The Wrong Explanations

PHIL LAWLER

If the bishops had been determined to conduct a thorough study of sexual abuse they might have done investigations into the backgrounds of the priests who were accused. Who were there friends among the clergy? Where had they been assigned? Did they share vacation cottages with other priests or bishops? Who had been their seminary teachers? Remarkably, the John Jay study did none of these things.

Chapter 17: The Wrong Explanations (pages 223-227)

The crisis that has stricken the Catholic Church in America is often described as a pedophilia scandal. That characterization is not accurate.

Pedophilia – a profound psychological disorder involving the sexual desire for young, pre-pubescent children – is fortunately rare. A few of the most notorious American clerics involved in the scandal, such as James Porter and John Geoghan, might be accurately classified as pedophiles. Because they molested scores of children, and because their cases came to prominence in the early days of the crisis, these deeply disturbed men were taken as emblematic of the larger problem in the American priesthood. But they were not typical.

Among the thousands of complaints lodged against American priests during the early years of the twenty-first century, the vast majority involved sexual relations with teenage boys. In some cases, to some extent, the boys may have appeared to be willing partners in the sexual activity. Since the teenagers had not reached the age of consent, and since the priests were exploiting their positions of authority and trust, the relationships were certainly abusive. But they cannot be classified as instances of pedophilia.

In a thorough study of sex-abuse complaints that was commissioned by the USCCB, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice issued a sweeping report in 2004 that covered more than 5,000 incidents. Of these, 81percent involved priests with young male victims. Of those male victims, 90 percent were teenage boys.

Faced with that statistic, some analysts began to say that what had been seen as a crisis of pedophilia was really a matter of ephebophilia. (The term "ephebophilia" – which does not appear in standard diagnostic manuals for psychologists – refers to sexual attraction toward adolescents.)


Some commentators took comfort in using this new term. Other less pretentious observers concluded that the statistics proved what many Catholics had long suspected: the sex-abuse crisis was a crisis of homosexuality in the priesthood.

For several years Catholic scholars had been debating whether or not homosexuals should be ordained to the priesthood. A 1961 Vatican document addressed to the superiors of religious orders had said that men with a known homosexual inclination should not be admitted to seminary training. (That policy, which had fallen into desuetude, was reaffirmed by the Vatican and applied to all candidates for the priesthood in a new teaching document of 2005.) But many liberal Catholics argued that a homosexual who maintained a celibate lifestyle could be a fine priest. "Unless proven otherwise, there is no reason to believe that homosexual priests are any less likely to keep their promises of celibacy than heterosexual ones," wrote Father James Martin, a Jesuit journalist, in a November 2000 article in America magazine. That argument was central to the case in favor of ordaining men with homosexual impulses.

Even if homosexual priests are no more likely than heterosexuals to violate their vows, however, it stands to reason that if and when they do engage in sexual activity, their partners are more likely to be male. Thus the sex-abuse scandal had serious implications for the debate on homosexuality. Yet the National Review Board, in its first major report on the crisis, did not shrink from the obvious conclusion. "That 815 of the reported victims of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy were boys shows that the crisis was characterized by homosexual behavior."

In its report, the National Review Board criticized these centers for having repeatedly given clearance for abusers to resume parish work. Dozens of predators had received counseling at places like the St. Luke Institute in Maryland or the Servants of the Paraclete center in New Mexico, and returned to their dioceses with rosy reports from certified experts proclaiming their fitness for unrestricted ministry.

From the earliest days of the scandal, when stories of abuse first appeared in the media, liberal Catholics and their friends in the world of journalism took pains to emphasize that there is no known connection between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true, but irrelevant to most of the cases that the Church was confronting. The more relevant question was whether homosexual priests were more likely than heterosexuals to become involved with teenagers.

On that question, the report from John Jay College provided an interesting perspective. If 81 percent of the abuse cases involved male-to-male contacts, it would seem difficult to avoid the conclusion that homosexual priests – those attracted toward males – were disproportionately responsible for the abuse. In a fascinating study of the crisis entitled After Asceticism, the Linacre Institute used Bayes' Theorem – a standard statistical tool for studying the spread of epidemic diseases – to estimate the likelihood that homosexual priests would be involved in abusive behavior. The study concluded that if men with homosexual inclinations account for about 30 percent of the priests in the US, then the John Jay figures suggest that these homosexual priests are about nine times as likely as their heterosexual colleagues to be responsible for sexual abuse.

The number of homosexually inclined priests active in America is not an unknown factor, the Linacre study noted. If 8I percent of American Catholic priests are homosexually inclined, then the ratio of male-to-male abuse is unremarkable; the statistics would suggest that homosexual and heterosexual men are equally liable to engage in sexual abuse. If the proportion of homosexual priests is very low, on the other hand, then the disproportionate number of male sex-abuse victims is all the more noteworthy. If only 2 percent of priests are homosexual, the Linacre Center concluded, those few homosexuals are more than 120 times as likely as heterosexuals to be guilty of abuse.

The statistical calculations are imprecise, particularly because some key numbers – such as the proportion of homosexuals in the clergy – can only be guessed at. But the fundamental logic of the Linacre analysis is easy to follow. Most instances of sexual abuse involved homosexual acts. Presumably homosexual acts are performed by men with homosexual impulses. Therefore, priests with homosexual tendencies were responsible for most sexual abuse. It follows that either a) homosexuals are more likely to engage in abuse, or b) the number of homosexuals among the American clergy is so high that one would expect most abusive priests to seek male partners. In either case the figures show a crisis of homosexuality in the American priesthood.

