Groundbreaking report

  • June 7, 2011

An exhaustive American study has attempted to answer the imponderable: what caused so many priests to sexually abuse minors over the second half of the 20th century?

The authors of the report, from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of New York, spent five years sifting through thousands of pages of data, interviews and surveys from victims, priests and bishops. Their work, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is described as the most complete  examination of clergy abuse ever.

They found that abuse increased throughout the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s and then drastically declined around the mid-1980s. No single cause was identified but it found a host of social and institutional factors that may explain the sudden spike and just-as-sudden fall. The most controversial of these is that clergy abuse was sparked by a broader decline in society’s moral behaviour typified by the sex and drugs revolution of the 1960s.

The New York Times  mockingly dubbed that conclusion the “blame Woodstock” syndrome, and other  media outlets followed suit in scoffing at the findings. Yet the data clearly indicates that known occurrences of clerical sexual abuse sharply increased in the 1960s and 1970s. The reason, the report concluded, is that priests were ill trained and emotionally unprepared to cope with the social upheaval of that era. Additionally, they faced increasing job-related stress and social isolation.

“Generally, few structures such as psychological and professional counselling were readily available to assist them,” the report said.

None of that excuses the behaviour of abuser priests, of course. It’s a big leap from being blindsided by a moral revolution to traumatizing children. The situation was made worse, said the report, by the inadequate response of Church hierarchy, particularly from bishops more concerned with trying to quietly rehabilitate offender priests than console victims. It was found that bishops rarely met with victims and, consequently, had a shallow understanding of the problem.

The report has been widely panned for describing abuse in the past tense, rather than as a persistent problem. But no church or secular organization has ever conducted so thorough a review of abuse within its ranks and then made its findings public. For that alone, this study is groundbreaking. And while some abuse may always exist, the Church has worked hard to ensure the crimes of a past generation aren’t repeated.

Today’s priests are thoroughly screened and better trained, with more support and supervision. North American bishops have strict protocols to swiftly and fairly handle accusations of abuse. The Vatican has instituted tougher norms. When victims come forth, they are promised respect, compassion and, when appropriate, compensation.

There may never be agreement on what caused the crisis. But the Church must remain agreed in its resolve to insure it never happens again.

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