The Rev. Thomas Reese

The Rev. Thomas Reese (Courtesy, Rev. Thomas Reese)

By and large, priests don’t molest because they are gay, or because the Catholic Church requires priests not to marry. Nor did the problem stem from changes in seminaries after Vatican II.

What, then? Those reasons are more elusive, a fact that worries priest-journalist Thomas Reese.

Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center of Georgetown University, took a hard look at the new study by the John Jay School of Criminology. The study was a follow-up to the original report in 2004.

Here are some excerpts of Reese's analysis, used by permission.


Those looking for a simple explanation of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church will be disappointed by the latest report. The report states: “No single ‘cause' of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is identified as a result of our research.”

What about the causes that pundits have proposed?

Celibacy and a male priesthood? "[A]n exclusively male priesthood and the commitment to celibate chastity, were invariant during the increase, peak, and decrease in abuse incidents, and thus not causes of the `crisis.'"

Homosexual priests? "Priests who had same-sex sexual experiences either before or in seminary…were not significantly more likely to abuse minors." The high percentage of boys abused is explained by the fact that priests had easier access to boys who could be altar servers. After altar girls were permitted in the 1990, the report says, there was a "substantial increase in the percentage of female victims."

Post-Vatican II seminaries? "The majority of abusers (70%) were ordained prior to the 1970s, and more abusers were educated in seminaries in the 1940s and 1950s than at any other time period."

Only children? "The majority of priests who were given residential treatment following an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor also reported sexual behavior with adult partners."

Weirdos? "Priests who sexually abused minors did not differ significantly from other priests on psychological or intelligence tests." This means it will be very hard, if not impossible, to keep them out of the priesthood though pre-ordination screening.

What factors contributed to the abuse:

"The rise in abuse cases in the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by social factors in American society generally." In other words, the rise of abuse in the church paralleled its rise in American society.

"Priests who were sexually abused as minors themselves were more likely to abuse minors."

"Priests who lacked close social bonds, and those whose family spoke negatively or not at all about sex, were more likely to sexually abuse minors."

Abusive priests "had vulnerabilities, intimacy deficits, and an absence of close personal relationships before and during seminary."

"[A]buse is most likely to occur at times of stress, loneliness, and isolation."

"Priest-abusers are similar to sex offenders in the general population. They had motivation to commit the abuse (for example, emotional congruence to adolescents), exhibited techniques of neutralization to excuse and justify their behavior, took advantage of opportunities to abuse (for example, through socialization with the family), and used grooming techniques to gain compliance from potential victims."

Bishops: What did they know, when did they know it, what did they do?

"Prior to 1984, the common assumption of those whom the bishops consulted was that clergy sexual misbehavior was both psychologically curable and could be spiritually remedied."

On the one hand, "By the mid-1980s, all bishops had been made aware of the issue of sexual abuse of minors." On the other hand, "Though more than 80 percent of cases now known had already occurred by 1985, only 6 percent of those cases had been reported to the dioceses by that time." In other words, the bishops knew about abuse by the mid-80s, but had no inkling of how extensive it was.

"Diocesan leaders responded to acts of abuse, but with a focus on the priests and not the victims."

"There is little evidence that diocesan leaders met directly with victims before 2002; consequently, the understanding of the harm of sexual abuse to the victim was limited."

"Diocesan responses to abusive priests changed substantially over the sixty-year period addressed in this study. For example, abusive priests were less likely to be returned to active ministry and/or more likely to be placed on administrative leave during the later years."

"Some bishops were `innovators' who offered organizational leadership to address the problems of sexual abuse of minors. Other bishops, often in dioceses where the Catholic Church was highly influential, were slow to recognize the importance of the problem of sexual abuse by priests or to respond to victims."

"The count of incidents per year increased steadily from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, then declined in the 1980s and continues to remain low." In other words, child abuse had been dramatically reduced in the church before Boston, the most prominent laggard, blew up.

"It is the voices and narratives of victims that have confronted priests, enabled diocese to act responsibly, and brought diocesan leaders to an understanding of the harm of abuse."

"Knowing that most potential abusers will not be identified before the abuse occurs, and knowing that many priests have vulnerabilities that may lead to the commission of deviant behavior, it is important to reduce the opportunities for abuse to occur. The church has taken an important step in risk reduction through the safe environment education programs; post-ordination education and evaluation can also play a role in further reducing the possibility of abuse."

Evaluation of the study:

The study is extraordinary and sophisticated. We will have to wait for other scholars to evaluate its more complex analysis, but we can only wish that other institutions will follow the Catholic Church in authorizing and funding such studies.

Since 149 priests were serial abusers (with more than 10 allegations against them) and were responsible for 27 percent of the allegations, I would have liked a separate analysis of them. How were they different from the non-serial abusers? How were they different from priests in general?

While less than 5 percent of the priests were true pedophiles, 51 percent of the victims were between the ages of 11 and 14, which is still quite young. Why? My guess is because of access and vulnerability, but I would like to hear from the researchers.

I will leave to experts the debate over what age to use for puberty, but I think this controversy is something of a distraction for the rest of us. Every one of these abuses is a crime, no matter who does it. The consequences are still devastating and permanent.