Twin Reports but Fraternal Twins

Long Awaited Catholic Soul-Searching with Mixed Results

The two reports released Friday, February 27, 2004, on sexual abuse by the Catholic clergy are unprecedented in the history of any institution.

When the reports, one conducted by the National Review Board of the U.S. Catholic Church, the other by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City (commissioned by the Board), conclude that�over the last fifty years�4% of Catholic priests (10% of the seminary class of 1970!) have had credible accusations of sexual abuse against them by minors, there is no such similar study of comprehensive numbers to compare it to in any other profession. Both reports note this with caution.

And there are other difficulties�not enough attention was paid to victims. Yet buried in these two mammoth reports are awful but key information�and a little controversy�worth taking into account.

It’s not the media, after all
Guess what? One third of all the accusations thus far were reported in the two years after the scandal broke in Boston in early 2002. Two thirds since 1993, shortly after media brought the problem to the Church’s attention the first time.

So while Catholics may lament the oversaturation of the print and electronic media with the topic, we have to surrender any complaint�touted in conspiracy theory circles�that the whole thing has been blown out of proportion by the media. The truth is simple: if not for the media, we would never have known about most of the credible accusations.

Who did this?
The John Jay report also gives us a breaktaking statistic�149 priests (3.4% of the total number of priests credibly accused) were responsible for acts against 2960 victims, over a quarter of the total. A small number of guys are responsible for a whole lot of the damage, and�as the Archdiocese of Boston found�the cost to our children of bishops sheltering them was great indeed.

Incidentally, a majority of accused priests had one accusation against them reported.

Gay-bashing or getting your act together in terms of sexuality?
Everywhere you turn these days, the place of gay folks is on the agenda, and these reports are no exception. The two reports seem at war with one another over the hot button issue of homosexuality in the priesthood. The National Review Board’s analysis notes that the majority of the victims were boys 12 and over and discusses the probability that priests’ homosexual orientation was somehow involved. They go on to hit hidden gay subcultures in seminaries and dioceses and finally suggest that tolerance for homosexual activity may have encouraged abuse of boys.

The John Jay scholars, on the other hand, note with scientific restraint that boys were the most available victims to these men, and that it is mere speculation to draw conclusions about sexual orientation without better information.

One of the unspoken issues here, of course, is the centuries-old pejorative stereotype relating homosexuality and pedophilia, a connection that has never held up to scientific research. Whatever a person’s moral opinions about homosexuality, this is simply prejudice. Most sexual abuse, as scholars routinely find, is actually perpetrated by heterosexual relatives within a family.

Nevertheless, the Review Board’s questions about sexual development and the priesthood are important, especially in an institution where secrecy, a lack of accountability, and unhealthy expectations about sexuality have surrounded the culture of the priesthood. And there can perhaps be made a distinction between true pedophila and those who commit sexual abuse on teenagers because of stunted sexual development. I don’t know; I leave that to the experts to decipher.

But all the attention on gay men in the priesthood does sound a bit like a witch hunt (though the report does admit that many holy priests have been homosexual). I hope the leadership, Review Board or bishops, does not continue with what among some church leaders has clearly already been an attempt to cast attention away from certain sins of this scandal by scapegoating gays.