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Pajiba Dirty Talk: The Science Behind Clergy Sex Abuse

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | May 25, 2011 |

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | May 25, 2011 |

Earlier this month, the Catholic Church made public a study on the causes of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic Priests, a follow up to a 2002 study on the prevalence of sexual abuse cases by priests in the US. Both studies were commissioned and paid for by an internal review board set up by US Catholic bishops and conducted by the secular John Jay institute. The first study relied on surveys completed by representatives of 97 US dioceses to determine how many priests had been accused of abuse, what types of abuse had occurred, and what the church’s response had been. The researchers were not granted access to the churches internal files, but they did their best to ensure that the data they received was internally consistent and detailed enough to be reliable (in other words, they did the best they could with the limited tools they had). That study found that over 11,000 allegations of abuse had been made over the period from 1950-2001 and concluded that factors that contributed to the high levels of abuse of children by priests included multiple failures on the part of the Catholic hierarchy to take steps to reduce instances of abuse.

This new follow-up study adds to the earlier study information about the social environment at the time of reported crimes and analysis of seminary attendance, as well as surveys of priests (both those accused of abuse and others), victims, and church leaders. The data is interesting but some of the conclusions in this case are much more favorable to the church in ways that don’t always line up with the facts. Let’s start with the most controversial: the study’s authors argue that societal changes - specifically liberalization of attitudes towards sex - led to increased incidences of abuse in the 60s and 70s. This is based mostly on the fact that the number of reported incidences of abuse show a dramatic increase starting in the 60s and peaking in the late 70s before decreasing again to relatively low values in the present day. It looks, at first glance, like priests suddenly went wild in these decades and then just….stoppped.

The problem is, most cases of abuse where not reported at the time they occurred, but 10 to 30 years after the event. And the reportage skews heavily toward the later time frame - reported incidences may have peaked in the 70s, but a full third of reports were made in the 90s and another third were made between 2001-2003. Sexual abuse in childhood leaves a heavy burden on many people that they struggle to come to terms with for decades, and until recently - especially in the period before the 70s - there has been a culture of silence and shame surrounding childhood sexual abuse. The fact that there have been fewer cases reported to have occurred in the 80s and 90s is not necessarily proof that the problem has declined. It may very well just mean that many of those cases haven’t ripened yet. It has gotten easier over the past few years for survivors to come forward, but it is still a very difficult and personal struggle and we probably won’t really know what the rates of abuse by priests in the 80s and 90s were for a couple more decades. They may, in fact, have gone down thanks to changes in within the church, but it’s too soon to say.

The low number of reported incidents before 1960 is also suspect. It may seem like the abuse of children (and its cover up by the church) is a modern problem within the church, but in fact it has been a known issue for most of its history. The practice of moving priests to new dioceses to avoid scandals dates to the 1700s and the official policy established in 1917 was to keep incidents secret. It’s unlikely that these policies would be in place if there wasn’t a substantial problem. The small number of reported incidents before the 60s is very likely due to an even greater reluctance of victims who grew up in the 40s and 50s to expose themselves, rather than a n absence of abusive behavior. The authors of the study do note that the 60s and 70s represent not only a time period in which sexual mores were changing, but also one in which attitudes towards victims of sexual abuse were changing. That they conclude that liberal attitudes, rather than the growing understanding of the harm to children caused by sexual abuse is the reason for the greater number of reports is mindboggling, especially since we don’t know how many incidences of abuse went unreported.

The other controversial aspect of the study is one I have fewer issues with after having read it. Many people have expressed anger and confusion at the study’s classification of the majority of abusive priests as non-pedophiles. The authors actually split the abusive priests into four categories: pedophiles (those who abused multiple pre-pubescent children), ephebophiles (those who abused multiple post-pubescent children), singles (those who abused only one victim), and multiples (those who abused minors of various ages and often both sexes). Of those types, it is the “multiples,” who are the most common. The lack of fixation on a specific age or gender indicates that their abuse stems not from a sexual attractive to children, but from a predatory nature. These men singled out their victims based on vulnerability, rather than any specific physical criteria. This doesn’t make their crimes any less egregious - if anything it makes them more disturbing - but the phrasing in the news reports makes it sound as if the authors are trying to downplay the severity of the abuse. This pattern of abuse is important in light of the fact that the majority of the victims of abuse were boys, which has allowed some within the church to blame homosexuality. In fact, priests who identify as homosexual are more likely to break their celibacy vows, but they do so with adults. Which brings us to the other common scapegoat for this behavior - the celibacy vow. The majority of these abusers are not acting out of a desperate need to express sexuality in any way possible, they are deliberately targeting easily manipulated victims, often grooming them and insinuating themselves into the victims family. This abuse is in many ways related to control more than it is sexual attraction of any kind.

The study authors rightly point out that these power dynamics play out in many situations in which adults interact with children and are not limited to the Catholic Church. The main difference between the church and many other organizations in which this behavior occurs is that the Catholic Church has a hierarchy in place that chooses to address these issues internally. Unfortunately, the higher ups in the church, rather than using their authority to protect the victimized children, chose to protect the priests.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.