a risk in any organization where adults form mentoring and nurturing relationships with minors."

In the Catholic Church, she said, "preparation for a chaste, celibate priesthood is therefore crucial."

5. Quotes From "Causes and Context" Report

"Some percentage of priests will be vulnerable to sexually abuse children. Although a vulnerability or predisposition may exist in general, this situation does not imply that it is possible to either identify specific 'causes' of the abusive behavior or identify specific individuals who will commit acts of abuse."

"Prior to 1984, the common assumption of those who the bishops consulted was that clergy sexual misbehavior was both psychologically curable and could be spiritually remedied."

"Priests who were ordained prior to the 1960s who had a 'confused' sexual identity prior to ordination were more likely to sexually abuse minors than those who clearly identified with a particular sexual identity from those cohorts."

"Pope Benedict XVI's recent and highly publicized support for accountability and transparency regarding abuse victims and hierarchical neglect should encourage Catholic dioceses to continue to complete their innovation in response to and prevention of sexual abuse of minors."

6. Safe-Environment Programs

Removing opportunities for the sexual abuse of minors to occur is an important goal of the safe-environment programs that now are common in the church in the U.S. Pursuing this goal means teaching adults and children in the church to recognize the warning signs of potential abusers.

During the press conference May 18 held to release the causes and context study findings, Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, Wash., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, discussed safe-environment programs. He said the study showed that "what we are doing works."

Bishop Cupich said that today, more that 5.3 million children and more than 2 million adults have received safe-environment training. The adults who received this training "serve the church through our schools, churches and youth groups."

Background checks on adults "weed out those who are not safe to be around children," Bishop Cupich explained. And because of such programs, he said, "our children know to run away and to speak up when someone or something makes them feel uncomfortable."

The "protection of children is now a regular part of every church ministry and service," Bishop Cupich said. Furthermore, he told the press conference, "no one who has not passed a background check is to be admitted to a seminary" today, and "no one should ever be ordained who has not had thorough training in what constitutes a safe environment and appropriate relationships with children and young people."

Bishop Cupich said that with the findings and recommendations of the new study in hand, the U.S. Catholic bishops "will thoroughly and carefully review our response to the sexual abuse crisis and make whatever adjustments are needed to help us build on the progress we have made."

He said that "as individual bishops and our [national bishops] conference leadership have done, I once again apologize fully and without hesitation for the harm and the suffering caused when some priests took advantage of their moral authority and abused innocent children in a criminal way."

The study made clear that priests who abused minors represented just a small percentage of all priests. The study did not recommend that all priests be removed from mentoring relationships with minors. In fact, it said it is "neither possible nor desirable to implement extensive restrictions on the mentoring and nurturing relationships between minors and priests, given that most priests have not sexually abused minors and are not likely to do so."

7. Human Formation in Seminaries and After Ordination

The report calls attention to the valuable role an intensified focus on human formation in seminary education appears to have played since 1985. It urges that human formation continue long after ordination for priests.

A recommendation of the report is that priests in general will benefit from the addition of a human-formation component to their ongoing education. But one might conclude from the report that any priest who is a potential abuser would benefit in particular from continued human formation, since this may help him cope with "vulnerabilities" that could result in abuse.

Human formation recognizes that more than the intellect is important in the direction a priest's life takes. A priest, like everyone else, is a human being with emotions. Like others, he establishes friendships and interrelates with many people -- in a parish, for example. Human formation fosters self-awareness and personal maturity.

In discussing human formation, the study report considered it vital that seminarians and priests be well-prepared for a life of celibate chastity and that they understand clearly that sexual abuse is harmful. Priests who abused minors in the 1960s and 1970s very often received their seminary education in the 1950s or earlier, and the report said they were ill prepared for a life of celibate chastity and appeared unaware of the harm of abuse to minors.

The report noted that awareness of the harm of sexual abuse grew rapidly both in society at large and in the church during the 1980s, a time when incidents of abuse began to decline in the church.

8. Misperceptions About Priests Who Abused

The study dispels several misperceptions about the causes of sexual abuse of minors by priests. Not surprising at all, this part of the study received the greatest attention in the first newspaper, TV and radio reports about it.

Since many abuse victims were male minors, many people think homosexuality was a cause of the abuse crisis in the church, but that is a misperception, the study report said.

"Clinical data do not support the hypothesis that priests with a homosexual identity" have been "significantly more likely to sexually abuse" minors than priests "with a heterosexual orientation or behavior," according to the report.

The report stressed the role of "opportunity" in this type of abuse and urged ever greater steps to remove the opportunities for abuse to occur. It speculated that a reason so many male minors were abused is that these priests had greater access to them.

In addition, a distinction needs to be drawn between "sexual identity" and "sexual behavior," the report stressed. It said 70 percent of priests referred for abusing a minor "had also had sexual behavior with adults." These priests did not seem to target a specific type of victim.

Another public misperception is that priests who abused minors were pedophiles in a clinical sense. But they were not, the report said, because few of their victims were prepubescent children.

Other misperceptions addressed by the study concerned priestly celibacy and the church's male priesthood. Neither of these is a cause of clergy abuse, the study report insisted.

It said that priestly celibacy has been practiced in the church over many centuries and cannot explain the great rise of abuse cases involving minors from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. It asked how the steep decline of abuse incidents after 1985 would be accounted for if celibacy were a cause of the sexual abuse by some priests.