Report on Catholic Priest
Pedophile Problem Misses the Mark
By Anson Shupe (brief bio at end)
May 20, 2011

Re: John Jay College of Criminal Justice report, Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors in the Catholic Church 1950-2010
Here is my piece on the aforementioned report after reading it. I can't express to you the outrage so many of my colleagues in law, behavioral sciences, and even the ministry have expressed about it. It is a whitewash. I don't criticize it in quite so many words. I try to be more diplomatic in my essay. Please let me know if you have any questions. I would appreciate any effort you might take to see if this editorial could find a wider syndication audience as an editorial; I will be expanding it in the future for others, but not for a while.
Anson Shupe

On May 18, 2011 the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City issued its highly anticipated report on sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the United States. The study examined the issue from 1950-2010, a sixty-year period for which records from most American dioceses were voluntarily provided by the Church alone (though with no independent corroboration).

The report was intended by both researchers and the Church itself, the latter having been publically battered of late for harboring sexual abusers in its priestly ranks, to lay to rest the impression that the Church has a disproportionate number of such abusers or is different from such other institutions as Protestant denominations, the Boy Scouts, or public schools. (Yes, these are its findings. But the conclusion that these were the researchers' intentions, like the earlier 2004 report using similar Church-provided data and underwritten funding, is somewhat undeniable to those who have followed this issue for two decades.)

The report is nothing if not detailed: at approximately 143 pages long, it has an impressive 481 footnotes. It offers dozens of charts and tables and an interesting assortment of interviews with perpetrators, Church gate-keepers, and others.

The report's basic conclusions are that the American Catholic Church has no more pedophiles within its ranks than other institutions, and that most of the sexual offenders are not even pedophiles. Researchers say most of the perpetrators shared no single motive for their actions.

There is one heartening finding (in terms of clearing up false impressions) which echoes what has been known to social scientists for some time: that the child molestation problem is not the result of predatory homosexuals in the priesthood. The report says the predators are generalists, a curious new addition to criminological nomenclature which presumably means these characters are merely sexual opportunists.

Most interesting, the overarching cause of the priestly scandals, according to the report, were larger social and cultural changes in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, such as sexual promiscuity, drug use, youthful rebellion, lifestyle experimentation, and "increased levels of deviant behavior." Catholic seminarians-later-to-become-priests were apparently ill-prepared to cope with such problems. The villain, it seems, was North American counter-culture of the Vietnam and Woodstock eras.

This rather facile explanation is akin to the "solution" provided by Pope John Paul II when he visited Denver, Colorado in 1993 for a World Youth Day Rally. The Pope blamed the entire American priest abuse scandal on cultural relativism and American religious pluralism, which provides, he contended, no sure moral anchor as his church provides.

In the end, however, the report's focus is funneled in its vision, with a lot of data on perpetrator-specific trees and nothing on the ecclesiastical forest.

Analyses by journalists, psychotherapists, theologians, sociologists, historians and others who have taken this problem seriously for decades are virtually ignored in the citations. In fact, the footnotes provide only an informational vacuum instead of getting at what really was happening in the Catholic hierarchy to fuel the scandals.

Certainly what experts have learned about the Church's behavior in the scandals is omitted. Most of the report's footnotes are taken up with relative trivia, such as the psychodynamics of children reporting rape incidences, that have little to do with why the Catholic Church has encountered such horrendous scandals.

For instance, for all the finger-wagging at the Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the free love generation, there is absolutely nothing mentioned of several undeniable points about the priest sexual abuse mess.

First, the report is grandiously myopic in a cultural sense. If the Woodstock generation's "moral relaxation" created the United States context for the modern scandal, did we North Americans infect the entire world? There have been voluminous reports of Catholic scandals, ongoing as I write and not just recently, in Canada, Italy, England, Austria, Germany, and not just in Anglo-European countries but also on African, Australian, and Asian continents. It is easier to make a list of countries with any kind of Christian contact that have not experienced Catholic priest scandals than to try to count all the places that have seen them. Blaming the American baby boom culture of forty years ago is creating a cheap straw man that doe not stand up under international (or even our nation's historical) scrutiny.

Second, while slamming a vague past cultural era that means something different to everyone who reexamines it, the John Jay report steers carefully away from implicating the Church in contributing to the "impression" of a pedophile scandal. At worst the Church hierarchs are portrayed as hapless and up against cultural forces with which they were ill equipped to deal. (But did not those priests and bishops come out generationally and educationally from this same milieu?).

Absolutely nothing is mentioned of internal Church reports going back to the 1980s warning the American bishops of the brewing scandal and the ultimately expensive costs of ignoring it. Nothing is mentioned of the bishops' repeated blanket denials that any problem existed (and of punishments to whistle-blowing priests), of the bishops' intimidation and obfuscating stalling tactics and/or bribes for silence regarding victims, of the thousands of recorded cases of pedophilic abuse before 1950, or that only in 2002, after years of wishing away such bad news and the spectacular fiasco of the mega-scandal in the Boston archdiocese with dozens of pedophile priests that brought down Cardinal John Law and almost put him in jail, were the bishops and cardinals brought very reluctantly into confrontation with the victims and their grievances.

Indeed, as my colleagues Thomas P. Doyle, A. W. R. Sipe, and Patrick J. Wall (all three former priests and a political scientist, psychotherapist, and lawyer, respectively) argue in their 2006 book, SEX, PRIESTS, AND SECRET CODES, a large number of the Church's medieval conclaves and conferences involved reform initiatives focused around ecclesiastical malfeasance and sexual shenanigans concerning priests, nuns, and laypersons. None of this is new. The John Jay report obviously had to set some realistic time frame for gathering their data, but the historic nature of their report creates the impression that the appearance of a priestly pedophile problem is historical fact when it is really relegated only to a narrow window of modern American history.

So the ballyhooed social science report is delivered, as questionable as its conclusions are. The Roman Catholic hierarchy will undoubtedly feel relieved. Most congregants in the pews will remain oblivious to its finer points, omissions, and contradictions. And the subject will pass quickly from journalistic interest and scrutiny.

But the phenomenon of priestly abuses remains. Just as I finished these several pages of editorial writing, news of two new scandals, one in Italy, one in Kansas, appeared on my internet within a few minutes. In reality the John Jay report settles nothing. Its wealth of statistics misleads more than clarifies. And the priest abuse problem goes on unabated, though predators are undoubtedly more wary than before.

Anson Shupe, Ph.D., is professor of sociology at Indiana University Purdue University Fort Wayne and has been researching, writing and lecturing on clergy misbehavior since 1990.

Anson Shupe's Books About the Clergy Abuse Crisis

  • Shupe, Anson. IN THE NAME OF ALL THAT'S HOLY. London. Praeger. 1995

  • Shupe, Anson. WOLVES WITHIN THE FOLD. New Brunswick, CT. Rutgers University Press. 1998.

  • Shupe, Anson. BAD PASTORS: CLERGY MISCONDUCT IN MODERN AMERICA. New York. University Press, 2000.

  • Shupe, Anson. SPOILS OF THE KINGDOM: CLERGY MISCONDUCT AND RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY. Chicago. University of Illinois Press. 2007.

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