Vatican officials had been alert to the question of homosexuality from the earliest days of the scandal. When Pope John Paul II summoned the leaders of the American hierarchy to Rome in April 2002, one of the key points on the agenda for discussion was the influence of a homosexual culture in the American seminaries. The joint statement released by the participating bishops at the end of that Vatican meeting also called for new emphasis on the moral teachings of the Church regarding sexuality, a message that could be read as a mandate for the American hierarchy to be more forceful in condemning homosexual behavior. But as we have observed, that aspect of the discussion in Rome was quietly dropped from the bishops' agenda before the Dallas meeting.

In Dallas the USCCB concentrated exclusively on the sexual abuse of minors. The final document produced at that meeting was awkwardly entitled a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in a tacit acknowledgement that the victims of abuse could not all be classified as "children." The Dallas norms set out disciplinary standards for priests who were involved in any sexual relationship with people, male or female, under the age of eighteen. But the bishops did not discuss, and the norms do not address, sexual misconduct by priests involving partners over the age of consent. When a priest pursues a sexual relationship with a psychologically vulnerable parishioner, he is guilty of abuse, even if that parishioner is an adult. And a priest who engages in consensual sexual contact with another man is guilty of grave misconduct, even if it is not abusive. But in Dallas the US bishops did not consider these sorts of clerical misbehavior; the scope of their attention was restricted exclusively to the abuse of "children and young people."

 

A more wide-ranging discussion of clerical misconduct might have led the USCCB to explore other questions, seeking a better understanding of the abusive behavior. When epidemiologists hunt for the source of a disease, they study not only the victims of the disease but also the people with whom they have been in contact in their homes and workplaces. When intelligence agencies discover an enemy spy within their own ranks, they carefully examine each bit of information that counter-agent furnished, and each contact he made, to root out the effects of his treachery. If the bishops had been determined to conduct a thorough study of sexual abuse they might have done similar investigations into the backgrounds of the priests who were accused. Who were there friends among the clergy? Where had they been assigned? Did they share vacation cottages with other priests or bishops? Who had been their seminary teachers?

At an even more basic level, an investigation into abuse might have compared the incidence of complaints in different dioceses. Were there any patterns to suggest that some bishops had been more successful than others in deterring abusive behavior? Were there some seminaries that produced an unusual number of molesters? Oddly enough the John Jay study did not break down the statistics on abuse by diocese, although those raw figures were obviously available to the researchers who compiled the report. Instead the John Jay account studies the incidence of abuse by geographical region – a factor that has no particular ecclesial significance. Nor did the John Jay study list the seminaries that produced the accused abusers.

There were, however, a few institutions that figured prominently in the lives of many serial molesters: the treatment centers to which these priests were assigned for therapy. In its report, the National Review Board criticized these centers for having repeatedly given clearance for abusers to resume parish work. Dozens of predators had received counseling at places like the St. Luke Institute in Maryland or the Servants of the Paraclete center in New Mexico, and returned to their dioceses with rosy reports from certified experts proclaiming their fitness for unrestricted ministry. The US bishops would have been amply justified in seeking to have some of these experts stripped of their licenses, but they did not. On the contrary, American bishops are still sending troubled priests to the same clinics.

Dozens of predators had received counseling at places like the St. Luke Institute in Maryland or the Servants of the Paraclete center in New Mexico, and returned to their dioceses with rosy reports from certified experts proclaiming their fitness for unrestricted ministry. The US bishops would have been amply justified in seeking to have some of these experts stripped of their licenses, but they did not.

What sort of approach did these centers bring to bear on the problems of abusive clerics? Father Stephen Rossetti, the president of the St. Luke Institute, has for years been the most influential figure advising the priests on the psychology of sexual abuse. In an article that appeared in America in 1995, he wrote the "priest-offenders have tended to be intelligent, high functioning men, many of whom had otherwise exemplary ministries." Father Rossetti's sympathy for these priests, and his keen desire to return them to ministry, was clear in that same article:

But society hates and fears men who sexually abuse minors. We stereotype them; we claim they are all incorrigible; we wish to mark them as people not like ourselves. These men tap a deep well of fear and anger that goes beyond the facts of their crime. To reintegrate child molesters into our society will require us to face and overcome our own fears. To live in peace with child molesters will mean to let go of some of our own inner angers.

Father Canice Connors, a Franciscan priest, had preceded Rossetti as director of the St. Luke Institute before becoming president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. In that latter capacity he spoke out against the Dallas policy, saying that the bishops "have become one with the voices of the media, unreconciled victims, and a partially informed Catholic public in scapegoating the abusers."

Scapegoating the abusers? The fact that an informed priest could still perceive abusive priests as victims spoke volumes about the sympathetic attitude that misbehaving clerics could expect to find at the busiest treatment centers. . . .

 

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Philip F. Lawler. "The Wrong Explanations." excerpted from Chapter 17 of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. (New York: Encounter Books, 2008): 223-227.

Excerpted by permission of Encounter Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

| Encounter Books | Hardcover | 2008 | $25.95 | ISBN-1594032114

THE AUTHOR

Phil Lawler is Director of the Catholic Culture Project. Born and raised in the Boston area, Phil Lawler attended Harvard College, graduating with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. Phil Lawler has been active in politics as well as journalism. He has been Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank based in Washington), a member of two presidential inaugural committees; and a candidate for the US Senate.

As a journalist, Phil has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. From 1993 through 2005, Phil Lawler was the editor of Catholic World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996, recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic World News: the first online Catholic news service.

Phil Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics most recently The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.

Phil lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven children.

Copyright © 2008 Philip F. Lawler




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