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.
Early Organizational Response—Recall that the highest number of incidents of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church occurred in 1970. There was a steady rise throughout the 1960s and a sharp decline beginning in the mid-1980s. Publicity about individual priests in 1985 and 1992 prompted increases of disclosure, but the vast majority of cases were not known until after 1990. From 1985 on, at their national meetings, the Bishops were discussing sexual abuse and what to do with cases. These discussions were prompted by the arrest and conviction of Gilbert Gauthe, a Roman Catholic priest of Lafayette, Louisiana who pled guilty to abusing children in every parish where he had served since 1971. His criminal trial and the subsequent civil litigation were so dramatic and well publicized that the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church could not be ignored. However, the primary focus at that time was on what to do with the offender. Most Bishops did not meet directly with victims and families and so they did not fully appreciate or consider how to work with, assist, or reconcile with the victims who had been harmed. In the 1985 era, the consensus was that “prompt psychological treatment” for perpetrators was the best course of action.
Development of treatment—The peak decade for treatment and reassignment was the 1980s. Before 1980, the most common response was a reprimand and return to ministry. Among the priests who were sent to sexual offender treatment before 1990, the average number of known victims was six. The data indicates that if a priest were accused by one-to-three victims, they were unlikely to be sent to treatment for sexual abuse. Over time, church leaders began to lose confidence in treatment and by the 1990s, specialized sexual offender treatment was no longer the most common response. In June of 1992, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the Five Principles of Responding to Sexual Abuse.
- Relieve the offender of his duties,
- Comply with reporting laws,
- Reach out to victims and families,
- Respect confidentiality, but deal openly with the community.
Pace of Organizational Change
The researchers described the pace of change in dioceses as slow and inconsistent. In order to explain the challenges, they turned to Everett Rogers and his “Diffusion of Innovation” framework. Rogers explained that the pace of organizational change is often slow due to four factors:
Relative advantage—the changes have to be better for the decision makers than the status quo,
Compatibility—the innovation has to be consistent with the norms of the social system,
Complexity—the more difficult it is to understand what the right thing to do is, the less likely it will get implemented quickly, and
Observability—if people can see the change, the changers are more likely to get things done quickly.
Using this paradigm, it is easy to recognize that a relatively low-profile movement to adopt practices that ran contrary to the status quo and directly challenged the closely held value of “priest holiness” was not an ideal system of change for the Catholic Church. The resulting inconsistencies and barriers to change that were encountered following 1985 become sadly predictable. It is important to note, however, that despite the challenges within the system of response, it was during this same era when the actual incidents of abuse began their rapid decline.
Development of Policy—By the mid-1990s, dioceses were still mixed as far as what would happen when an allegation of abuse was made. A study that was conducted at the time showed that the primary framework used by the Bishops was that sexual abuse was a sin and that the appropriate response was confession and prayer. About 60 percent of the dioceses had written policies to guide the response to sexual abuse by a priest. The knowledge of how abuse impacted victims was still basic and the understanding of how to evaluate whether a priest should be returned to ministry was still simplistic. Prevention had not yet been considered in any depth and canon law was rarely used to address problems once they had occurred.