This series of four VIRTUS® homepage articles explores last year’s findings of the John Jay College Research Team. The four articles will examine Contextual Factors, Individual Factors, Organizational Factors, and Recommendations for Prevention.
By Monica Applewhite, Ph.D.
Consultant to the VIRTUS® Programs
Last year, the John Jay College Research Team, headed by Dr. Karen Terry, released its findings on the Causes and Contexts of the Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church. The study was intended to examine the reasons why the Catholic Church saw a rise in sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with a sharp decline in incidents beginning in 1985. Thus, the focus of the study was on the actual incidents that led to the crisis, not the factors that led to widespread reporting of the abuse beginning in 2002.
Within the lengthy report of findings are numerous useful pieces of information for professionals working to prevent and respond to sexual abuse, both within and outside the Catholic Church. This four-part series of articles is intended to summarize key findings and direct readers to sections of the report they may wish to read in their entirety.
Historical and Cultural Considerations
Historical and Cultural Context—The report begins with a description of the historical and cultural context in which the sexual abuse crisis occurred. The context is interesting because the rise in cases of Catholic sexual abuse in the 1960s and 1970s coincided with the rise in other types of “deviant” behavior in society such as drug use and other forms of crime. During this time, there was a loosening of social constraints, which led to a statistical increase in both premarital sexual behavior and divorce. From 1972 to 1985, the percentage of Americans who thought that pre-marital sex was “not wrong at all” went from 26 percent to 42 percent. This era also saw a shift in the criminal justice system treatment of child sexual abuse. Statutory rape and child sexual abuse laws were evolving, becoming more widespread, and becoming more standardized. By 1990, all states had mandatory reporting laws for child sexual abuse.
Historical Patterns in the Catholic Church—The researchers conducted analysis to determine whether the year of ordination had an effect on whether a priest would later abuse. These calculations confirmed that the year of ordination did have a significant influence on likelihood to have abused. Forty-four percent of those later accused were ordained before 1960. One third of all priest offenders were ordained during the 1940s and 1950s. Almost half (48 percent) of those who later abused were ordained from 1960 to 1979. This question of cohort, or years in the seminary, also has implications for the questions surrounding the effects of self-described gender preference and likelihood to sexually abuse minors.
Trends in sexuality—In the study, researchers looked at seminarians who self-identified as homosexual. Prior to the mid-1970s, only about 3 percent of seminarians identified themselves as homosexual, while about 40 percent of seminarians in the 80s and 90s identified themselves as homosexual. This led the researchers to conclude that a homosexual identity, and even the existence of a homosexual subculture that was reported to have existed in the 1980s and 1990s could not account for the “crisis” because the cohorts that produced the most offenders were not the cohorts associated with a rise in the percentage of homosexual seminarians—either in terms of homosexual identity or behavior.
One of the more thought-provoking considerations that is contained in the section on historical and cultural contexts is that the characteristics of the Catholic priesthood that have remained consistent throughout the decades, such as having an all-male clergy and having a commitment to celibate chastity cannot explain the increase, peak, and decrease in abuse incidents. They conclude that any factor that remained constant throughout the timeframe under study cannot be considered a “cause” for the crisis.
Seminary Education and Ongoing Formation
Men ordained in the 30s, 40s, and 50s generally did not abuse until the 60s and 70s. Men ordained in the 60s and 70s abused more quickly after ordination. Men ordained before 1960 represent 44 percent of those who abused. Men ordained after 1975 had a lower level of subsequent abuse than those ordained before 1975. The researchers looked at dimensions of seminary education program that were or were not associated with those who later sexually abused against minors.
Seminary Education—Two important findings in this section were that researchers found priests who abused were not significantly more likely to have attended a minor seminary and they were not more likely to have attended a foreign seminary. They were, however, significantly less likely to have participated in “human formation” while in the seminary. Human formation focuses on self-knowledge, interpersonal relationships, emotional maturity, human sexuality, and psychosexual development and integration, as well as focusing on the challenges of celibacy and chastity in the priesthood. Development of human formation programs and increased attention to the challenges of celibate chastity began in the 1970s and increased substantially throughout the 1980s.
Ongoing Support—An additional important point that is made in this section is that evaluation processes are usually reserved for the newly ordained in the first five years. In most dioceses, pastors are not obliged to undergo regular assessment of any substance. Based on the research, we now know that many priests began abusing years after they were ordained. The abuse often began during times of increased job stress, social isolation, and decreased contact with peers. These men may have found that there were few structures in place to help them. The study also showed that many diocesan priests let go of the practice of spiritual direction after only a few years of ordained ministry and that this may be associated with higher risk of all forms of misconduct in ministry. The lack of ongoing professional supervision, accountability, and support are all critical considerations for ministry and other high-access positions of trust.