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.
Psychological Explanations A psychological explanation would be that the priests who went on to sexually abuse minors differed psychologically from other priests who did not abuse minors. In order to consider this explanation, researchers examined clinical data from three treatment centers. Priests who sexually abused minors were compared to priests who were sexually involved with adults, priests who sought treatment for other mental health problems, and with seminarians who had no known problems.
The priests who sought treatment for mental health had the most significant measurements for Depression, Anxiety, and Addiction Potential. Priests who sexually abused scored the highest on the Dominance Scale, which measures initiative, confidence, and resourcefulness in social relationships. Other strong, but not statistically significant personality markers for priests who sexually abused minors were Denial of Social Anxiety, Authority Problems, Persecutory Ideas, Amorality, and Over-controlled Hostility. These personality markers are also strong in a sizeable portion of the adult population. Overall, the findings indicated that priests who sexually abused could not be psychologically differentiated from priests who did not sexually abuse minors.
Behavioral Explanations. The behavioral explanations considered that certain childhood and adult life experiences caused or predisposed the priests to abuse minors. The primary childhood experiences examined were, being physically or sexually abused, having major family stressors, and substance abuse or mental illness in the family. The adult experiences that were considered were engaging in sexual activities with adults, use of pornography, and how the priests viewed their own sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, bi-sexual, or confused).
Having been sexually abused as a child was the only behavioral experience that was associated with later sexually abusing a child. The study also found that while having a family that treated sex as a “taboo” topic was positively associated with post-ordination sexual behavior, this factor did not predict a greater likelihood to sexually abuse a child.
With respect to adult sexual experiences, a high percentage of all priests who entered treatment programs had sexual experiences with adults. Although having sexual experiences with adults (male and female) prior to and during seminary formation was a predictor of future sexual activity with adults (after ordination), these behaviors were not predictive of sexual victimization of a minor. Use of pornography did not, on its own, predict sexual abuse of a minor, but use of multiple forms of pornography: video, print, and cyber-pornography was associated with sexual abuse of minors.
Those who identified themselves as heterosexual or homosexual were less likely to abuse a minor than those who identified themselves as “confused.” The condition of being “confused” was most commonly found among those who were ordained prior to the 1960s.
Personal Life Narratives. One last interesting finding from this section resulted from an examination of priest-offenders’ personal life narratives. Their narratives were expected to differ significantly from other priests’ stories and self-concepts. However, this hypothesis was not supported. In fact, the priest abusers saw themselves very much like other priests saw themselves, including their being able to successfully fulfill their role as priest, despite the fact that they were living the life of an abuser.
In conclusion, there was no single identifiable cause of sexually abusive behavior among priests, and few characteristics that would make abusers identifiable prior to the commission of their abusive acts. Although some general risk factors were present in the priests who abused minors, this group was not readily distinguishable from priests who were treated for other reasons.